8-Step Implementation Model
Step 2: Gain Top Level Support

Why it's Important

Consider what happened in the United States in terms of awareness of web accessibility issues after the Section 508 requirements were published. United States Federal government web sites, which were previously among the worst of examples of accessibility, began to transform into some of the best examples. Sites such as www.usa.gov and www.whitehouse.gov have made obvious, identifiable changes that enhance accessibility. This transformation occurred over a relatively short period of time. Web accessibility advocates were unable to make a large difference on government web sites as a whole over several years of efforts, but within a year after the release of the Section 508 requirements, a large portion of the most visited government sites had made significant strides toward greater accessibility.

What made the difference?

The difference was that they had some guided direction from higher up in the hierarchy. They had top-level support. The government made accessibility a priority, the spelled out their requirements, and made accessibility a requirement.

Despite the fact that the Section 508 requirements are a diluted version of the WCAG 1.0 guidelines, and the fact that some US Federal Government sites need to make further improvements, the experience in the United States is instructive for all large organizations. The impact of top-level support was noticeable and almost immediate.

When an organization at the top level commits to web accessibility, this has three important consequences:

  1. It increases the visibility of the issue
  2. It provides the opportunity to dedicate necessary resources to the cause
  3. It allows for systematic monitoring of compliance

Increased visibility

When an organization commits to web accessibility, it validates the issue. This gives it more visibility and verifies a commitment that other members of the organization can then look to in their own dedication. This top-down approach is a strengthening influence. Too often, progress may be stymied when the efforts are concentrated only at lower levels within an organization. Still, lower level efforts can be valuable to "light the fire" of interest, so to speak. Unless the leadership of the organization is attuned to this sort of need, accessibility may not be high on their list of priorities. Oftentimes, the leadership does not need much persuasion to recognize the fact that accessibility is a worthy endeavor. They may have a harder time moving accessibility higher up on their list of priorities though. In the business world, profits and investor relations tend to be on the front of the minds of leadership. Postsecondary education institutions are often similarly concerned with finances--budget cuts, campus maintenance funds, tuition increases and so on--but most institutions have already made a commitment to disability access at some level (e.g. by virtue of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States). By making web accessibility a higher priority, they are merely extending this commitment.

The need for resources

The need for resources is a many-faceted issue. Some organizations are reluctant to commit to web accessibility, fearing that they do not have the necessary resources to follow-through on the commitment. Other organizations casually commit to accessibility without any intention of supporting this commitment in any real way. The process of making an accessible web site is not expensive, but it takes time to learn the techniques, and some kind of training is usually necessary, whether in the form of outside consultants, courses, workshops, or books. Ignoring the need for this kind of support will likely lead to frustrated web developers who feel that they have received a mandate with no knowledge of how to comply with it.

In some cases, the development process can be expensive, as in the case of accessible multimedia. If no resources are set aside for this sort of task, chances are low that the developers will produce an accessible product. However, in the overall scheme of multimedia development, the cost of adding accessibility features is relatively low. The multimedia product itself is expensive to produce.

It is always difficult to procure the money and other resources for large projects, but if the top level of an organization commits to accessibility, this provides justification for adding any costs associated with accessibility into the budget of projects. The leadership of the organization could even require that accessibility be a part of web projects. This will work best, of course, if the leadership actually sets aside some money for this purpose. Nobody likes the concept of unfunded mandates. At the very least, the leadership should provide educational resources, because once people learn the techniques of accessibility, it becomes an integral part of the web development process, rather than an expensive add-on.

At WebAIM, for example, we strive to make all of our content accessible. We could not easily give an accurate estimate of the amount of "extra time" that is required to make our content accessible. This time is not extra. It is required time. It is part of the process which we cannot separate out from the whole. And the truth is that the time we spend incorporating the accessibility features of our web content is minimal.

Important

The real cost, and the real time investment in the development process is the up-front time of learning accessible design techniques. If an organization invests in training resources, most of the other development resource needs will diminish if not disappear.

A mechanism for monitoring compliance

The other area that benefits the most from funding and resources is that of monitoring compliance. It is one thing for an organization to say that it is committed to web accessibility and quite another to actually follow-through on that commitment. Somebody needs to make sure that the web content really is accessible. Depending on the size of the organization, this can take an afternoon, or it can take several weeks.

Without top-level support, such monitoring may never happen, and it may never be seen as a priority. With top-level support, a person or a committee could perform periodic "accessibility audits" to determine whether the organization's web content meets the standards that it has set. The organization needs some sort of mechanism for monitoring compliance, and this directive ought to have top-level support.

Making the Case

Approaching the leadership of an organization

If your organization has not yet committed to web accessibility, you can take an active part in helping them to make this commitment. Sometimes all it takes is a brief mention of the concept to those at the top. Most of the time, however, it takes a more concentrated effort on the part of those who wish to see the changes enacted.

The first task is to talk to the right people. These "right people" will be different in every organization. Sometimes it is best to take the idea straight to the top, and talk to the president of the institution, the CEO of the company, or the owner of the business. Oftentimes, though, these individuals are less knowledgeable about this type of issue, so they may have delegated technology issues (or equal access issues, depending on how you approach the topic) to others, such as the Chief Technology Officer, Chief Information Officer, or perhaps a committee on equality or diversity. Sometimes it helps to bring up the idea to several indivuals or groups within the organization. The more visible you efforts are, the more likely leadership will pay attention to them. Just be careful to not force your message upon those at the top, because they could find your tactics offensive, even if they agree with your message.

Leadership is much more likely to accept and promote an idea that they not only like, but they feel that they have some ownership of. In other words, to the extent that you can, allow leadership to feel as if web accessibility is their idea, and allow them to promote it as such. You want your organization's leadership to continue to support accessibility over the long term. The more ownership they feel over the idea, the more likely they are to do this.

The other reasons for accessibility

The real reason why web accessibility is important is because it allows equal access to those with disabilities. All other reasons are less important and more self-serving, but sometimes the leadership of organizations responds better to the less important reasons than they do to the real ones. There are a few resources on other sites on the web which present the case for web accessibility in terms of these "less important" reasons.