Accessibility in the Enterprise: Chris O'Brien (Part 2)
Chris O’Brien is the Director of Accessibility at OLG. Since he joined in 2019, he has made strides improving interdepartmental processes, adopting a proactive shift left mentality, and creating a culture rooted in collaboration and a shared goal. This is part two of our interview with him; part one is available here.
Diamond: Are there any specific solutions or processes that you and your team have implemented at any part of this initiative that your colleagues and peers would benefit from hearing?
O'Brien: First of all, a design system. It's helpful when you have a large organization, multiple products, multiple brands, all these types of things. We outsource a tremendous amount of work to third party vendors, and it can be really hard to manage. It's really hard to make sure everybody is aware of what all the requirements are, and to have a design system with accessibility like, for example, what the US government has.
You codify the requirements, and everybody involved in the process is very aware of what the expectations are visually; they're aware of what the expectations are from an interaction standpoint, and you're confident that you can pass that off to a third party with the expectation that it needs to be implemented as is. It's also a clear test metric by which to compare the output to, so certainly that's something that I would like to pursue at OLG at some point because that would be a huge benefit to us.
Diamond: Switching gears a little bit, but still within this realm of challenges, what would you say is a bigger problem for OLG, is it accessibility for public facing projects or internal software for your employees to use?
O'Brien: Definitely internal software. Once again, I'm still shocked at how, when you consider the advancements we've made in this field, combined with the huge amount of interest in accessibility in general, I'm not actually seeing it implemented in a lot of software. Specifically, the web still has a huge way to go, but at least, relatively speaking, it's a lot better than applications. For us, we have a lot of requirements. A lot of functionality that we need fulfilled through software and, unfortunately, when you put it out there, the reality is you often end up having to choose between two options that really don't have the accessibility you need.
Diamond: Where do you think this disconnect between the momentum around accessibility and actually implementing it into software comes from?
O'Brien: Definitely awareness. There are a lot of people who simply don't have any connection to people with disabilities, and they just don't understand the notion that the way they approach things every day might not be the same for other people. So, they have this mental model of what the "norm" should be. So if that's your mental model, if you're a product owner, you're bringing that to your product.
However, if you then have an expanded understanding of what the market is, and the diversity within, you'll likely bring that to your product. So it's interesting because it's very rare that you raise the concept of accessibility to somebody, and you explain it, and you show them, "hey, here's what assistive technology is, here's why it's necessary." It's very rare that you have someone signal that they don't want to do that.
Unfortunately, there are too many people who are just not aware that accessibility is a thing. Then on top of that, disability in general is a large spectrum, so it can be quite complex. This is why we have jobs in this field. As accessibility professionals, we have to break the complexities down and translate the diverse use cases of people into technology and technological requirements. That can be a bit overwhelming for a lot of people.
Diamond: When it comes to procurement, does OLG have a process in place to make sure that, in such a large organization, new software purchases are acquired by vendors and agencies that know how to develop products accessibility?
O'Brien: Within all of our procurements, we have language that specifies that we have to meet the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). We also try to ask for VPATs where applicable. I think agencies are a different case altogether because if you bring in an agency and they're developing a product for you, there's certainly a lot more opportunity at that point because you're starting from scratch. At that point, I would suggest vetting the competencies of that organization from an accessibility standpoint. Who are your experts? What's your track record?
Based on the requirements in an RFP as an example. I always ask, what's your plan for addressing accessibility? What's your methodology? What's your tooling? Et cetera. I want vendors who can sell me on what they're going to do, and how they're going to meet our requirements. That's a big thing, and you can really go down deep.
Diamond: Switching back to your team structures a little bit, do you have accessibility champions on your teams, and if so, what role do they play?
O'Brien: We do in an indirect way. It's not specific to accessibility but as I mentioned, we sit within a larger Compliance organization, and we have a program called the Regulatory Leads, which is a group of stakeholders from across the organization that helps support our Enterprise Compliance framework. Members of this group will share information and build awareness of compliance requirements across all of the designated leads, then go back to their respective areas and that information cascades down to their teams. So it's not specifically an Accessibility Champions Network, but it's a similar type of model within the larger regulatory framework.
Diamond: And where is OLG in the digital accessibility maturity model?
O'Brien: If you're to use the Carnegie Mellon framework (1 being Initial, 2 being Managed, 3 being Defined, 4 being Quantitatively Managed, and 5 being Optimizing), I would say we're solidly positioned in level 3, which is a ‘Defined’ area. We're actively engaged throughout the organization and are always looking for opportunities to improve and define processes for training and supporting the stakeholders, so continuous improvements are always the goal.
In looking at these frameworks there's quite a big gap between a 3 and a 4, and I would love to say I’m a 4 but, I can't say that I'm quite at the point where I can define all of my metrics for accessibility yet. But at the same time, we do have some robust definition of accessibility, we're just trying to expand that out. So for now, we're in the middle.
Diamond: You've talked a bit about accessibility's place within your Legal and Compliance departments at OLG. Another place we typically see it fit is within Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives. Do you have an opinion on where it is best placed, and does accessibility also appear in your diversity initiatives at all?
O'Brien: Yeah, so I'll cover the first part first. With regards to our placement within our organization, normally I would agree with you. If we were a digital accessibility team, then there are other places that you can put us. It could be in IT or in Customer Experience, you can put us in all these places, but AODA is quite broad and it encapsulates things like built space, employment, communication, et cetera. So with that in mind, I think the Compliance area is actually exactly where it needs to be, given the scope of what AODA requires with respect to D&I.
I think D&I initiatives are great from an accessibility standpoint because you can really use that as an avenue to build the awareness that I’m talking about; that's what I really feel D&I is all about. It's about making people appreciate other perspectives, expanding everybody's thought processes, and just making people aware that everyone is different. It’s a great way to push the accessibility mantra throughout an organization as well.
Diamond: Does OLG have an empathy lab, and what are your thoughts on these types of labs in general?
O'Brien: It's interesting, for GAAD 2020, I had an empathy lab all planned and ready to go. And then we got hit by the pandemic. So that was put on the shelves. So in general, I think, empathy labs can be a very effective tool if they're done respectfully. The idea with an empathy lab, from my perspective, is to raise awareness and provide people who don't have experience with the requirements of people with disabilities.
It's this idea of, "Hey, this is a different way of doing things." But the one thing you want to avoid doing is encapsulating a whole person's existence in an empathy lab. It's more about showing off assistive technology, as an example, and saying, "Hey, some people may use this, this is how this may affect how you approach a certain thing within your product or your design process." It's just about getting people to realize there are things out there that they aren't thinking about, that they need to be thinking about. So I do think empathy labs are important but, once again, it's all about how it's delivered. I've seen areas where it can be problematic depending on how you sell it.
Diamond: How would you describe your internal accessibility training at OLG? Is there a universal approach or more departmental?
O'Brien: We do have a program. It's not where I want it to be just yet, but we've done some broad Lunch and Learn scenarios, which are great, but they tend to be really introductory, which is fine, but I would like to do more.
I brought a new person onto the team who's got a great track record of training people on accessibility, and I want to sit down with him and identify the different areas that are opportunities for improvement. From there we can build training specific to our teams' needs. It starts with figuring out their pain points and processes. For example, if you're working with a content team, think about how they work with their CMS, and ask, "what can we do within the CMS to make their job easier?"
Then you can create training specifically for them that's extremely impactful. So you can give an introduction into accessibility but then you're also giving them critical information that they can use right away, to change their processes, and then I think you'll see a huge uptake in the efficacy of that as well.
Diamond: When it comes to executive buy in for these initiatives, is it challenging or are people pretty on board from the beginning?
O'Brien: We are pretty fortunate. The executive team is very much aware that we have these responsibilities, and they're very open to helping where they can. Like most executives, they're focused on delivering quickly, getting to market, speed, agility; these high level issues. So they're supportive, but I think like anybody, if there's a misconception about accessibility slowing things down that might cause concerns.
So what I'm trying to do is build the program in such a way where I can identify all the various instances where accessibility can be impacted, and then try to minimize as many of the friction points as I can in those areas. I don't want to say that I don't need executive buy-in per se, but I'm given the ability to go and work with all of these teams, so I don't need to necessarily go and ask first. I can just go and say, "Hey listen, I think that maybe if we did X, we'd be better served. Are you open to trying that?" Then we can start working in a collaborative way, which I like better.
It's a little less monolithic and a little more dynamic. I've been in organizations where it's not so easy to do that, so it's all different. I think for anybody who is trying to get buy in general, you just have to know your environment, and you have to know the players, you have to know what motivates people, and then really work on helping people get what they want, but also get what you want. And I find that that's always the most effective way. You want to be seen as a team member as opposed to an adversary.
Diamond: Lastly, what is something you hope readers will take away from your story?
O'Brien: Mainly that I'm a big believer in the concept of shifting left and proactively addressing issues. It's not just in accessibility, it's in any domain. Normally when you do something proactively, you're just so much better off.
It's like medicine, for example. It's so much better to be proactively healthy than to wait until you get a serious ailment then try to address it. So I would just urge people to learn more about that concept and figure out how they can move more towards implementing it in their processes. Then you can start pinpointing where accessibility fits in along the way.
Diamond: That's great advice. Thank you for your time, Chris!
Accessibility in the Enterprise is a new content series from Diamond highlighting the work Accessibility leaders are doing at large organizations. To stay up to date with this content series, follow us on Twitter at @DWSLA.