How to Be an Accessibility Ally


A survey by Return on Disability showed fewer than 2% of the participating companies mentioned people with disabilities in their diversity efforts. Diversity, equity, and inclusion includes people with disabilities and accessibility. A company that does not include both has incomplete DEI. Being an accessibility ally isn't just for the workplace. Everyone can speak up and take action to improve accessibility.

Many organizations boast about their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Yet, data shows they’re overlooking people with disabilities and accessibility. A survey by Return on Disability showed fewer than 2% of the participating companies mentioned people with disabilities in their diversity efforts.

DEI absolutely includes people with disabilities and accessibility. Companies that don’t intentionally include both have a huge gap in their talent and therefore incomplete DEI. Hence, most companies are not accessibility allies.

While most of these tips are related to the workplace, you can be an accessibility ally outside the workplace. It’s about speaking up and educating people when there is an accessibility issue.

Is the accessible bathroom not working? Report it. Is a video missing captions or using automatic captions? Encourage them to add or edit the captions. Is an image missing a description? Educate them on the need for one. Is a ramp blocked? Report it to get it unblocked. There’s a lot you can do. Here are 10 ways to be an accessibility ally to get you started.

10 tips to be an accessibility ally. Make it part of business, view laws and guidelines as the minimum, think progress over perfection, accept you'll make mistakes, ensure all interactions are accessible, hire and include disabled people, focus on user experiences, ask, avoid assumptions, involve people with disabilities in accessibility always

Stork carrying a bundle Treat accessibility as an innate part of the business.

An article quoted a company’s leader saying, “Accessibility is non-negotiable.” I liked that a lot. As I worked on this, I began to rethink this. It sounds as if accessibility isn’t flexible.

Of course, accessibility must be part of business. All products and services should be born accessible. However, “accessibility is non-negotiable” sounds misleading. It can be interpreted in different ways.

So, I tweaked it to treat it as an innate part of the business. Just like financial accounting is part of the business. Leadership is part of the business. Strategy is part of the business.

Accessibility is more than just creating accessible products. It’s also creating accessible processes. It’s procuring accessible products. It’s ensuring employees have an accessible work setup and environment. It’s implementing employee-centric policies, such as flexibility and remote working.

In other words, accessibility is baked into the business. All departments and employees have a responsibility for it. One thing employees can do is ask each other about their communication and collaboration preferences.

I like the word “innate” because it means it’s part of the lifeblood of the business. I opted not to use “essential” because it feels like you’re making it possible for something else more important to displace it. Essential means “extremely important.” That’s a way of classifying accessible.

Whereas innate means it’s in the DNA. There is no classifying it. There’s no chance of something else more important replacing it.

In other words, business should be born accessible. Of course, established businesses will need to work on making progress in baking in accessibility. Taking a progress over perfection approach will make it easier.

Justice scale View laws and guidelines as the bare minimum for accessibility.

If you give 10 people the same recipe, you’ll most likely get 10 different results. The Great British Baking Show does exactly this. The bakers get the same recipe. Granted, the recipe does not have all the instructions. Nonetheless, every baker has the same directions. A few may create the exact outcome while the rest may have soggy bottoms or some other mess.

Laws and guidelines, like recipes, are the bare minimum. Here’s an example with captions. W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Success Criterion 1.2.2 states “captions are provided for all prerecorded audio content in synchronized media.” There is nothing about captioning best practices. It simply says the captions need to be provided.

There is nothing about accuracy, timing, speaker identification, and other captioning best practices. Despite this, W3C has a separate page that says automatic captions are not sufficient. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) mentions nothing about captions or any specifics relating to accessible websites.

Marketing influencers promote making captions flashy, colorful, and creative. They ignore captioning best practices. Anytime I encounter these videos with flashy captions, I move on. They can be painful to watch as shown in these side-by-side captioning videos.

Adding automatic captions or not following captioning best practices may satisfy the accessibility guidelines. But I won’t watch it. Others have said the same.

Progress on chart Think progress over perfection.

People feel overwhelmed in getting started with baking accessibility into an organization’s culture. It’s daunting. Change is hard. There are many topics related to accessibility and people with disabilities. We can’t be expected to know it all. Yet, people will call out someone for an accessibility mistake.

Educating people without judgment goes a long way and leads to change. It means forgiving mistakes and being flexible. It means extending grace. It also means that sometimes there is no right or wrong answer, especially with disability language.

This is what progress over perfection is all about. It’s the old you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Educate and make progress. One step at a time. Sometimes it’ll be small steps. Other times it’ll be big ones. It’s possible to go backward. The key is to keep moving forward. Creating processes and checklists will go a long way to prevent skipping or forgetting a step.

Pencil Accept you’ll make mistakes.

Even members of the disability community make mistakes. I know this because I’m one of them. I’m embarrassed to write this. Nonetheless, I share it to show that people who are passionate about inclusion make mistakes.

I don’t just talk about inclusion. I work to live it and show it through actions. But I slip up from time to time. When I do, I’m hard on myself. It takes me a long time to get over it. Fortunately, no one jumped on me when these happened.

The first one occurred at the airport. I was in front of the bathroom line. A door opened and I was about to enter when I noticed it was an accessible bathroom. There was no sign on the door. Usually, they’re in the back of the bathroom. This was the front.

“Oops. This is the handicapped bathroom,” I muttered to myself. No one heard, but that’s not the point.

Right away, I caught my mistake. I questioned myself trying to figure out why I said that when I don’t say it because I know it’s triggering for many people. I trained myself to say accessible bathroom, accessible parking, etc. I don’t have an answer. It’s not unconscious bias.

The second one was at a conference. Someone had a cool crutch with a picture on it. I took a closer look at the image. My hand accidentally touched the picture. The picture is part of a person’s assistive device.

It’s good etiquette to avoid touching their device without their permission. Immediately, I apologized. They said it was no problem. It bugged me. Still does. And guess what? The person who uses the crutch said it was no big deal. It would’ve been a problem if I had been a stranger and grabbed it.

These incidents stick with me and I hope they never happen again. It goes to show the biggest allies can mess up. The best way to respond to mistakes is to educate, not berate.

I talked about these mistakes on LinkedIn. Many people commented telling me to give myself grace. Please extend that same grace to others. Of course, if someone has an attitude or does not listen, then it’s a different thing.

Accepting that you will make mistakes is only part of the equation. The other part is to use mistakes as a learning opportunity.

Open book Ensure digital experiences, physical spaces, and interactions are accessible.

Have you ever bought something online and then went to the brick-and-mortar store to return it? Or vice versa? Did one or the other have problems? Required extra steps? In other words, the digital and non-digital parts of the shopping experience were not in sync. This happens with accessibility.

Here’s a good example. I ordered online. The product arrived and I had to return it. I initiated a return on the website. I printed the QR code and took it to a neighborhood shipping store. The employee scans the QR code and accepts the package. That’s it. No worrying about communication.

Here’s a bad example. I needed to take a COVID test as a proactive measure. I went online to my neighborhood pharmacy’s website to schedule a test. Right before the appointment, I received a text message with a link to watch a video of the process. Captioned! Awesome!

In the 20+ years that I’ve lived by this pharmacy, I did something I had never done before … use the drive-through. It was a disaster.

I couldn’t see the person inside because the window had a reflection. The employee talked to me through the speaker. I couldn’t hear her and she couldn’t understand me. It was an exasperating experience.

After this happened, a blind friend told me scheduling COVID testing online wasn’t accessible. Then, a woman wanted drive-through COVID testing. The pharmacy told her to come inside. She had a mobility disability and preferred the drive-through.

Three different disabilities. Three accessibility barriers. This is what the 360-degree accessibility model for interactions is about. Companies need to think about the entire customer interaction process, both digital and non-digital.

They also need to consider the roles in both environments: employees, customers, and vendors. The user experience needs to be accessible for all roles and tasks. Your employees and vendors need accessibility too.

Happy emoji with love eyes Hire and include people with disabilities.

Notice this says to hire and include people with disabilities. I’ve heard from many employees with disabilities who tell me they feel like a checkbox in their company’s hiring process. They hired them. Yay! The disability diversity checkbox is checked off!

However, the company doesn’t give them the accessibility and accommodation they require. This is exclusion. It can potentially make the employee feel more excluded to be inside the company without accessibility than not to be inside the company at all.

The lack of accessibility changes the game for the disabled employee. They don’t have what they need to be on equal ground with their peers. They cannot do their best work.

Disabled talent is valuable. Their creativity and innovative thinking come from their lived experiences. These cannot be learned in school or on the job.

Some companies have a complex accessibility request process. It doesn’t have to be that way. Once, an organization sent me a four-page document that required a doctor’s signature. Some of the questions were confusing. I didn’t know how to answer them.

I educated the HR director. I told her I was concerned about how it would make employees feel. (I was a volunteer, not an employee.) They followed up with a two-pager that was much easier to fill and did not require a doctor’s signature.

Organizations want to ensure fairness in the process and comply with the law. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of the disabled employee’s mental health and frustration. From time to time, an employee will tell me they’ve been struggling to get accessibility for months. And guess what? Most accessibility requirements are free or cost less than $500.

Accessibility should be a line item in a company’s budget. Just like computers, phones, desks, and office supplies are must-haves. This applies to accessibility, too.

Three people with one who uses a wheelchair Focus on user experiences instead of compliance.

I’ve baked my share of desserts. Some of them, I’ve baked many times. Even though I used the same recipe, I occasionally will have a batch that turns out differently.

It could be because I used a different brand of product. Yes, the ingredients matter. Even sugar. Sugar is sugar, right? Using a different brand of sugar, butter, or any of the basics can affect the outcome. I was lucky to learn this from my mom.

It could be the weather. Sometimes humidity and extreme temperatures can affect the outcome. It could be I forgot a step that is not in the recipe. A good example is toasting nuts. Many recipes with nuts say nothing about toasting them. Yet, it makes a huge difference in the taste. That’s something I learned from other people’s advice and experience.

A recipe provides the minimum to get the results. Experienced bakers picked up things along the way that helped them level up the recipe.

Accessibility guidelines like Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and accessibility checklists are like recipes. They help with minimum compliance but don’t guarantee good user experiences. You still need the recipe to make sure you don’t skip a step.

But if you want your product or service to be accessible and provide a great user experience, then involve people with disabilities throughout the development process.

Someone following a recipe may do the bare minimum. They use cheaper generic products and expired or old products. (For example, older spices lose their potency.) They may pull out the baked goods exactly when the recipe says to do it. But it could be under- or overcooked. Ovens can affect baking time.

A good example of the minimum is color contrast ratios. When I showed people different color pairings, they were shocked by some that passed the minimum requirements. They thought the pairing was not readable. Passing the color contrast ratio doesn’t guarantee a great or even a good user experience.

Picture going out to dinner with friends. You and your companions head to the front door. How do you think someone would feel if the restaurant staff told them to enter through the back door?

Well, this can happen to people who use wheelchairs. The front entrance isn’t accessible. They have to use the only ramp, which goes to the back door. The patron who uses a wheelchair has to enter where employees enter. While the restaurant complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s providing a bad user experience.

Open hand Ask about accessibility requirements.

If you’re overseeing a conference or a meeting, list all the accessibility you will provide. Be specific about what you’re providing. For example, don’t just say, “Live closed captioning will be provided.” Clarify whether it’s automatic captions, human-typed (CART) captions, or a different option.

Some people won’t use automatic captions while some prefer it. I depend on accurate captions. However, when I’m on a live panel, I tend to prefer automatic captions. Speed is a higher priority over accuracy. I can fill in the gaps with lipreading.

One time I was on a panel. We had human-typed captions. Someone in the audience asked a question that was meant for me to answer. While I was waiting for the captions to catch up, someone else answered the question because I didn’t say anything. I followed up after the other person spoke.

When I am the speaker, I prefer human captions for the audience. Automatic captions do not do a good job with my accent which hails from nowhere you can travel.

One time, I was both an attendee and a speaker at a conference. The event page mentioned it would have captions. That’s all I needed. So, I did not add any comments about my accessibility requirements while registering for the conference. They said they would have captions.

To my surprise, the event had both automatic captions and human captions. I had automatic captions during my presentation. When I asked about this, the organizers said I didn’t add anything to the accessibility requirements. That’s because the form I filled out was for attendees. It also did not make it clear whether it was automatic captions or human captions.

Remember, not just the attendees need accessibility. Speakers and panelists need accessibility too. Always add a field on the registration form for accessibility requirements. This helps you ensure you’re not forgetting anything. Also, ask speakers if they have accessibility requirements. My accessibility requirements as an attendee and speaker are different. That’s why it’s important to make this clear.

Disabilities are a spectrum. There are many possibilities when it comes to accessibility. So, always ask about accessibility requirements.

Brain with two gears Avoid assumptions about accessibility.

Avoid making assumptions about what accessibility someone will need. Yes, even accessibility allies assume and make a mistake. I was scheduled to speak at an accessibility conference. The organizers proactively emailed me and said they’d provide an ASL interpreter for me.

Thank goodness they emailed first. Imagine what would happen if I had shown up with an ASL interpreter waiting for me.

There is a misconception that accessibility and accommodations are expensive. As mentioned before, most accommodations are free or cost little.

Many people also assume deaf and hard of hearing people only need closed captions, a sign language interpreter, an audio induction loop, FM system, or a combination. These aren’t the only accessibility considerations for the deaf and hard of hearing.

There are also notifications and communication options. Often, a business will only list a phone number with no other way to contact them. This isn’t accessible for a lot of people. Automatic speech response systems and apps that require speech are also a problem.

Person with + sign Involve people with disabilities in accessibility. Always.

Many accessibility allies do it. I do it. We make the business case for accessibility by showing everyone uses it. It will help them expand their reach.

Ramps on street corners were originally designed to help wheelchair users safely cross the street. This is called a curb cut. People with strollers use it. Shoppers with carts use it. Travelers with luggage use it.

Content, services, and products born accessible will have a curb-cut effect. Captions are a good example as 80% of the people who use captions are not deaf or hard of hearing. Many use dark mode even though they don’t have low vision or color blindness. Accessible content, services, and products expand your reach.

Some people with disabilities say pushing the “everyone uses accessibility” approach is a bad idea. They say it’s ableist. Accessibility levels the playing field for people with disabilities. That should be reason enough. But, decision-makers don’t think that way.

They say it will cause disabled people to be left out of the product development process. In other words, their voices will be ignored.

That’s why it’s so, so important to communicate a second message. While accessibility is for many, it’s crucial to involve those with disabilities who depend on accessibility. Disabled people should be the driver of accessibility. Period.

Better yet, hire people with disabilities and give them the tools to thrive. They bring a unique voice and innovative way of thinking that can’t be learned on the job or in school. They gained these skills from living in a society that excluded them because it wasn’t built for them.

When you hire people with disabilities, you level up from “Nothing about us without us” to “Nothing without us.” It means you give disabled employees a voice. They have a say in the decisions.

Accessibility Ally Infographic

10 tips to be an accessibility ally: treat it as innate part of business, focus on user experience instead of compliance, progress over perfection, accept mistakes, ensure all interactions are accessible, hire and include people with disabilities, view law and guidelines as bare minimum, ask, avoid assumptions, involve people with disabilities in accessibility always

Thanks to Mel Carpen for the infographic.

Related Content

Accessibility and Disability Awareness Training

A great place to start or make progress in your accessibility journey is to provide company-wide training. I can do a series of presentations and training sessions. Or if you want to start small, I can train the marketing and communications team on how to create accessible content. Contact me or get to know me.

Featured image credit: Image by vectorjuice on Freepik (Tweaked colors to increase contrast.)

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