Accessibility in the Enterprise: Chris O'Brien (Part 1)
The accessibility community is full of leaders passionate about making the web, and the world, a more inclusive place for everyone. One of the best things about this community is the willingness to collaborate and share in an effort to reach a common goal. With the launch of this content series, 'Accessibility in the Enterprise,' we hope to capture that notion of collaboration by sharing the stories and highlighting the work of accessibility leaders at large organizations.
It's fitting that Chris O'Brien is the first expert to be featured in this series. As the Director of Accessibility at OLG, he is well-versed in the importance of communication and interdepartmental collaboration. From taking a proactive approach to accessibility, to getting executive buy-in for new initiatives, to process improvements and more, Chris has a wealth of knowledge about creating meaningful change in the workplace and beyond.
Diamond: Thank you for joining us, Chris! To start us off, can you give us a brief introduction to yourself, OLG, and your role in accessibility?
O'Brien: Sure; My name is Chris O'Brien, I am the Director of Accessibility for OLG, which is an agency of the province of Ontario. We have approximately 1300 employees, and we provide gaming and entertainment to our residents. 100% of the proceeds that we generate go back to the province of Ontario and helps us fund infrastructure and similar projects.
We've recently had a change of leadership, and our new CEO is really driving a culture of change revolving around customer-focused, agile practices so in a short time, we've seen a really noticeable change in the way we work. It is an exciting time to be part of OLG.
Diamond: How does accessibility play into all of those cultural changes?
O'Brien: It's critical. In our industry, we're heavily regulated, so accessibility is one of many key regulatory requirements. It certainly is a very high priority for the organization, including culturally. It's one of the reasons why I joined OLG in October of 2019.
As a Broader Public Sector organization, OLG recognized how critical accessibility was and created a director position to elevate its status in the organization. I joined the organization with the goal of building out this program further. I've been pretty happy with the progress so far.
They really do embrace accessibility. I’ve been impressed with the willingness of my colleagues to hear what we have to say and take it into account. Obviously, there's a lot of work to be done, and it's not perfect, but certainly we're making strides forward, which is the most important thing.
Diamond: Logistically speaking, how would you define where accessibility fits within OLG? Do you have a dedicated department or are there stakeholders spread out across teams?
O'Brien: My department sits within the Legal and Litigation department, which is then part of a broader Governance, Legal, and Compliance arm of the organization, which I think is a good place for it.
Historically, the teams were more segmented. What we're trying to do now is expand and improve on collaboration. It's not that they weren't doing that in the first place, but I'm really putting an emphasis on that, and we are given the latitude to work within any area of the organization, so we're very fortunate in that regard.
It's up to my team to go find out who the critical stakeholders on any given project are, learn what they are working on, and establish and forge relationships. We want to make sure that they understand our accessibility concerns and that we understand their business needs.
It's easy to assume that ours is the most critical of requirements. If you at least understand where other stakeholders are coming from, you can strike a balance and try to work things in incrementally so it doesn't seem like you're trying to jam something down someone's throat, which does not lead to much success, as we all know.
Diamond: In general, how has that approach and that freedom to be collaborative been? How have people been responding? Have there been any challenges trying to coordinate different teams to focus on this?
O'Brien: We've had some relatively good success. It's not without its challenges; it's a large enterprise. The biggest challenge was trying to identify initiatives that you can put yourself in the path of. Then you need to understand what it is they're trying to accomplish, and then try to inject some meaningful guidance in there, so that what is produced at least has a semblance of accessibility.
I'd say we're doing well. I can definitely say that anytime I've approached colleagues and said, "we have some issues," they’ve always been very open in taking our feedback. Now, it may be a situation where we have to be patient and prioritize the most critical aspects of that guidance, and then over time it gets resolved. I think that's a reasonable approach, especially given timelines, and an incredible number of varied requirements across a broad regulatory landscape.
Diamond: It sounds like collaboration is a key part of your accessibility strategy but that said, do you still have a core group of people focusing on it? If so, is that a limited resource? How can you ensure you're making progress without stretching your team too thin?
O'Brien: We're currently trying to focus on the whole notion of "shift left", where you try to not only identify initiatives, but think about them as early on in the life cycle as you can, identifying all the stakeholders at the earliest possible moments and empowering them to understand the types of things we're after. By doing so, we minimize the impact downstream.
If you don't do that, you end up with a lot more problems down the road. It just exacerbates everything, so it's critical to think about all of this proactively. That's something that I'm working on now. We're not perfect; there's a tremendous amount of activity happening in the organization. My team is quite small, but we're training people and building competencies within other departments. Working with procurement teams, building out requirements, education, all those types of things really help chip away at the stone.
Diamond: In addition to some of the issues around initial buy-in, what are the biggest challenges you face regarding accessibility?
O'Brien: The biggest challenge we have is with scale. We have traditionally conducted smaller training programs but now that I'm about a year and a half in, I'm in a place where I can really focus on building a comprehensive training program. I'm trying to identify areas where we can build up the competencies such that we can reduce accessibility issues throughout various stages of a process. So that's a really huge undertaking that we're looking at this year.
Procurement can be another challenge; it’s such a critical part of the journey. Failing to get the right vendor, setting the expectation with the vendor, holding them accountable for solutions that they provide so that they don't put us in bad standing with our stakeholders is critical. And so, we're working on trying to facilitate that.
The challenge is, because it's such a large organization, there are a lot of inputs. People who work in procurement have a lot coming at them. They have a lot of people giving them requirements, so how do we give them what they need while ensuring what we need at the same time? It's all about trying to find that balance with every area that you work with in the organization.
For these situations I've realized that relationships are extremely important. Meeting with people, talking with them, not just worrying about what you need, but thinking about their problems too, so that you can work around some of the things that they have concerns with. This helps them, and therefore, might make your case a little easier in the long run.
Diamond: It seems like a big part of that is being proactive and anticipating what these other stakeholders are going to need and how you can make this easily digestible so that it doesn't get brushed to the side, or just forgotten entirely.
O'Brien: For sure. It’s an area we’ve struggled with in the past. It's a large organization, there's a tremendous amount of activity happening at all times. Sometimes, you'd be unaware of certain initiatives and the stakeholders who are running a project wouldn't even realize that they should come and talk to us or any of the compliance subject matter experts.
Some of our colleagues in the compliance area have established a committee known as New Initiative Compliance Engagement, which we refer to as the 'NICE' committee. They seek out new initiatives across the organization and funnel them into this committee so the compliance SMEs get a chance to feedback on them.
It's really helped a lot. It puts more projects on our radar, and now we can chat with the project leads, tell them what our needs are, making them aware of things that they may not have been aware of otherwise. I think it's really been educational for the organization as a whole.
Diamond: Would you say that these challenges are unique to your company or to your industry, or do you think these are universal challenges in the accessibility world?
O'Brien: I don't know that we have anything that I’d consider unique. I would assume that most of the issues that we have are issues that our colleagues in larger organizations would encounter as well. The thing about accessibility is that it's not really rocket science. It's just a matter of making people understand the need, and unfortunately, it's still amazing to me that awareness in society is where it's at. It should be way higher than it is, but I find myself having to have the same conversation over and over again. It would be great to have more intermediate to advanced discussions with people on accessibility topics, not the standard justification for it in the first place.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Chris O’Brien’s interview, which will be featured on the blog soon! To stay up to date with the Accessibility in the Enterprise content series, follow us on Twitter at @DWSLA.