Accessibility or access ability?

Shattered iPhone

In life, there are good days, and there are learning days. December 7, 2018, was one of the latter.

On top of an already stressful day, my phone screen went to sleep, never to wake up again.

It’s not that my phone had died — the LED still alerted me to notifications, the alarm still sounded each morning — it’s that the screen was literally not projecting anything. It was black.

So naturally, I did what anyone would do: go into full panic mode and hope I could back up everything I’d neglected to back up. There was just one thing: One of my apps was holding data hostage!

Back it up

Let me explain.

In addition to working at Hyland as a research analyst, I’m a musician and songwriter. When creativity strikes, I rely on a recording app to document ideas. Without boring you with all the details, once I record to this app, the app is the only way to access the track unless I copy it out.

The problem was that I had not backed up tracks in months, and I was now in jeopardy of losing a number of half-baked or nearly fully baked songs.

I called my service provider, emailed the app developer, even pleaded with my congressional representative, but it was all the same: “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you.”

I was crushed.

[Cue the sad violins.]

The light bulbaccessibility awareness

In the intro, I implied there was some lesson to be learned from this horrible situation.

“Regularly back up your data” comes to mind.

While I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my carelessness in that area, that’s not the underlying lesson here.

You see, for the last three years, I’ve immersed myself into the world of accessibility and regularly evangelized it. One morning, while getting ready for work, a giant light bulb appeared over my head.

It said, “Accessibility — you cannot see your phone screen right now, but your phone has a screen reader on it!”

A screen reader is software built-in or installed onto a device. As a user — typically one with a visual impairment — navigates through the interface, performs actions and receives notifications, a screen reader has the ability to “read” relevant information to that user — provided the website, application or operating system was developed with accessibility in mind.

Oh, believe me, there was a learning curve. The phone’s operating system was easy to navigate with the built-in screen reader, but the app’s invisible interface was not intuitive (technically accessible but without much consideration for usability).

The benefits

Long story short, after about an hour or so of fumbling about with the screen reader, I was able to back my entire library of tracks to a microSD card!

This surprised even me.

I routinely evangelize to employees and customers how accessibility benefits everyone, but in the back of my mind, screen readers only benefitted those with visual impairments.

I was wrong. Accessibility in all instances is just providing alternative ways to get to the same place, like providing ramps and automatic doors in buildings. Or providing different ways to access information to accommodate people who are blind or have limited or no arm movement.

It does not matter if the impairment is permanent, temporary or, in my case, situational.

Clearly, the lesson is this: Organizations need to be thinking of as many ways as possible to provide access in their software, websites and third-party tools.

Fruits of our labor

accessibility awareness

Fortunately, we are seeing a lot of great movement in this area at Hyland, as more and more development teams are eagerly asking our user experience (UX) team how they can best develop with accessibility in mind. This is leading to new processes, documentation and ultimately more accessible products.

These are just a few of the ways we’re seeing great shifts in processes and mindsets:

  • Internal accessibility audits

Development teams are now coming to us requesting that the UX team evaluate new products they’re working on. There’s of course the obvious driver — helping our government and higher ed customers meet legal obligations — but it’s more than that. They truly just want to do the right thing and create something that’s both modern and an inclusive experience for as many users as possible.

  • Formalized process

With more and more developers and testers asking us how to meet accessibility requirements comes new request forms, templates and detailed steps we can now reference to more quickly and consistently assist these teams. This is a continuous feedback loop where UX can now set clear, consistent expectations while receiving feedback on how we can get better.

  • Source of truth

Now more than ever, as we roll out our new content services platform, it’s important we document product accessibility guidelines, verification techniques, patterns and more, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.

We now have pages of documentation R&D employees can readily access explaining our internal accessibility standards. Much of this aligns with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 and Section 508, but some of it goes even further.

  • Company culture

In October 2019, Hyland launched its accessABILITY employee resource group (ERG) as a way to align the company and rally around this important concept.

“An important way we can fulfill our core purpose of enabling organizations and their employees to achieve their full potential is by enabling organizations to provide access with our products for all of their employees. To do that, we need everyone here to be onboard with enabling accessibility,” said Tim Pembridge, chief legal officer at Hyland and executive sponsor of the group.

We know there will be areas where we stumble or come up short, but we look forward to continually listening to our customers’ needs and working together to create a more usable and accessible experience.

For everyone.

Joe Shearer is a graduate of Kent State University and a research analyst specializing in product accessibility and compliance.
Joe Shearer

Joe Shearer

Joe Shearer is a graduate of Kent State University and a research analyst specializing in product accessibility and compliance.

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