Frequently sales people and representatives of companies we purchase products from are not familiar with accessibility of their products. When you ask them about accessibility of their product, they usually refer you to official company’s accessibility statements which are usually a series of statements emphasizing their strong commitment to accessibility and referencing Federal government 508 Standards or W3C Content Accessibility guidelines and usually without any indication if they meet those guidelines or not.
Some companies hire accessibility consulting companies to review their product usually at the end of the development phase where the product has already been released or is about to be released. Testing for accessibility at this stage is usually too late to address potential accessibility issues. The result of accessibility testing of these companies are not usually published or discussed with customers, however vendors talk proudly about it on their accessibility page of their websites to emphasize their commitment to accessibility.
On the other hand, university administrators and those involved in purchasing a product have also very limited knowledge and understanding about accessibility to discuss accessibility of the product they want to buy with vendors. So none of the parties involved in purchasing a product is familiar with accessibility or have no organized means to verify accessibility claims. This is one of the reasons why accessibility is frequently neglected or jeopardized in such negotiations and deal-makings.
This brief handout should help you to give you some ideas how to talk with a vendor about accessibility and ask them the right questions while you are educating them about accessibility.
It is very difficult to come up with a recipe that would work for all products; however, the following accessibility related questions/concerns should be applicable to most products. In some instances you might want to have very specific accessibility questions about behavior of the product in question in certain situation or for certain disability group.
In the following sections we introduce and discuss some major accessibility factors and then provide a few questions that you might want to consider discussing with your vendors.
The first and most important thing that we need to know is that the best time to address accessibility is when a product is being designed. Addressing accessibility issues after a product has been released is usually very limited, incomplete, wishy-washy, too expensive, and sometimes impossible.
Considering the accessibility at the design stage ensures that the product is designed with accessibility from ground up, the right set of technologies and techniques are used during the implementation, and the accessibility features are tested in-house before the product enters the market.
Many companies/developers see accessibility as limiting factors in their creativity and functionality of their applications. In most cases, with a little creativity and innovation, an application can be designed and made accessible if they consider accessibility at the design stage and choose the right technologies and techniques. If you are not familiar with accessibility, you don’t want to get involved in technical discussion with vendors; instead bring your campus IT and Accessibility experts together and possibly partner with other institutions to build a group and discuss the issues and potential solutions as a group.
- When do you think about accessibility of your product? At the design stage, during the implementation process or later on after it has been developed?
- Do you have accessibility experts in your design/development team or you hire outside accessibility consultant? What accessibility consulting company do you work with?
The fact that some vendors work with accessibility consulting companies is good as long as they work together during the design and implementation processes and accessibility feedback can be addressed while the product is being developed. An accessibility evaluation just for the purpose of publicity at the end of development phase has no value.
The best way to test a product for accessibility is if it is tested by real users with disabilities. A mixed group of users with disabilities can provide extremely valuable feedback to product development team. This will give the development team an opportunity to see the real users interacting with their product first hand, see the shortcomings, and how users can benefit from accessibility features.
- How do you test for accessibility? Do you have accessibility testers in-house, for example, at the quality assurance department, or you hire outside accessibility consultant? If latter one, what consulting company?
- Have you used real end-users with disabilities to test your product? How many and from what disability groups?
- When do you perform accessibility testing? During the development phase or before the product is about to be released?
- What is the accessibility criteria/matrix for testing your product? Can we have a copy of the document?
- Can you share the last accessibility report on your product with us?
- And remember to ask the sales representative to detach his/her the computer mouse and show the product in action just with the keyboard during the product presentation.
Sometimes talking with a vendor could give you the impression as if they don’t care about accessibility. This might be true but it is very uncommon. Most people including company’s representatives, sales people, and even CEOs would care for accessibility once they learn about it the accessibility of their products.
There are many people who have never dealt with accessibility issues in their lives and understanding accessibility issues might be too abstract to them. It is very important to be patient and educate them in a nice and friendly way. There is a wrong perception among some developers and product managers as if accessibility is too much work, expensive, and limits the functionality of their products. We need to educate vendors about the benefits of universal design and how easy it is to achieve it if we think about it at the right time. And remember accessibility is free if we consider it at the design phase.
- Where do your designers/developers get accessibility training?
- Which accessibility related conferences do you go?
- Have you ever had a disabled employee or an outside disabled user showing how your product can be used with assistive software/hardware?
Some products indeed support selected accessibility features that can be beneficial to many users with disabilities. Without any proper documentation on the supported features, users might not be able to discover them easily and/or utilize them properly.
A good accessibility documentation where all the accessibility features are listed and explained can help users to learn more about the product and how to effectively use it. Such documentations should be publically available and easy to access and clearly they should be fully accessible.
- Do you have accessibility documentation about your product? Are the supported accessibility features in your product listed and explained?
- Are they publically accessible? Can I have the URL to the accessibility documentations? What format are they in?
Another problem that users with disabilities have been facing is that they can’t get any accessibility support for a particular product from the campus or from the vendor. Accessibility related issues often don’t get recorded or don’t reach the right people because there is no well-defined accessibility support by campuses or vendors and as the result those users are left frequently abandoned with their issues.
Training and educating the support staff on accessibility and how to use the product with the keyboard would enable the support staff to help the disabled users with the accessibility issue. It is not expected that support staff know all about accessibility but they should have at least some familiarity with accessibility and use their product without mouse. Support should have also a mechanism to record and direct accessibility issues and feedback. This is the only way that the accessibility of a product can be improved.
- Does your support staff get training on accessibility? Is there any accessibility expert in-house whom other support staff can contact for more advanced issues?
- Is there any mechanism that accessibility feedback and problems can be reported to the company? Can accessibility feedback/problem page be easily found at your website? How these feedback/problems are directed to the right people?
- Do you provide accessibility training to the Campus IT staff to handle accessibility issues locally?
While this post is excellent, there is one thing lacking: A clear, brief definition of what accessibility actually means.
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