14 tips to build an accessibility champions' network

An accessibility champions’ network is a great way to engender cultural change across an organisation. Here are some top tips from technology insiders on creating, managing, and motivating a team of like-minded people. Here are 14 top tips for creating, maintaining and motivating your accessibility champions’ network.

These tips are based on in-depth interviews with senior leaders from the BBC, Google, Intuit, Microsoft and Ubisoft. 

1. What is the best model for a champions’ network

Core to all champions’ networks is the desire to create a community or network of like-minded champions. But variety is the spice of life, and different companies deploy a range of models.

For example, Ubisoft describes its model as ‘informal’. A core team of 4 trained champions spreads best practices through the organisation using internal sharing platforms.

Accessibility guidelines are part of the corporation’s policy at the BBC, but the network spreads awareness of these within their teams. Likewise, Google’s network has a formal structure based around a belt system borrowed from Jujitsu.

2. Celebrate the successes of your accessibility champions…

Sharing success is a great motivator. The BBC’s Charlie Turrell, for example, speaks as to how sharing success breeds new ideas, techniques, practices, and specific features. A key sign of success when looking at champions is that it spreads and becomes embedded into all corners of your organisation.

3. ...and talk openly about your failures and what you have learned

It’s true we learn from our mistakes. A good network is open to discussing those failures. As the BBC’s Charlie Turrell said: “Nobody says, well, this is a failure…we don’t want to talk about it. They’re more, ‘let’s have a discussion and see if it helps somebody else down the line’.”

4. Secure buy-in from senior leadership

It is important senior leaders understand why you’re doing things, including building a champions’ network. Champions need to understand the big picture to make the case to prioritise accessibility in the context of the broader picture – or to prioritise a specific feature within a product or service.

Hector Minto argues that executive sponsorship is the key to a network’s success.

“Don’t go into any champions programme without securing meaningful executive sponsorship,” he says. “A senior leader who says ‘Yeah, I will open doors for you through the organisation, I will support this, and I will stand up and talk about the progress we’re making and report on it.” “Any leaders reading this, put your hands up and offer to support your digital inclusion agenda,” Minto adds.

“And to any champions groups out there reading, go and get your executive sponsor.”

5. Keep champions motivated, and reward their work

Keeping champions engaged is essential. Google’ ‘dojo’ system, drawing inspiration from the belts of Jujitsu.

It means champions can see the progression. Similarly, champions at Microsoft can earn certifications and a badge which the company encourages people to share on their LinkedIn profiles.

6. Keep people engaged through storytelling

Good engagement means having a feedback loop. Microsoft’s accessibility evangelist, Hector Minto, says storytelling helps maintain the momentum of a champions’ network.

7. Tailor your network for individual’s needs

Variety is the spice of life and is vital to engage all your champions. It would help if you embraced different learning styles, whether digital channels such as slack for online meetups or small internal meetups for people who prefer those.

8. Try not to do too much all at once

In the early stages of setting up your network, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The BBC’s Charlie Turrell says, “You can feel that there’s so much you don’t understand.” She suggests stopping and taking things one step at a time, picking a single topic, then learning all about it. “Don’t get too het up about the things that you don’t know,” she adds. ‘It’s OK not to know things and to ask questions.”

Equally, don’t push your champions too hard. “Watch out for burnout in the network’ says Turrell, “pushing too much info too fast.” But she also feels discussions are always worth having. “You’ll still know something that you didn’t know before. There will always be people in the community who have a different experience.”

Google’s Christopher Patnoe agrees pacing is essential.

“You’ll have a lot of people excited for about a month,” he says, “and about month two or month three is when the work starts to happen; when you need to be thoughtful about how you keep people engaged.”

“Once you find the cadence that extends for your organisation, then it’s going to get much easier’ he adds. ‘Get ready for it to be hard, but it won’t always stay that hard.’

9. Incentivise your champions, and make it fun

Google’s Christopher Patnoe recommends finding a budget for accessibility-related ‘swag’. “I find swag a huge boost to this kind of champions work,” he says. “If I have stickers on my laptop or I wear the Google accessibility T-shirt, they’re conversation starters.” Make accessibility and the network visible in this way, and it adds to the network’s momentum. Other employees will see it and start to take it in.

10. Provide a training programme for accessibility champions

The opportunity for growth is a motivating factor in any role and so offering training for champions' is a great idea. For Ted Drake, global accessibility leader for Intuit, training is a key component of delivering an accessibility champions' network.

“Even if all I did was take the level 1 accessibility training and become a level 1 champion, I get inserted into a Slack channel and, every Monday, there’s a video. Every Wednesday there’s something. So, there’s continual education going on – passive education you could say. But that passive education becomes active at some point,” he said.

11. Make accessibility fun, as well as functional

Patnoe also suggests positioning accessibility less like a duty and more in terms of a “fun problem you can tackle in different ways.”

Companies that build products to meet accessibility requirements turn it into a task. ‘When you can turn it into something interesting, that is fun, that is rewarded, it’s no longer a tax.’

12. Be serious about accessibility champions

Invest time and resource in your champions’ network and “Run it as a business,” says Microsoft’s Hector Minto. “That is one of the best things that we’ve learnt along the way.” Then, once you’ve measured success, you can spread the story and the steps that led to that success across the company.

13. Embrace the wider accessibility community

“I would challenge my community – the accessibility community – to let Diversity and Inclusion people in,” says Hector Minto. “It makes our life a ton easier, and if you find that overlap and communicate with each other, that’s where you start to find the real success.”

Part of this is getting more representation of disabled people throughout your network and your organisation. Not only can this stop a product from going too far down the track with serious accessibility issues, but it can result in features that delight both the disabled community and the broader audience of users beyond.   

14. Grow leadership from within

Running a champions' network provides an opportunity for home-grown accessibility leaders of the future. Notably, Intuit has encouraged people to step up.

For example, one employee, Josh Harrison, joined Intuit with little knowledge around accessibility, but through training, project experience and usability testing became a subject matter expert and started building his own local champions’ network. 60% of the employees in that region are now members and accessibility has become Harrison’s full-time role.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Reuben Evans has built a network and played a crucial role in building accessibility into Intuit’s work on the Making Tax Digital initiative.

“We were the first major company to be able to be certified by the UK government as having an accessible version,” says Intuit's Ted Drake. “That was an example of a level 2 champion being able to drive a project from start to finish."