An accessibility guild at Ackama

At Ackama, we’re made up of a diverse group of humans who create digital tools that very real people across Aotearoa and Australia interact with every day.

A handful of us Ackama humans have collected ourselves into a group known as the #accessibility-guild – people across Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia who are passionate about making sure that what we’re building is considered from a perspective of accessibility and inclusion in all cases. We also want to make sure that we’re putting the people who use the websites, apps, and tools we build front and centre of the design and development decisions we’re making. We currently meet every two weeks to catch up and chat accessibility in digital spaces.

Teamwork makes the dream work

The Accessibility Guild and the way we work has continued to evolve over the few years we’ve been meeting. We continue to reassess what’s working and what’s not, but our current format involves meeting over an online call once every two weeks, with a rough agenda of:

  1. checking in on specific accessibility challenges people are facing in their work, and topics they want to discuss,
  2. discussing interesting findings, tools, or learnings that have been discovered, and
  3. discussing ways in which we can continue to grow the knowledge we’re gaining, and share it so it can be applied across the wider organisation.

There’s also the opportunity to share links and thoughts in Slack between the times we meet, and we also continue to build out our own internal wiki of guidelines, learnings, and collective decisions around best practice that we’ve discussed over time.

The guild has had the chance to bring in people from outside Ackama, and learn from those who work specifically within the accessibility and disability space every day, and is always interested in hear from people who have unique perspectives to share.

Some of our discussions are focussed and development-specific (ARIA tags and how to use them), and sometimes they’re a little more freewheeling (is putting a bunch of text in tables okay, or not very helpful for anyone actually?). Sometimes we’re able to come to some pretty quick resolutions based on our collective experience, and sometimes the only conclusion we can come is we don’t know something, and need to go out into the world and find out.

Some of the things we’ve chatted about have included:

  • reviewing an accessibility report a site we’d built had received, look at its recommendations, and go through which recommendations would be most valuable for users,
  • discussing the presentation of data inside tables, what role colour has in information design, and how to present information in a way that suits both content and users,
  • the incorporation of different languages within a single page, and how we can help both screen readers and automatic translation best identify when content switches from English to Reo Māori.

Overall, the guild has helped our members reinforce concepts that help us improve the accessibility of the sites we work on, and things we should be thinking about when designing, developing, and testing digital spaces.

Unlocking creative opportunities

Designing with a focus of accessibility has helped us face new creative challenges that then empower a wider audience to engage and participate with digital platforms. Those challenges can both be opportunities for unique digital experiences, as well as a chance for teams to focus on making sure they are constantly improving the inclusivity of an app.

For us, inclusivity means considering a range of unique perspectives, and making a series of small but significant considerations during the design and development process. Cumulatively, this allows a more diverse range of people to participate, and have their own agency in accessing information and tools.

Inclusive design principles are about recognising when people are being excluded from digital spaces, and learning from a diversity of life experiences. They often result in solutions that are accessible for the widest range of people possible, and improve digital experiences for everyone.

Importantly, we’ve found that nothing about accessible and inclusive design precludes creativity, whimsy, or joy within the visual design of a tool. Instead, it simply allows a wider range of people to enjoy the content and information presented on a page.

Parting thoughts

One thing that has been important to the success of the Accessibility Guild is the acknowledgement that it’s okay to not know things, it’s okay if things change, and there are always new things to find out and directions to grow.

Though we are interested in staying up-to-date with specific industry standards and expectations, we’re not concerned about perfect getting in the way of good, and are more interested in working in a way that is both sustainable, as well as being ultimately repeatable for anyone who wants to spin up a similar group in their particular organisation.

All of us are continuing to learn, and as a result improve the accessibility and inclusivity of the websites and tools that Ackama releases out into the world. There will never be a point at which we are able to say “that’s it, I think we’re done here, we’ve solved accessibility now” – and that’s okay. What’s important is that we continue our understanding of how to improve access to our own little corner of the internet, and champion access for all as best we can.