Imagine you can’t access a website. It’s unreadable, or you can’t hear the video for some reason. Maybe your keyboard is broken and you can’t type properly. For the 1 billion people around the world with disabilities, this is a frustratingly common problem. According to a Web Accessibility In Mind (WebAIM) report on 1 million home pages in 2020, 98.1% had at least one web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) failure. On average, there were more than 60 errors per page.
Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), which started with one blog post and is now celebrating its 10th year, was created to get more people talking, thinking and learning about digital access and inclusion. We asked some of our communities at Slack to share what accessibility and GAAD mean to them and how digital products are evolving for the better, one feature at a time.
“Accessibility means giving everyone—like actually everyone, not just people who look or sound like you—an equal opportunity to be and do whatever they want.”
Awareness is the first step, followed by action
Digital accessibility translates to an all-inclusive user experience. It means that every website, mobile app and piece of software can be used by anyone who happens upon it, including those who have a disability that affects their hearing, vision, motor function or cognition.
Accessibility is especially important when your success at work relies on the use of such tools, says Ryan Katkov, a senior manager for software engineering at Slack. “The irony is, as a hearing-impaired person,” he says, “Slack itself was the accessible tool that allowed me to uplevel my communication skills in a company.” Slack has evolved to add features that were not initially accessible to Katkov, ensuring that new additions follow the WCAG. “I also continue to see abled folks speaking up when they notice issues, which is so powerful. Accessibility means every spoken or written word garners equal meaning and respect. It means nobody gets left behind.”
“Accessibility means every spoken or written word garners equal meaning and respect. It means nobody gets left behind.”
Awareness is a huge factor in digital accessibility, and what makes GAAD so essential, in May and beyond. “People are becoming more aware of how important accessibility is, and that it’s a complex topic made up of many different pieces,” says Shikha Kaiwar, a product marketing manager. “I’m still learning about it too, and it’s been great to see people and companies be more deliberate.”
This was the first year senior product designer Nikki Nolan had heard of GAAD. “I love it so much, and believe awareness is terrific,” she says. “But it’s just the first step. Companies and people need to make accessibility and inclusion as crucial as anything else.”
“My favorite thing is when companies provide accommodations and make things accessible without someone with a disability having to ask.”
A nonjudgmental space to be vulnerable, learn and find support
At Slack, a range of employee resource groups (ERGs) aim to drive belonging by providing support, professional development and inclusion across Slack’s global offices. This includes the Abilities ERG, which is open to anyone who identifies as having a disability, officially or unofficially, disclosed or not, visible or invisible.
“It truly is a special group of people,” Katkov says. “I know I can speak freely in the Abilities ERG about issues that impact me, and that people will understand. It’s not quite the same when you raise an issue with abled folks, even those who sympathize.” A nonjudgmental place where members can be themselves is not always a given in Silicon Valley. “The Slack Abilities ERG is a 100% safe space to express your emotions, which is rare to have at a tech company,” Kaiwar says.
For organizational effectiveness partner Benji Shine, “my disability was a big part of my decision to come work at Slack. I needed a dedicated workspace because I use speech recognition and use a specific keyboard and lots of special hardware. You can’t do that in an open office, but Slack provided everything.”
Shine found the Abilities ERG when someone shared it with him on his first day of onboarding. “It’s a very small and private place where I feel safe being vulnerable and having people who support me,” he says. It has also given him insight into the diversity of his fellow ERG members. “What works for one person might not be useful to another, and that has really opened my perspective and made me realize that I might have assumptions I was not aware of.”
“We all come from different backgrounds, but the camaraderie is real,” Katkov says. “We look out for each other.” This includes discovering different ways to support one another. “Being a part of the Abilities ERG has given me deeper insight into people’s experiences working with disabilities that are different than mine,” Nolan says. “I have been extremely humbled by how much we can learn from each other.”
Even though the task of accessibility may seem daunting, Nolan says, standards are well documented by WCAG and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). “I have personally started to learn in more detail what those standards are,” she says, “and recently wrote a blog post about designing for inclusion that can help people who are new to this world. Sometimes, starting feels like the hardest part.”
“The Abilities ERG continues to teach me the nuances and variety of disability and has helped me be more empathetic. Whether it’s visible or invisible, you never know what another person is going through.”
An opportunity to build a more inclusive digital world
When Katkov started working in technology in 1995, accessibility was more likely to be coincidental than intentional. Email was accessible to the deaf community but not the blind, for example, and screen readers and captioning did not exist. “Today,” he says, “we’ve seen a monumental shift for accessibility powered by technology and a desire in society for everyone to be equal.” Much of this change was driven by the transition to remote work in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This shift is important, and can manifest in a variety of ways. “Awareness is good,” Nolan says, “but taking action is better,” like making sure your company prioritizes accessibility and inclusion as it builds products. “It could also mean you have dedicated teams building out programs to ensure bugs or accessibility issues are solved in a timely manner,” she says, “or that you’re actively advocating for change, such as ensuring all audio options your company uses have accurate and real-time captions.”
“Accessibility should always be part of software development, starting with understanding your users. It can seem monumental with so many different needs, but it is worth it.”
This is an opportunity for many at Slack, like Yura Zenevich, a software engineer. “The process of building accessible and delightful products for disabled users is an incredible chance to innovate and have a positive impact on a much larger group of people,” he says.
Another software engineer, Divya Kamath, is learning about Slack’s different users and how they engage with software. “Every time I interact with a user with accessibility needs, I realize how little I know,” she says, “and that motivates me to work harder to build software that everyone can use. Thinking about their needs and making their lives a little simpler every day is a challenge I look forward to solving.”
Chanan Walia is a software engineer for client capabilities on the design systems and accessibility team. When he saw Slack’s impact on his own team’s productivity, he was determined that the entire user base could benefit. “I’m quite new to accessibility,” he says, “but I get extremely energized after hopping on virtual calls with our users to test out features. It has become clear to me that our projects and tools, like screen readers, can make such a drastic improvement in the general usability of Slack.”
“Every time I interact with a user with accessibility needs, I realize how little I know, and that motivates me to work harder to build software that everyone can use. Working on accessibility makes me a better engineer.”
Adopting an accessibility-first mindset at Slack and beyond
Kamath says that accessibility considerations for Slack itself can be complicated because of information density and the constant flow of interactions. “I enjoy being able to contribute with creative technical solutions as we work with the browser capabilities and different ARIA [accessible rich internet applications] roles and attributes,” she says. “Having systems-level thinking in accessibility opens up a world of capabilities, like global focus management and announcements, which we can build for at scale.”
As the company and product have grown, so has accessibility. Previously, the accessibility team was one of the smallest at Slack, and the only group with the expertise to build accessible software. “A concerted effort by everyone on the team has led to a complete overhaul in the way things work now,” Kamath says. “Accessibility is now prioritized by feature teams in their entire product lifecycle, starting from design all the way to delivery.”
In an effort to increase awareness and inclusivity, Slack has made investments in accessibility training across product, design and engineering. Walia says the team also scaled Slack Kit, Slack’s design system, by refactoring components to make them more accessible. Adding infrastructure, like focus management and screen reader announcement systems, makes it easier for other developers to build out accessible features.
“Working on accessibility means I strive to make a dent in dismantling the ableism that is built into everything around us.”
Accessibility starts at the beginning
Because software is typically built in phases, it’s important that every group is equally attentive to accessibility. “Good allyship helps trickle accessibility considerations into every stage of software development,” Kamath says. “For accessibility, it begins with the most important phase: design.”
Now every design mock-up at Slack is expected to include accessibility. Engineers are able to build features with the correct accessibility coding language, and the final iterations go into production as fully accessible. “This means teams don’t have to worry about retrofitting accessibility into their features after the fact, or account for future tech debt,” Kamath says.
“It’s hard, and sometimes impossible, to add accessibility support after a feature is built without inclusive design in mind. The north star is thinking about accessibility in the initial design stages of every feature.”
To expand impact within frontend engineering at Slack, a Systems Champions program encourages engineers from different teams to spend 20% of their time each quarter focusing on design systems and accessibility-related projects. “Our engineers love the opportunity to work in a new problem space, and tend to become huge proponents of accessibility within their teams,” Walia says. “Seeing an accessibility-specific spec in a Figma [design tool] design is becoming the norm, teams have been holding accessibility-focused bug bashes, and we’ve seen a host of accessibility-specific features launch over the past few months.”
This includes the new slack.com/accessibility site, which consolidates all our existing resource pages and Help Center articles focused on accessibility. Looking ahead, we’ll also share thought leadership and a behind-the-scenes peek at the work our teams are doing to ensure that Slack is accessible to all.
Even if it doesn’t seem possible to bring these efforts in accessibility to your organization, it’s worth starting the conversation. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of people around this planet have all found ways to speak up and create change in places where change was not thought possible,” Katkov says. “This tidal shift in accessibility culture motivates and inspires others and empowers us all to be better.”
A note about this post’s illustrator: Rebekkah “Bee” LaRue is an award-winning artist and cat lover currently pursuing her master’s in library and information science. Neurodiverse with a handful of chronic illnesses, she draws from her everyday experiences to create powerful comics and illustrations.
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