Building Accessibility Checklists That Are Actually Useful

November 30, 2023

How to translate words into action?

Not all accessibility is easy but a lot is. And it still doesn’t get done. Earlier this year, we explored the choice that teams face in caring about accessibility and how the simple act of making accessibility a team priority can help everyone take responsibility towards that outcome.

Caring is necessary but not sufficient. You also have to find a way to operationalize that caring. We see plenty of very inspiring and confident pro-accessibility messaging from products, technologists and agencies. We certainly don’t want to minimize the importance of making these types of public commitments.

But without a shared understanding of what accessibility entails and clear expectations and accountability for teams, implementation is likely to be inconsistent.

The Accessibility Checklist Manifesto

If you polled doctors on the importance of washing their hands before opening up a patient, you’d get unanimous agreement. One 2001 study found that doctors skipped proper handwashing or sterilization steps more than 33% of the time when inserting central lines. When nurses were empowered to stop the procedure if a doctor skipped any of 5 sterilization checklist items, they reduced infection rates from 11% to zero!

Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and author, demonstrated in the Checklist Manifesto that as jobs become more complex, checklists are an important tool for ensuring that critical steps are consistently followed. In other words, research and education can help us discover and disseminate the safest and most effective ways to accomplish a given task. But even the most obvious and widely accepted requirements must be tracked and enforced in order to achieve full compliance.

Unsurprisingly, we believe the same applies to digital accessibility.

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How to build accessibility checklists

You can Google around and find all sorts of accessibility checklists out there. But do these checklists track the right things?

Even the most comprehensive checklist that covers every possible accessibility issue won’t necessarily achieve your intended outcome. If the checklist assumes knowledge your team doesn’t have or if it creates lots of extra work, you probably won’t get the results you need.

We’ve broken down our experience in accessibility governance to share what works well for us in building out accessibility checklists tailored to specific organizations:

Make your checklist the right size

It doesn’t make sense to have your team track performance of items that they don’t understand. As your team’s competence and confidence in accessibility grows, there is always room to expand your checklist. But if the goal is to ensure that 100% of checklist items are accomplished, it’s often better to start out with a smaller list and grow it out over time.

As we noted above, just because adding alt text is relatively easy, it doesn’t mean that it is universally implemented. Build checklists to consolidate your gains and enforce consistency in the things that your team can already do.

Add enough granularity

Break your checklist items into the right number of steps. For more sophisticated teams, it may be sufficient to confirm that an entire page is keyboard navigable. But others may need to be reminded to check that links, buttons, and form fields are all within the focus order. Adding the right amount of granularity also makes it harder to gloss over areas that may be “mostly accessible” but not fully accessible.

Create multiple checklists

Different teams have greater responsibility or influence over specific accessibility criteria. For example, there could be one checklist for new content creation. This might focus on items like alternative text for images, proper use of headings, and other content-specific accessibility considerations. Other checklists might be part of the design process or flesh out manual testing plans before code releases.

Take checklist literally

Don’t just make a list of accessibility requirements per page or feature. This should be an actual checklist in which each item is actually checked off before a publication or release. There is always a temptation to cut corners especially when under time pressures and this helps ensure that the checklist items will be performed as expected.

Assigning accessibility checklist responsibilities

Everyone that participates in releasing a digital service, product or page should be responsible for accessibility. But as we know, the buck has to stop somewhere. A RACI matrix is a way of describing how ownership over outcomes is distributed across a team with members designated as Responsible, Accountable, Consulted or Informed.

  • Responsible and Accountable: Every checklist should have a party responsible for implementing each of the steps and a party that is accountable for results and empowered to block release or publication if all checklist steps are not followed. In Atul Gawande’s example, the nurses were accountable for ensuring that the doctors followed all items on the checklist prior to a procedure.
  • Informed: An accessibility owner or stakeholder should be appointed and the more senior the better. That person should be provided access to completed checklists from every publication or release.
  • Consulted: Checklists are not static artifacts. As we noted above, they can and should grow in complexity as teams discover weaknesses, implementation issues, and learn about new ways to become more accessible. Accessibility subject matter experts should provide input as checklists are refined and updated.

Using checklists to measure accessibility

Audits and monitoring can provide snapshots of a website’s accessibility but they don’t do a great job of measuring policies and processes. Adding in checklists provide a way of measuring conformance to your accessibility processes and track improvement (or stagnation) over time. 

In parallel, automated sitewide monitoring or spot audits of specific pages can provide a reality check and give you a better sense of where your checklists are falling short. After all, even if checklists are always completed, it doesn’t mean that the steps are being followed correctly. Checklists are effective at reducing forgetfulness and deprioritization, but don’t necessarily solve for ignorance or honest mistakes. Testing results can identify areas where checklists can be further refined or new items that can be added to checklists in the future.

Where to get started?

We’ve attempted to make the case for tailoring your accessibility checklist to your organization’s needs. But that doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch. If you aren’t sure where to begin, you can start by finding an accessibility checklist off-the-shelf. But don’t just take it as is:

  • For your first attempt, remove any checklist items you don’t understand
  • Review the checklist items that you do understand with your implementation team and break it down into further steps as needed
  • Try to assign each checklist item that remains to one person

Need more help?

Access Armada specializes in accessibility training and governance consulting. We can help you build out checklists that your team can reliably follow.

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