Accessibility tips from the BBC: TSP20

Image shows a small Tardis on a book shelf in front of a row of booksWhat do the BBC, accessibility and the Tardis have in common?

Fifteen years ago, the three combined in a meeting that helped jumpstart the BBC’s formal accessibility journey as accessibility lead Gareth Ford Williams told attendees. 

“I was told to go in and meet Robin Christopherson [AbilityNet’s head of Digital Inclusion]. We did a workshop session on accessibility in 2005 with Robin.

"Robin's a bit of a Sci-Fi nerd and we went off and found a Tardis at television centre.”

Robin Christopherson is a renowned accessibility leader


Actually, the BBC has a proud heritage of inclusion that pre-dates that meeting having done its first signing in 1957 and offering Ceefax subtitles since the 1970s. 

“When I raised the question 15 years ago Tony Aggy, who was the controller of bbc.co.uk it was like, why aren't we doing this? We should be doing this,” said Ford Williams pointing the BBC status as a public service organisation. 

“The ethos, the ethics, the culture of the organization is to experiment. And we made a lot of mistakes and we are continuing in the same vein.”

Fast-forward to today and Ford Williams continues to literally champion accessibility across the organisation. 

So, what are his top tips for embedding accessibility across an organisation?

1. Involve users in the design process

Do we still need to keep telling user stories? Absolutely, says Ford Williams. 

“In the 1960s and 1970s, there weren't disabled kids in mainstream schools. We just started having VI [Visually Impaired] kids just as I was coming towards the end of school in the late 1980s. 

“We have a different way of interfacing with the world and we have different needs and different requirements. The BBC is trying to get to 12% members of staff with disabilities at the minute. It's really important we all understand each. 

“If you separate people out, empathy is hard.”

2. Build allies across your organisation

Image shows fibre option lights in a cluster or networkedChampioning your cause is vital, Ford Williams says, “One of the first things I did is get permission to send out a division-wide email and just say, ‘I'm going to be in, in the boardroom this one lunchtime with a load of sandwiches and tea, and with no friends. I'd love to have a chat.’” 

“And it was packed. We couldn't fit everyone in the room, and it wasn't just the sandwiches, because BBC sandwiches aren't that great.

“Somewhere around about 2011, 2012, we were chatting with someone who, who just said, you know, there's champions networks in places like Yahoo but there was no such thing as an accessibility champions network, and we kind of formalized it.”

3. Listen to other people

“I went to people and said I need to understand how you do your job. And I need to make sure that this works for you. I'm not going to tell you how to do your job. I'm not going to slap a load of guidelines in front of you, and put 'thou shalt not', in cross stitch over the bed. It's none of that. It was just as an accessibility manager, I had to understand how to integrate.”

4. Tackling one problem at a time

“It's building that case and building something that is, is easy, understandable, and scalable and sustainable because you don't want to end up in an auditing sausage machine. There's a fair amount of questing and Holy grail about it because things continuously change. You know, I always say my life would be really, really easy if people stopped inventing things. 

The first thing we did was create subgroups to tackle each of the different questions that we were. We looked at the semantic structure, and we all decided how many heading level ones we were going to have because we couldn't find any pages that were marked up the same. So, we just tackled one problem. We did it slowly. 

“The business treats headings exactly the same everywhere now and no one really knows why. And that's because we sorted it out 15 years ago.”

5. Take accessibility to the top

“You have to listen. You have to be a good listener to be an accessibility person and yes, seek forgiveness, not approval. 

“Just go and knock on the CEO's door and have a chat. Find out when they get in the lift, pop in with them and have a natter, you know, do that be cheeky. No, one's going to have a go at you for talking about something that's very important, very ethical.”

6. Building successes one project at a time

Tony Aggy [former BBC controller] said to me, we've got this project, a prototype called BBC Imp [now iPlayer]. 

“He said, get in there, write a bunch of requirements and I'll mandate them upfront. We're just going to experiment. And, and let's, let's find a place let's, let's find out how it works, test it, make sure it works and then spread it. 

“And then we've got a place where we can say, look, it's working over here.

“So, we built it and it. There's no accessibility lead in iPlayer, but it just became part of the thing. That's what iPlayer is, as accessible as it possibly can be.”

How AbilityNet can help