Fear-Based Incentives or System 2 Thinking: Which Accessibility Road Will You Choose?

A few weeks ago, several of us were in Florence, Italy attending the annual W4A conference when we received great news about the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU-B): the US Department of Justice had closed it’s investigation into possible non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). CU-B still has work to accomplish, but we see this as a great step forward toward building inclusive education. Congrats CU-B!

I’m on public record saying that I not a fan of fear-based incentives including lawsuits and/or federal inquiries. The Department of Justice (DOJ) continues to issue various inquiries and interventions which, as you might expect, builds awareness of the issues in general, but often serves as a threatening stick, rather than a carrot. Sometimes these situations become rife with contention rather than stimulation for positive change.

It seems to me that educational institutions and private industry have the capacity and capability to ensure, for example, that educational systems and IT are designed to serve all people, regardless of ability. However, and in my humble opinion, until we create a truly compelling business value proposition for private industry and higher education, fear-based incentives and enforceable laws will continue to be the primary drivers of accessibility. I’m just sayin’

So, how do we move away from fear-based incentives to inclusive thinking? One suggestion is to consider rebooting our accessibility strategy and focus on an inside-out approach…

Accessibility Strategy Refocus

I’ve been thinking about something that Sarah Horton, David Sloan and Henny Swan emphasized in their recent W4A award-winning paper, “Complementing Standards by Demonstrating Commitment and Progress“:

What if, in addition to evaluating products against standards, we focus energy and resources on activities related to creating a culture, practice, and processes that support accessibility? A coordinated accessibility program, with documentation and continual assessment, provides the means to demonstrate commitment and progress toward achieving accessibility. In this way, accessibility moves from a standards-based remediation activity that is characterized by standards failures and technical remediation to an endeavor that is focused on people and good experience, and targets successful progress forward towards an accessible digital environment.

Inherently, I’m a ‘swing first, think second’ person. Then I remind myself of Daniel Kahneman’s encouragement towards ‘System 2’ thinking (Captioned Video) — a little slower, more deliberate in process and logic. Which is why the culture, practice and process accessibility template this paper presents is spot on! This is a principled leadership, inclusion-driven model. It’s top-to-bottom, horizontal and pervasive. It’s an exemplar strategy. It involves hard work, integrity, systemic commitment and direct support from organizational leadership. It’s the kind of thing we are witnessing at CU-B.

Within CU-B, Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano, Robert Boswell, Vice-Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement, Larry Levine, Chief Information Officer, and recently appointed Chief Digital Accessibility Officer Dan Jones, are providing that commitment and leadership, ensuring that the university accessibility efforts are aligned with the core principles of diversity, inclusion and equal access.

What’s encouraging is that higher ed institutions and private industry can look to the example of CU-B as the start of a successful vision. CU-B’s commitment from the top demonstrates how accessibility in practice is forward thinking and has the potential of removing the sting of fear-based incentives.

What do you think?

By the way, if you’re interested in reading a little more about TPG’s User Experience work with CU-B, see David Sloan’s article, “Making Real Progress in Digital Accessibility in Higher Education“.

Categories: Accessibility Strategy, Development


Kelly Pierce says:

Lawsuits and legal enforcement have been the means to enforce civil and constitutional rights. Such rights are the foundation of our society and cannot be subject to arbitrary market forces or electoral outcomes. Our society has a commitment for the inclusion of people with disabilities. If an organization decides to hire an architect or Web designer that does not share these beliefs or does not know how to design for inclusion, then an expensive choice has been made. The organization can either retrofit or fight the lack of accessibility in court. In the instance of universities, mentioned here, some schools are still doubling down on their positions. Cornell said recently that it does not have an affirmative duty to accommodate people with disabilities. It only needs to consider accommodations when an individual with proper standing delivers an enforceable accommodations demand on the institution. If someone needs access, Cornell can either provide the accommodation or spend vastly more resources defending their interpretation of access laws. Inaccessible technology may not be able to be remedied in a matter of days. Waiting for accommodation requests to arrive means that technology-based accommodations will not be delivered or a team will be assigned to rapidly put in place an accessible solution, if one happens at all. CU has a great model, but well-meaning efforts do not necessarily translate into access. I do not believe that new job titles and organizational efforts toward access mean that an organization is sue proof and should not be held accountable for accessibility. Effort is not a substitute for tangible access. Yet, an organizational wide plan is a great remedy along with efforts to meet current needs will create the access everyone desires.