Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Accessibility is everyone’s responsibility, yes, but!

I’m reflecting on who should be aware of accessibility on this 11th Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). This reflection is in the context of a large company’s organizational structure and culture. The short answer is: “Everyone”. But read on for the longer, more nuanced, answer!


The Global Accessibility Awareness Day, or GAAD, is a worldwide event aimed at getting “everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital access/inclusion and people with different disabilities.”. It happens on the 3rd Thursday in May. The event has grown tremendously since it started in 2011.

Everyone needs to know about accessibility, yes, but!

Most everyone who works in the field of accessibility will tell you it’s everyone’s responsibility and everyone needs to be aware of accessibility. I have no disagreement with that statement. In fact, I’ve said much the same thing myself more times than I can remember over the years.

But it’s not that simple. Who, specifically, is that “everyone”? And how much awareness does everyone need? Does the CEO of a company need to be an accessibility expert? Probably not. But should they be aware of accessibility, its importance, and also its impact on the company’s bottom line? You betcha!

Let’s dig in a bit more.

The kind of company I’m talking about

I’m ignoring very small companies in this post, because their situation is very different to the large listed companies I have in mind with this post. I’m outlining an organizational structure of accessibility roles that would be difficult to adapt in smaller outfits. Doesn’t mean smaller outfits shouldn’t think about these issues and how they can implement them.

A proposed hierarchy of accessibility knowledge in large companies

There doesn’t need to be a multitude of accessibility experts in large companies. Unless of course the company is in the business of offering accessibility services, but that’s another story.

One accessibility Subject Matter Expert (SME) is all that’s needed. But for that to work, all teams need to have at least one accessibility champion, and have all team members have a basic knowledge of accessibility.

Accessibility SME

The Subject Matter Expert for accessibility should be the person who can answer all accessibility related questions, or at least know where to find the answer quickly and easily. This includes topics from design or development issues, legal compliance, and standards conformance. The accessibility SME should also have extensive knowledge of how disabled folks use the web.

Accessibility champions

The accessibility champions should be team members who know and understand more than most people about accessibility. They should, above all, care about it. They can identify potential problems. They can advise other team members about common fixes and approaches to ensure accessibility. They can also act as the “squeaky wheel”, raising accessibility questions during design and development.

Jamie Knight talked about how the BBC approaches accessibility champions on an episode of the A11y Rules Podcast:

I don’t know if I mentioned the Champions Network before. So very quickly, most BBC products and teams, they have an embedded champion. We network the champions together. We support them, we teach the champions. The champions support each other. So there’s 150 people strong accessibility community.

And to be honest, about 50 to 60% of questions don’t come anywhere near our team. Another champion will answer them before we even know about it. So a large part of our work is to make accessibility a thing that is done and not reach out to other people, not to be the holders of some knowledge and then charge people to access it.

Everyone else

Everyone else should have a basic understanding of accessibility, as it relates to their roles. And I do mean everyone else.

Senior leadership

Senior leadership, up to and including the CEO, need to understand what accessibility is. They need to understand the importance of accessibility for the business. They need to support accessibility efforts, including proper resourcing.

The legal teams need to understand the higher levels of the different regulations that apply to their business. Is there a legal risk to lack of accessibility? The laws and regulations that apply to the company change depending on where the company is based and where they do business. A company may not be based in the United States, but if they do business there, they have to comply with different regulations, including potentially the American with Disabilities Act or Section 508 of the US Vocational Rehabilitation Act. Does a US company do business in Ontario? The legal team needs to understand compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

Sales & Marketing

Sales folks need to be able to answer questions from potential clients about the level of accessibility of the product. They should be able to answer knowledgeably on what is the current state of accessibility, and what is the roadmap to improve accessibility. Sales folks who don’t know about accessibility may lose you sales.

Marketing should also understand that the materials they produce, from the website to social media posts all reflect on the company. And if what they produce isn’t accessible, potential clients may opt to go somewhere else, merely because marketing gave the wrong impression of the company and its products.

Tech support

Tech support may be the first line to receive and have to answer questions about accessibility from end users who run into accessibility barriers using the site or the product. It is critical that they have enough understanding of accessibility to identify it could be accessibility-related. They should be able to direct end users to typical solutions to common accessibility problems.


Design teams should not even have to think about such “low hanging fruits” as color contrast, visible focus styles, or visible labels for forms elements.


Development teams should know the 50 or so really important HTML elements and how to use them, because when they do, so much of accessibility is “built in”. They should understand the first rule of ARIA.

Quality Assurance (QA)

QA folks need to know that running automated accessibility checks isn’t enough to get you where you need to be to ensure there are no accessibility barriers on your site. QA testers should be familiar with at least some basic manual accessibility testing.

Back end

The back end team should understand the importance of accessibility and avoid relegating accessibility-related tasks to “low priority”. For example, if a stable environment is required for a 3rd party accessibility audit, the environment should be provided promptly.

Accessibility teams

I’m always impressed when I hear a company has an accessibility team. It’s good to have an entire team dedicated to accessibility! At the same time, there is a risk that since there’s an “accessibility team”, everyone else at the company will think that it’s that’s team’s job to “do” accessibility. This is a recipe for disaster because you end up with an entire team that is on the back foot. The accessibility team often ends up being reactive, rather than the entire company being proactive about accessibility. This is why I prefer the approach of having accessibility champions embedded in all the teams.

Of course, if the company is large enough, you may want an accessibility team instead of a single accessibility SME. Then with the champions in place, you can get great success.

Not easy, but worth it!

Implementing this kind of structure isn’t easy. It’s even harder when you’re working in a large company. But it’s worth it. Setting up the right structure, and supporting all staff, and champions on their accessibility journey will likely lead to staff looking at accessibility less as a “chore” and more as part and parcel of what they do. And this will help you meet your accessibility goals!