How to build an accessibility network: TechShare Pro 2020

A photograph of someone in a Walt Disney Tigger outfit skipping with a kiteWhat does it take to build an accessibility network?

Tigger-like enthusiasm, being annoying, being cool and being a people-person are all some of the traits considered important by experts from the Department for Education, the BBC, and Skyscanner.

Experts spoke out at TechShare Pro 2020 sharing their experiences in a session titled ‘Beyond the Lone Evangelist’, chaired by Microsoft’s Hector Minto. 

“I think I was the original lone evangelist,” said Charlie Turrell, who manages the BBC’s Accessibility Champions' network, explaining how she 'fell' into the champion role. "I joined the BBC and was lured, slowly into the role. And all of a sudden there I am working in the accessibility team."

Likewise, Skyscanner’s Heather Hepburn hadn’t planned to be an accessibility champion. “During my interview process for the Skyscanner role, I was asked to a UX [User experience] critique of our app. All of the issues that I found were accessibility issues. I joined an accessibility guild on Slack.

"I transitioned from that UX role into this wonderful role doing accessibility, full time. I'm the only person in their organization in a permanent role in this. It's just me,” she added. 

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How to create a culture of accessibility

Image shows the word change hanging on the outside of a doorYou can’t change the culture without building a network. “You don't get culture change unless you scale,” said Microsoft’s Minto.

Andy Black, Business Change Manager and Accessibility Lead at the Department for Education (DfE) agrees: “I think the phrase is ‘If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far travel together.”

“It’s a bit of a cliche, but I think it's definitely the way forward.”

So, how do you convince people to become accessibility champions?

It starts inside the organisation. “It's about finding new friends quite quickly [and] finding the environment that you can have those discussions with people. I think that is key to building momentum, and to get senior leadership to buy into it. Having those conversations is really key”, said Turrell.

Turrell has Exec sponsorship, which helps drive change, but says policy also helps.

“It [accessibility] is in the charter for the BBC, it's the law. We have to represent X amount of the population. Everybody's a license fee payer; so, we have to make sure that everybody gets the same amount out of what we deliver. Policies create guidelines, those guidelines then need resources.”

Hepburn recognises the role of senior support. “We got the word accessible into the strategy. It's one word but that one word is just going to be life-changing for us.”

She added “We can have conversations and ideas that we couldn't have had before. We can push training. We can start people building this into processes that are going to stick”, she added.

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How to get internal allies on board

Image shows the head of a woman surrounded by icons for networking services. It is all in a blue colourIt’s also about changing attitudes internally, which is where Skyscanner’s journey began. “We ran a few empathy labs across three different offices. We simulated different disabilities and we set tasks. Go book a flight from here to here or go and find a hotel that's two kilometres from the city centre.

"Within minutes, if not seconds, the realization of all right, this is actually quite hard, or this is broken or that just made people get on board so quickly.”

Black agrees that internal allies are critical. “We've done a load of work around getting basically different voices heard in the organization. I've reached out into our tech directorate and then operations group and found our allies so that we can be accessible by default.”

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Accessibility by default means making sure internal systems work for everybody.

“We're Office 365 users, a big Teams user and we turned round to our colleagues, and said want all the accessibility features turned on by default. If you've got to turn something off because it's a security risk, come and tell us why you do it. And we'll have an argument about it.”

Turrell began influencing internally and it grew from there. “I asked if somebody else wants to join a little five-person working group where we can all discuss things and chat about, what's not working; have a bit of a whinge about things that are really difficult.”

Having mentioned it at an accessibility conference in Manchester the group is growing beyond the BBC and she now has 120 organisations looking to join. 

What does a successful network look like?

The BBC’s Turrell says success sounds like quiet from the outside, and lots of noise on the inside.

“Silence is golden,” she told conference attendees. “License fee payers can come and complain as much as they want. If we're not getting any complaints that's great for us [although] we listen to every single one that comes into regarding accessibility, and we encourage people to tell us exactly what was going wrong.”

Internally, she wants people to talk about accessibility. “I'll do these catch-ups with people and I'll say, just give it to me. tell me all the things that you don't like about something, because then I can do something about it. So, when you see people interacting, almost 300 people on our Slack channel and everyone's having a conversation, loudness then I know it works”. 

TechShare Pro is the UK's leading accessibility conference. In 2020 it was hosted on Microsoft Teams

Summarising the session, the panellists offered advice to others starting their journey. 

Turrell said: “Raise the question, put your hand up at a meeting and ask ‘have we thought about this?’” Keep going. Keep learning. Nobody's ever an expert. There's always stuff to learn; everything changes all the time but as long as you're keeping on that journey, you'll be fine. 

Hepburn said: “Get people to hear it, get people to feel it and get people to do it.”

And for Black the message is simple: “Don't ever apologize about promoting accessibility and inclusivity. Let's get on with it.”

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