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Accessibility matters—and here's what we're doing about it

Jessica Paoli

As journalists, advertisers, producers, and creators, content is at our core at Vox Media. And we want to ensure that everyone—regardless of ability, situation, or context—can access it.

Last week, six of our team members gathered in Washington, D.C., for two days to try and achieve just that. We have many advocates for accessibility throughout the company, but at the time of our gathering, we didn’t have a company-wide structure in place to implement accessibility standards across the board.

Over the course of our workshop, we brainstormed, whiteboarded, and held a knowledge share with senior front-end developer Jeremy Fields from Viget, who discussed how Viget made accessibility a priority in all of their projects. We documented role-specific best practices and how each team member could implement them into their actual work and processes.

Notebook showing the text: "You can't do everything at once. The next project will always be better than the last."
Wise words: "You can't do everything at once. The next project will always be better than the last."
Jessica Paoli

We also came up with a list of guiding principles that outline our philosophy on accessibility, shared with you in this post. While we are far from done, we hope these principles can help continue the conversation on why accessibility matters, and, most importantly, encourage us to put what we preach into practice.

1. People want to access our content and use our tools; let’s make it easy for them.

We at Vox Media are in the business of producing content that informs our audiences and tools that support our teams, and we need to make it as easy as possible for people to access our work. When we do our jobs well, everyone who wants to enjoy our content and work within our systems can do so. When we don’t do our jobs, we are the ones hindering their access.

2. We should never make assumptions about our users.

Making a product accessible does not mean targeting a specific subset of people. Rather, accessible design, or universal design, is about making products usable by the greatest number of people possible. We should not assume we know how our users are engaging with our content, and should understand that it may be "seen" by a number of assistive technologies, including automated tools, keyboard-only navigation, and screen readers.

Graphic showing how four categories of impairments (touch, see, hear, and speak) apply to users in mild, moderate, and severe instances.
Making a product accessible does not mean targeting a specific subset of people. Users may be "impaired" only in certain contexts, situations, or periods in their lives, and still benefit from accessible products.
Microsoft Design Inclusive Toolkit

Applying universal design principles to our process makes the products better for everyone, and improves the experience across the board.

3. This is where the industry is going. Get on board or get left behind.

Accessibility may seem like a lofty goal, but it’s really just part of doing good work. And fortunately, accessibility practices are here to stay. Accessibility will eventually be a legal requirement for online properties. Companies in the United States have already been sued for not providing fully accessible experiences. Other countries have already implemented standards for accessibility, and all U.S. government websites must be accessible. Investing in accessibility now will ensure that we’re not playing catch up when U.S. laws adapt.

4. Accessibility is everyone’s responsibility.

Accessibility is not a checklist item that only needs to be considered in some projects, or at the end of a process. Rather, these practices should be woven into every step of a project and role in a team. An accessible product stems from everyone on a team owning and shouldering the responsibility. It's part of our jobs as creators.

We know it's one thing to agree to a set of principles, and another thing altogether to change a process. With these guiding principles in mind, we then turned our attention to figuring out how to actually ensure accessibility in our work.

Where We Are Now

We wanted to encourage accessibility practices within every role on a team and stage in a project. To that end, we put together best practice guides for some of the domains at Vox—design, engineering, product management, and editorial. Each of these guides provides a list of best practices relevant to the role, the reasoning behind each practice, methods to put it into practice, and recommended tools to gauge success. We shared the guides internally and have received a great response so far.

We are now working to put together an open-source resource sharing these guides and the rest of our evolving accessibility documentation at Vox Media. While we are still in the beginning stages, we are hopeful that we are well on our way to ensuring that our products are usable by everyone.

In the meantime, we'd love to hear your thoughts. What kind of information is most helpful to you and your team? How can we all be better advocates in this space? Find us @ssktanaka, @suchwinston, @kelsa_, @mariahminigan, @mylifeasalllly, and @skullface.

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Special thanks to Jeremy Fields, Dave Schools, and Emily Bloom of Viget; Ashley Twaddell and the rest of Vox Product leadership; Casey Kolderup and Ryan Gantz for reviewing this post; and Jennifer Sutton and everyone else who provided us with resources in preparation for our workshop.