All Access

Proactive Planning Will Keep Teams Focused on Accessibility


Kathryn Rutkowski, PMP, Atlassian, Sydney, Australia




The subway platform in Vienna, Austria has wide paths to accommodate people in wheelchairs and tactile pavement to help guide blind people.


No more limits. That's the battle cry on everything from construction sites to next-gen digital design as teams look for ways to ensure projects accommodate people with disabilities related to mobility, sight, hearing and cognition. And the demand keeps growing: By 2050, 15 percent of the 6.25 billion people living in urban areas, or 940 million people, will have a disability, according to the United Nations.

In New York, New York, USA, the Metropolitan Transit Authority's massive capital improvement plan, unveiled in September, features a US$5.2 billion program to make subway stations more accessible, including adding new elevators and ramps at up to 70 stations. Stations serving more than 60 percent of riders will be accessible when the project is complete.

But in the digital age, there's a deep need for inclusion beyond physical structures. Google recently completed a project that allowed the company to incorporate voice-guided tech in its maps and navigation apps to help vision-impaired users more easily get where they're going. Features include audio and visual descriptions of their surroundings and real-time updates on maintenance-related barriers on streets and sidewalks.

Organizations lagging in their compliance must play a costly game of catch-up. Last year, a U.S. court ruled that websites and mobile apps for Domino's Pizza didn't comply with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—a case that stemmed from a blind man's lawsuit against the company. It wasn't an isolated incident. More than 10,000 ADA-related lawsuits were filed in 2019 in the United States, with another wave expected in 2020.

Now more than ever, project owners and teams must get up to speed on accessibility regulations and prioritize customer requirements in project deliverables, says Kathryn Rutkowski, PMP, senior program manager, Atlassian, Sydney, Australia. “Accessibility has to come from a top-down approach, not as a nice-to-have feature of a project,” she says.


—Kathryn Rutkowski, PMP, Atlassian, Sydney, Australia

To ensure her company's software development projects align with Australia's anti-discrimination laws and accessibility guidelines, Ms. Rutkowski recommends that project teams partner with the organization's legal team and task one group of team members on each project with overseeing accessibility requirements. That person may have a deep knowledge of requirements, or it may mean creating extra time for that person to build knowledge. Feeding that information into the project plan from the start prevents teams from overlooking even the smallest accessibility details.

Microsoft's accessibility solutions include:


color filters to customize the screen for higher contrast and color blindness


a research project that uses audio technology to enable people with blindness or low vision to better navigate new environments


personalized viewing experience on screens


a screen-reading app that includes image description


“If a space doesn't serve the needs of all of its users, it is a wasted investment,” says Jade Paul, principal landscape architect, Jacobs, Chicago, Illinois, USA.


—Jade Paul, Jacobs, Chicago, Illinois, USA


Making accessibility a priority from the outset helps ensure it is baked into the design and won't cause expensive change requests and delays later, says Zeynep Özkan, PMI-ACP, PMP, director, Agile Berry, London, England. “The longer you wait to think about accessibility, the more costly and complicated it becomes.” In some cases, fixing a site that didn't incorporate accessibility features in the first place can cost more than the initial budget to build it, she says.


—Zeynep Özkan, PMI-ACP, PMP, Agile Berry, London, England

Having a firm grasp on requirements is particularly mission critical for renovations of aging public infrastructure, where inaccessibility carries a big price tag. For example, Berlin, Germany is nearing completion of a €132 million project to make the last 63 of its 173 subway stations barrier-free by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, Paris, France has admitted that accessibility upgrades for its entire Metro service are too costly. Out of 303 stations, many aren't fully accessible for wheelchair users. As a result, project teams will have to brainstorm less expensive workarounds before Paris hosts the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games.

Proactively identifying risks and requirements for accessibility upgrade projects helps project leaders make a convincing case for accessible design with sponsors and other key stakeholders, says Steph Stoppenhagen, director of smart cities business development, Black and Veatch, Portland, Oregon, USA. “It is not the first thing that comes up in planning meetings unless the client really nails accessibility in the design specifications.”

Planning for accessibility in the context of key performance indicators can help elevate the strategic value of inclusive spaces and environments. For instance, Ms. Stoppenhagen says projects in low-income areas, which typically have a higher percentage of people with disabilities, need teams to constantly monitor compliance from start to finish.


Teams need to start viewing accessibility requirements as an opportunity for innovation, says Bryce Johnson, inclusive lead, product research and accessibility, Microsoft devices, PMI Global Executive Council member Microsoft, Redmond, Washington, USA.

Mr. Johnson's team embraces a “nothing about us, without us,” approach by gathering feedback from accessibility advocates and hosting hackathons to inspire new accessible features and products. He also includes people with disabilities on design teams to gain insights into what the real need is, Mr. Johnson says. “It's easy to make assumptions about what a person can do,” he says. But watching someone with a disability use a laptop or a game controller can generate eye-opening solutions for project teams. “When you see the challenges people face, you begin to realize the simple choices we can make to make things more accessible.”

When Microsoft brings in people with a variety of disabilities to talk about how they use their current products and what obstacles they face, the company's teams use these insights on public-facing projects to define user scenarios and develop prototypes. They also invite Microsoft employees with disabilities to test them and provide feedback.

“They all have different challenges, but they all have the same goals—to be able to use the device,” Mr. Johnson says. “When you solve for one, it extends to many.”

Ms. Paul has achieved success with similar user-centric approaches. For parks her teams have created, visually impaired people have helped choose flowers and trees for their heady fragrance and texture, or handrails that covertly feature Braille explanations about the surrounding landscape. “These simple choices make these spaces stand out,” she says. “It's interesting and cool, and it can become a differentiator for the project.”

Pilot projects and test spaces help teams root out surprises, iterate designs and anticipate future changes when it comes to accessibility. For example, when Société de transport de Montréal launched an eight-year, CA$2.1 billion project to transform the public rail system in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the team went to extremes to test how the new trains and stations would best accommodate people in wheelchairs. (It was a 2019 PMI Project of the Year finalist.) The team conducted boarding tests from 1 to 4 a.m. to limit disruptions, then applied that feedback to create a full-size mock-up.

Sometimes even the smallest features of a product or service can negatively impact usability for someone with a disability, says Eva Sue, principal, Woods Bagot, Perth, Australia. Applying universal design to maximize accessibility is about more than wide doors and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, says Ms. Sue, who works on various airport architecture and design projects globally. Project planners must consider every decision through the accessibility lens: Will it work for all users? For example, can someone using a wheelchair access a service desk? Do patterns on the floor hinder way-finding for the visually impaired? “Universal design should encourage and facilitate dignified service and natural human behaviors,” she says. “That begins by having empathy with your users.”


—Eva Sue, Woods Bagot, Perth, Australia


Even the best accessibility project plans can't achieve their goals unless all stakeholders stay aligned. Problems can crop up when there is a lack of communication between designers and contractors, says Soojin Hur, PMP, architect and project manager, CBRE Group, San Bruno, California, USA. For example, if an indoor public space has to be at least 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter but designers fail to take into account the added depth from trim or wall tile, it can fall short of minimum accessibility requirements, she says.

Meanwhile, competing goals can create conflicts that project managers must find ways to resolve. An architect might design a dynamic outdoor public space with tiered seating, sculptures, and meandering walks to create an interesting and vibrant environment. But if not planned and executed carefully, it can easily fail to meet accessibility standards. “There are many requirements that are easy to miss if you don't have a thorough knowledge of or an experience with accessible design,” Ms. Hur says. Adding an accessibility expert to teams to review plans and spot gaps can prevent some mistakes. “It's important that someone knows how to apply the standards correctly and will advocate for them,” she says.

Making accessibility part of the project culture is possible even on initiatives where sponsors don't initially see the value of creating spaces for everyone. When faced with resistance, Mr. Johnson says project managers should flip the script and ask how many people the project is willing to exclude by not addressing all accessibility issues. Such a challenge can provide a subtle nudge to shift perspectives and make accessibility a must-have goal for every project.

“Improving how customers access the products of a company is absolutely the responsibility of the people creating those products,” Ms. Rutkowski says. “By proxy, project delivery teams are responsible for making sure everything they create is accessible by the entire customer base.”


Strong feedback helps teams create better access and experiences.


Four project professionals explain how teams can best navigate challenges to close the accessibility gap for the 21st century:


■ Carolyn Haddock, PMP, senior project manager, Colliers Project Leaders, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

She has worked on multiple public-facing projects, including a massive library in central Calgary that straddles a light rail line.


■ Erik Cempel, PMP, former program manager, Amtrak, Chicago, Illinois, USA.

He recently managed the development and design of a US$1 billion initiative to renovate Union Station in Chicago.


■ Tuomo Lindstedt, project manager, Finavia Corp., Vantaa, Finland.

He is working on a massive renovation of the Helsinki Airport.


■ Aurélien Ludovic Kilama, PMP, building and infrastructure manager, Bureau Veritas, Douala, Cameroon.

He helps teams at his organization navigate new accessibility regulations in Cameroon.

What makes planning for accessibility more complex today?

Ms. Haddock: Historically, visually impaired, hearing impaired and physically impaired groups were considered the audience. Now you've got people not only in wheelchairs, but scooters—and there's no standard for how large those are, so it's much more difficult to determine spatial requirements.

Mr. Lindstedt: One area where project leaders sometimes fall short is not truly understanding the variety of special needs and the constantly growing number of elderly people navigating public spaces.

Ms. Haddock: That's right. With an aging population, distances must be considered for the elderly. And patterns in flooring can be really difficult for people with dementia.

Mr. Cempel: Complexity also comes from an increase in competing expectations. For example, in the United States, you might be trading off historic preservation concerns with a need to meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) demands. It's always possible to meet other competing demands too—you just have to have enough time and budget.

How can teams compensate for complexity?

Mr. Lindstedt: Understanding the needs of people with disabilities helps ensure that you'll design accessible spaces and services. It's vital to create forums for people to join the design phase, test new facilities and give feedback.

Ms. Haddock: In past projects we've found it's worth it to develop 3D renderings or mock-ups to help advocates reviewing our plans get a true sense of the space. For construction projects, consulting with experts who can read and interpret multidimensional drawings helps.

Mr. Cempel: You also need to use experts who have successfully designed accessible public spaces and services that are similar to your own project, and if possible with extensive experience designing them locally. Local context is key for understanding unique challenges in your city. For example, treatments in a warm climate may not work as well in places with extensive ice and snow.

How can project managers build buy-in and ensure strong benefits?

Mr. Kilama: Using design-thinking principles is a great way to start. While collecting information to define requirements and stakeholders, have the project team meet and interview people with disabilities. The expert on accessibility should be someone with those challenges. The team should even make a site test with that person.

Mr. Lindstedt: Designing with accessibility in mind is how to know if something's missing from your plans. Making spaces as flexible as possible and, if possible, having a contingency budget for propositions outside the original scope, is critical.



Ms. Haddock: The ADA requirements in the U.S. and Canada are now the bare minimum. Now project sponsors, especially city and provincial governments, want and need to go above and beyond to show they're good stewards of the public. That desire provides an opportunity to build in community engagement, consultations with advocates and experts, and contingency funds to address anything your plans may have missed.

What's your biggest lesson learned on accessibility?

Ms. Haddock: You've got to add in time to consult with the right members of the community. You should ask the design team to come up with a list of things they might consider to be a concern from a design perspective, such as information desks, restrooms, lobbies. Then note in your schedule that you'll need time to consult with experts on those issues.

Mr. Cempel: You definitely need strong relationships with outside groups. For example, Amtrak has its own ADA group, but Amtrak also works with groups at the state and city levels to ensure compliance with all standards. Doing so allows the organization to leverage a broader range of experience and expertise to create more comprehensive plans from the beginning.

Mr. Lindstedt: Another thing that tends to get overlooked is that many of the solutions that are designed to be accessible are in many cases also easier and more intuitive to use for people without reduced mobility. Having more space, straighter routes and fewer level changes is good for everyone. When you think about accessible solutions this way, it's an opportunity to make a better design from the beginning. PM

All-In Advocates

Here are five ways project managers can become accessibility champions who educate themselves, raise awareness and lead the way, says Kathryn Rutkowski, PMP, senior program manager, Atlassian, Sydney, Australia.

1 Immerse. Join the company's corporate social responsibility projects. It will serve as a constant reminder of why accessibility should always be on the project radar.

2 Study. Dive deep on accessibility requirements. These standards are free and available on websites for both regional and global rules.

3 Delegate. Designate at least one team member to collect feedback from customers who are unable to access the organization's product or service. Doing so will help expand the accessibility awareness on the team.

4 Double-check. Make accessibility part of your customer experience. The design and build phases should require accessibility testing.

5 Crowdsource. Create focus groups dedicated to accessibility. Be sure to include the most vocal customers to help pretest new features.



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