The '58 sound

Thoughts on professional accreditation in digital accessibility

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I’ve been working (more or less) full time in digital accessibility for quite some time now, so naturally I’ve watched with great interest the unfolding developments in recent years towards establishing the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP), and specifically IAAP’s focus on the subject of individual accreditation of accessibility professionals. I was involved in a few very early discussions, I work for a founder member organization of IAAP, and I’ve had some discussions with colleagues more closely involved. But aside from that I’ve had no direct involvement, so these opinions are my own, as a curious potential member looking in from the outside.

Why a professional accessibility organisation?

I certainly think there’s value in some kind of formal association of people who spend at least some of their professional activity providing greater digital accessibility to people with disabilities as part of a social inclusion drive; as part of better product and service design and delivery; as part of good business. Connection and exchange of knowledge, ideas and (occasionally opposing) opinion is extremely important. And to the outside world, a professional society may give some kind of confirmation that a profession in the area of digital accessibility and inclusion exists.

I also understand that for people who have invested a lot of time and money in building up accessibility skills, knowledge and reputation, it’s extremely frustrating to lose work to less capable people who manage to persuade clients of their capability but can’t deliver on their promises. It’s also, of course, damaging to customers and, most importantly, disabled people themselves.

Where I get uncomfortable is the IAAP’s apparent focus on certification of individuals; some mechanism for demonstrating accessibility credentials. Demonstrating that you’re better than the snake-oil salespeople.

Demonstrating that you belong on the ark, rather than waist-deep in the rising floodwater?

Others have expressed concerns over IAAP and the challenges and complexities of managing membership and accreditation. But at a more fundamental level, I don’t think that prioritizing a means to separate current specialists from the rest is especially helpful.

We should be raising standards, but we should also be raising awareness and spreading knowledge about accessibility. Helping people understand the context of the disability rights movement, the importance of inclusive digital design and its key principles. Helping developers recognize and avoid introducing accessibility errors into code. Helping project managers think about accessibility in procurement and evaluation of digital systems. Encouraging UX folk to more effectively involve people with different disabilities in user experience research and design activities.

Accredit learning not learners

I think an accessibility association should, above all else, be working hard to improve the quality of accessibility education that our digital content creators of the future will receive. Designers, developers, writers, producers…people who likely won’t ever consider themselves accessibility professionals, but who can inadvertently make life more difficult for people with different disabilities.

I see lots of IAAP focus on the continuing professional development of new members, and for those who are already highly knowledgeable in this field. The entertainment on the ark, if you like. And that’s fine – we need to advance the field. But I don’t believe it should be the primary goal. We do pretty well as a community in discovering problems; in identifying, discussing, and refining solutions; in publicising and promoting best practice amongst our peers.

I see far less (public) IAAP focus on sharing knowledge more widely; and specifically on working to improve the quality of education in digital accessibility at vocational, tertiary, secondary and – yes – even at primary school level. Efforts need to focus on increasing depth and breadth of coverage of digital accessibility; and on existing accreditation systems to set a higher benchmark for what should be expected by curricula.

Maybe as a result we can move a little further towards normalising the idea of accessibility knowledge and designing for people with diverse needs as a core skill, not as a specialism (although I believe there will always be room for specialists).

Professional societies and education programmes

There are some excellent efforts at producing good quality teaching resources on accessibility , like the Web Standards Curriculum, and the current initiative by Knowbility to build an accessible suite of learning resources on accessibility. The next step is to incentivise educational organisations to adopt them. And this would be a much more sustainable way to focus professional accreditation efforts – on learning programmes. My undergrad degree was accredited by the UK’s Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS); this meant that graduates were entitled to some exemptions in the process of qualifying for professional chartered status. I had no intention of becoming a chartered surveyor, but I was happy that the degree had received some seal of QA approval from a long-established professional society.

Of more relevance to digital accessibility, the BCS accredit UK computing science degree programmes, and therefore institutions that teach CS and related subjects are motivated to deliver curricula that meet the accreditation criteria. Like the previous RICS example, accredited courses help graduates towards individual professional accreditation if they so wish; but more fundamentally, there’s an aspect of quality assurance that benefits all graduates whether or not they seek professional accreditation with BCS. As a specialist organisation, would IAAP accreditation have a similar attraction to graduates as the more general, well-established RICS and BCS? I’m not sure.

We arrive in the digital content creation world from many different educational pathways, and it’s an enormous challenge to ensure that all of these routes are quality-assured for accessibility. It would, however, be a terrific start if organisations like BCS were to raise the bar in terms of required coverage of digital accessibility in their learning programme accreditation approach (last time I was involved in the accreditation process, the requirements on accessibility were not especially onerous). Maybe IAAP can focus some efforts on influencing this and other existing quality assurance mechanisms?

I appreciate that mine is a perception looking from outside, and my views may be very unrepresentative of accessibility professionals in general. Regardless, I want to be part of an IAAP that prioritises education of the many over certification of the few.

We should be draining the floodwaters, not pulling up the gangway and sailing our boat away from those left behind.

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