How Traits of Successful Communities Can Inform Our Accessibility Initiatives
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When you consider the word "community", what comes to mind?
Maybe you think about your city or town. Maybe you think about a social community of which you are part. Effective communities are powerful things. They unite around a set of values, and those values inform how individuals within the community behave.
There is a lot that we can learn from successful communities that helps us frame our approach to making accessibility effective at scale within organizations. That's because our organizations are communities in and of themselves. And not every organization works to create a sense of community. Nonetheless, organizations of all sizes commonly share traits of successful communities. Once we recognize this, we can then look to actions that it takes to build an organizational community around accessibility.
What makes a successful community? There are many attributes. Some of the more common include:
- Shared norms and values
- Informed community members
- Shared goals and planning
- Infrastructure and support
- Connectedness and Interaction
Let's see how these traits will inform our work to make accessibility a part of our work community.
Shared Norms and Values
Communities that unite around shared norms and values are careful to create and maintain systems that uphold both. These norms and values serve as the foundation for the community's every move.
Establishing these is not a trivial task, and it does not happen by accident. It takes the will of community leaders to create and reinforce norms and values. That means that, from top to bottom, there is commitment to build up supporting infrastructure and knowledge.
This also requires some flexibility within the community to bend toward taking actions that will uphold them. This may mean that community members overcome biases, learn new skills or information, and reinforce norms and values with one another.
When accessibility is a shared norm and value, there is a large foundation and robust scaffolding to make sure that it is sustained by the community. Accessibility rightfully makes its way into the very fabric of the group's digital properties. It becomes a part of the culture of the organization, a proactive expectation, instead of a reactive response.
Informed Community Members
A community is at its best when its members have the skills and information that they need to contribute to moving the community forward. Communication to and among the group also creates a community with members that know how to move the group toward its shared norms and values.
In the context of accessibility, this speaks directly to making sure that the right people have the right accessibility skillset. Once we recognize how many people create and influence our digital environments, we can then begin to identify skill or knowledge gaps. Then, we can create or acquire professional development resources that are tailored to specific roles.
A team of web developers will get more out of highly technical training. Someone looking into building an organization-wide accessibility program will benefit more from topics around digital accessibility policy and strategy. Tailored topics help to make sure that people have the skills that match their role. They also avoid wasting people's time.
Shared Goals and Planning
A community's rules, norms, values, and informed members won't get far without overarching goals and a plan to meet them. Successful communities have goals that align with their norms and values. These are tangible things that will help to support what the community holds dear. In a community that transforms ethereal things like norms into action, goals are key.
You best achieve goals by developing plans to do so. If the goals support norms and values, then the plans map out steps needed to meet the goals. Successful communities create plans with input from key members of the community. These community members will have the vision and expertise to create a plan that moves goals forward.
For accessibility, we often see a hierarchy begin to form. First, the organization must value digital inclusion as a norm. Then it will solidify that norm with some sort of policy or statement of intent. Such a policy or statement is usually far-reaching and ongoing. Within that environment, organizations that succeed with accessibility will build out a plan that helps to meet the overall goal of creating more inclusive digital spaces.
Infrastructure and Support
Communities that set norms and values, create goals, and plan to meet them will not get far without having scaffolding to make sure that the plan can be put into action. To succeed in executing their plans, communities need tools to build what is required.
In the accessibility context, this scaffolding is also necessary. Anything from an enterprise accessibility testing tool to professional development and training may be needed to sustain an accessibility effort over time. Well-defined processes that integrate accessibility into project planning, product design, technology purchasing and acquisition, and product maintenance will help to keep accessibility more constant over time. Things like employee resource groups are also valuable additions to an organization.
Successful communities have rules that govern behavior of individuals and the group. Rules typically align with the community's shared norms and values. Sometimes this is explicit, such as defining rules that prevent discrimination and promote inclusion within a community that values diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Rules provide a formal structure that helps to guide behaviors. Rules also add certainty to things that can otherwise seem arbitrary. Speed limits, for example, set an expectation that drivers will drive at a speed that is safe and that is generally like others on the road.
Considering this at the organizational scale, rules that specify what technology must be accessible and that define what "accessible" means serve several purposes. Such rules define the scope of an accessibility program. They often define a technical standard, which helps community members know what they need to do at a technical level. Rules about accessibility should also specify responsibility throughout an organization. And increasingly, these rules are expanding to include being more intentional about inclusion generally.
Where these rules live may vary, but they are often a part of formal organizational policy. Standalone digital accessibility policies serve as a foundational element of sustainable accessibility programs. In organizations where strict policies are not as common, these rules may live beside others that still effectively put norms and values into place more formally.
Connectedness and Interaction
Successful communities recognize the importance of being connected to and interacting with their fellow community members. Technology environments are an excellent example of just how connected organizations are, and how many different influencers there may be on any one technology product.
Let's say that you are on the human resources team and that you build professional development modules. These modules will be influenced by several departments. The look and feel of your content will likely be shaped by brand and style guidelines that come from marketing and brand management. If you deliver professional development on a training platform, then information technology will usually bring its own set of requirements. These will be mixed with other requirements that HR has defined. It's also very common for professional development content or delivery software to be purchased or used from an external third party. For purchased content, someone from a finance or procurement office will likely influence what is selected as the final product.
In the accessibility context this connectedness shows that we cannot isolate our accessibility efforts in any one group or department. Rather, we must follow the various connections that we have between and among those that influence and create our digital environments.
Combine any or all of these, or even think one of them through on its own, and you will soon realize that they circle back to a common theme: they all need leadership to be effective. Leaders set the tone and ensure that people have the knowledge and resources needed to maintain the community. It is inherent that a leader will either forge the path for change, or block it. Where the leader goes, so goes the community.
Leadership is critical when it comes to a digital accessibility initiative. Leaders that hold accessibility and inclusion as values will work to instill these as priorities within the organizations they serve. These priorities then determine how high the ceiling is for the effort overall. When leadership communicates about accessibility to the community and to peer leaders, they make it possible for the effort to work at the organizational scale. When investments are needed in tools or people, leaders will make sure that accessibility is included in budgets. Active leadership is critical to the success of an organization-wide and sustainable accessibility program.