September 15, 2020
One's level of impact on accessibility at an organization can depend on many factors: whether you're a full-time employee or contractor, the nature of your role, length of tenure, level of trust in professional relationships, representation of disabled and marginalized people at the company, and the organization's readiness and willingness to make lasting cultural change. And that's before even factoring in your personality or how persuasive you can be.
Over the years, I've noticed that being an "outsider" can have a different kind of impact for accessibility. Don't get me wrong, full-time employees do great work for web accessibility and are needed as long-term champions at a company to carry initiatives forward. For my own career direction, though, I've decided that I'll have the best impact by going freelance and consulting with organizations as a trusted outsider. So what are the upsides and downsides to this approach?
Making a strong first impression as someone who can get to the bottom of accessibility problems can provide opportunities to make change. As a newcomer, you can have fresh perspectives on how work is being done without legacy context clouding the outcomes. As a champion of user experience for accessibility, often this setup can help break through a sentiment of "but it's always been done this way". You can push for meaningful change without worrying as much about company politics, though it takes sensitivity to trade-offs and priorities when advocating for solutions to deliver on that strong first impression.
Sometimes you'll work with people with sizable egos who pay attention to outside pressure (influential blog posts from the community, competition in the market), and as an outsider you can be in a position to represent those viewpoints in your work. While helpful to have this type of leverage, it also has a downside of not being easy to manage ("that person said WHAT? BRB, while I figure out what to do next as I shake my head in disbelief"). This is where persuasion and effective communication can help, especially as you build alliances with full-time employees to make sure you're supporting them in any ways you can.
There are certainly downsides to being an outsider when working on accessibility, beyond the typical risks of needing to afford health insurance in the US and run a business. You may not have the same level of trust or camaraderie as teams and colleagues do (and you probably won't have as much access), so you'll have to spend time up front gathering information and building relationships. You'll need to keep a high level of professionalism in the face of friction or adversity, and adjust your approach if things aren't going as intended.
Those egos I mentioned before may also go into toxic workplace territory, which can be extremely stressful to navigate. There may come a point where a project is going poorly enough that you don't want to continue it, in which case you'll need to be careful of contract terms to not make a mess of client relationships (recommended reading: An Introductory Guide To Business Insurance For Designers And Developers from Smashing Magazine).
Aside from personalities and working styles, another thing to keep in mind is that you might not have the same level of ownership over your work as you would in a full-time role. As a consultant, being brought in to work on something for a limited period of time means you won't always have access to it for reference, inspiration, or necessary updates ("the thing I worked on regressed significantly?? I wish I could fix it 😩")
You might not even be able to talk about your work to the public if you've signed an NDA. If the project is something you're looking to document in a case study for marketing purposes, be sure to talk about it with the client up front.
Whether you're an outsider/consultant or a full-timer inside a company, making an impact with accessibility is all about keeping users in mind. To be successful at removing barriers to access for users with disabilities, we need to hear their feedback as we develop solutions. Non-disabled people won't have the same experiences, so they need to seek out information from those impacted by inaccessible user interfaces and center their experiences.
In fostering digital accessibility, everyone needs to work together in setting goals and achieving results: developers can't solve it entirely on our own. We also need disabled perspectives, buy-in from project stakeholders, accessible design thinking, and quality assurance. As outsiders we should be champions of people doing the work internally, so we can have the most effective working relationships. Because we need all the help we can get with accessibility, and we're all in this together.