Project Management Institute

Projects for a More Accessible World

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

The World Bank estimates 1 billion people experience some form of disability. That means accessibility can no longer be an afterthought. It must be built in to how teams approach every project—helping them deliver more value to everyone.

KATHRYN RUTKOWSKI

The challenge is to change the lens from being purely regulatory and companies taking the, “Let’s limit our liability” view and do the bare minimum to, “Actually, no. These customers who need more help are the absolute perfect test case to ensure we have inclusive design across all of our product offering.”

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

One of the signature achievements of 21st-century design is that we’ve finally decided to make a priority out of making our physical and digital environments accessible to all. Historically, people with physical and mental disabilities have been sidelined or forced to develop their own accommodations just to enter a building, use a product or myriad other everyday things that many people take for granted. But, growing awareness and concern, along with legislation such as the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006 and 2019’s European Accessibility Act, have led to a world that aspires to be more accommodating to all.

We’re not there yet, though. One new global survey by U.S. accessibility firm Level Access found that digital accessibility efforts within the majority of organizations are relatively new, spinning up only within the last decade. The efforts are also small, with three or fewer people working primarily on accessibility in most companies.

Today we’ll talk to two accessibility experts, one whose work is focused on the digital world and the other on the built environment, to hear about the state of accessibility as well as what project teams can do to better address its challenges.

Our sponsor for this episode is PMTraining.com. From live, virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

Now to Sydney, Australia, where Kathryn Rutkowski is a senior program manager at software giant Atlassian. Her interest in accessibility started with a very personal connection—her brother is visually impaired. Kathryn’s awareness of her brother’s experience led her to champion accessibility on projects and teams.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

How do you build an accessibility sensibility into project teams? You mentioned in a PM Network® piece that you can either add a specialist to your team or grow your own—designate someone to become that expert. So, couple questions: Why is it important to have a full-timer advocating for accessibility concerns, as opposed to just having a check later on in the process? And what’s the best way to constantly make use of that knowledge?

KATHRYN RUTKOWSKI

You’re right in saying the answer is a bit of both. So initially, when the team is uncomfortable or just doesn’t have the training yet around what is accessibility and what does it mean to them, by bringing in an expert, it could be someone external to the company if the whole company needs that information. But if it’s literally bringing in someone to the project who knows a little more than everyone else, I’d say there are SMEs in your company who can absolutely help with that. Usually, corporate sustainability are pretty great at helping you out with what they know so far and the accessibility issues that the company has faced or, alternatively, someone from the complaints team. There’s someone who’s an SME who knows how to deal with this, with accessibility issues. And given everything is digital these days, there’ll always be someone in one of the technical teams who fixes these problems as well. And I would say seek them out to advise the project teams on what are the main issues that are being faced, therefore what are the priority issues that need to be fixed and also, what are the things they should be looking out for in their roles.

The other reason I would use the experts is to create a view per role of what effect the checklists you mentioned. If I’m in marketing, for example, what do I need to know about accessibility? For example, if I’m creating video for the web, does it have closed captions? Have I got voiceover? Is it just a video with music? Well, that doesn’t necessarily help someone who can’t see. If I’m in a development role and I’m literally writing code, what do I need to know about the templates that I’m using to create those different panels on a website so that a screen reader can find the action buttons? There is absolutely ways of doing that easily and properly.

And then going right through to the complaints team. How do you speak to someone who has a disability? Are there things you should and shouldn’t say? Are there ways they prefer to be addressed? The language you use can cause offense, and obviously you don’t want to do that. So for each different role in the team, pulling together a checklist of what makes sense for the type of work you’re doing so that each person has that just checklist of maybe 10 points. So they’re confident they’re addressing accessibility all the way through their work and they’re not shooting themselves in the foot.

One of the things I as a project manager that I like to ensure doesn’t happen on my projects is don’t create more work for yourself when you don’t need to. And one of those things, I call it just don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Don’t create more problems. And accessibility for me falls into one of those buckets because if you don’t know what you’re doing in that space and you haven’t educated yourself, you could absolutely be contributing to a wider problem and you’re not aware of it. And I just think: We’re in 2020. This information is available to everyone in their hands. Literally, anyone listening right now can just go into Google and type in WCAG 2.1, and the Web Accessibility Standards are right there. The checklists are right there.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

With projects and accessibility, you want to create an optimized experience, but there’s also a framework in place—like you said, there are standards, checklists and even laws in place in Australia and around the world to meet specific accessibility guidelines. How does the pure design side and the compliance side work together to create the best possible result?

KATHRYN RUTKOWSKI

I worked with the Centre for Inclusive Design here in Australia. I had them come in and do some talks for my team in Atlassian. They basically had a really nice idea, which is if you design for the outliers of your group, you’re actually creating a better experience for everyone. And the way they framed it was this—think of accessibility customers not as someone with a disability, because that I think makes people think a certain thing about, it’s such a small subset, which it’s not, but I’ll get to that in a sec. But if you think about anyone who has a difficulty rather than a disability, if you think about all the people in your life who might have a difficulty with using a website, whether it’s the font size, whether it’s they’ve got a problem with arthritis and they can’t use a mouse properly or they maybe have a cognitive disability and they just don’t retain information well, so you might give them an instruction, but they can’t follow it necessarily; they might have multiple languages they speak in, and what is their native language and how are you instructing them to do things through a process?

There’s lots of ways that someone might have a difficulty in using your service. The thing is, if you’re following a good design practice and a project manager who’s involved in a deep-design-thinking maybe type of project, you’re already tackling those problems for personas. So the thing is why not have a difficulty persona, someone who has different difficulties? Then I think A, it’s easy to understand how to design for them, and B, you’re also solving the problem of accessibility without it being this big new piece of information that people feel nervous about.

But for the most part, I’ve found people just want to do the right thing, and they want to help, and they want to know they’ve done a good job. The thing is if they don’t know, then it’s the project manager or product manager’s job to make sure that they are disseminating that information and they are making sure the teams are doing really good work.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Speaking of people wanting to do the right thing, you’re part of a group that helped solve accessibility issues at Atlassian. Tell me about that.

KATHRYN RUTKOWSKI

So Atlassian’s, one of their things is called ShipIt Days. I’ve been part of a group of people who are pushing forward the accessibility agenda within the company, just to get up to date and just create more visibility and knowledge as the company grew; obviously there’s more and more people in the company every week. So just creating greater visibility. What we did was we basically commandeered one of the ShipIts. So the one that happened earlier this year while everyone was in lockdown, which was fortuitous because everyone was remote. Everyone was on a level playing field. It was quite interesting to see the ideas that came out of the ShipIt.

And for those who don’t know what a ShipIt is, it’s basically the company gives us 48 hours to solve any problem we like. We form teams. We solve a problem. You have to have, it’s called ShipIt because the thing you build has to be a working prototype. It can’t just be an idea like on a white board. It needs to be coded and working. Basically, the rest of the company votes on it. You go through multiple rounds, and whoever wins ShipIt, I mean, obviously you get adulation and glory, but basically those solutions get shipped into Atlassian’s code.

I think there were 27 different teams across the globe who came up with really useful accessibility tools, and absolutely the winners were deployed into the code for Jira. It was basically a faster way to implement alt text into Jira code.

What really struck me was the amount of people who don’t necessarily have a connection to accessibility or someone in their family, and they just wanted to make things better. Obviously, some people in the company are super passionate about it and drive it forward just through sheer will. But to have the whole company behind solving these problems, it probably pushed forward our accessibility program of work forward by six months in two days. And that’s the power of I guess getting a group of people behind an idea that helps people, is you can get these massive leaps forward.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What’s the next frontier? What do you think is possible but underachieved so far that you’re the most excited about trying to either get as a particular organization or team, but just see delivered more broadly over the next couple years?

KATHRYN RUTKOWSKI

What I would like to see or what I am starting to see is accessibility not being a separate thing. Just being part of the standard release. Just being part of the standard suite of tools that are available, not a separate discussion at all. By it just being part of your day to day, it’s just part of an agile guild, it’s just part of what you do, it will become less of a separate discussion. And it won’t be a matter of, “Oh, hang on, does the alt text still work?” It won’t even be a question in future because it would just be there.

So I’m looking forward to a day where I can just create a Word document, and all the accessibility stuff is just there and I just have to toggle it on or off. Or I can create a website on maybe Wix or Shopify or wherever, and the accessibility stuff is just there and again, toggle it on or off. In the same way that Apple led the charge back in the day, and you can just toggle the accessibility stuff on or off if you need it.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

When U.S. architect and designer Michael Graves became disabled late in life, it sparked a newfound attention on accessibility at his firm, Michael Graves Architecture & Design. I spoke to one of the people who took up the challenge: architect Matt Ligas, a principal in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office.

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MATT LIGAS

I joined the firm in 2001. I always state that it was kind of my graduate degree, getting a chance to work with Michael Graves and really understanding the way he thought about design and domesticity of design and democratization of design, whether it be product design, master planning or architecture. I really was interested in learning from him. And two years after joining the firm, Michael became paralyzed. And it really was a profound experience for him, obviously, but as well as the whole design staff, really, working with him as he went through rehabilitation and watching him change the way he thought about design and spaces that we create and products that we designed. You couldn’t help but be influenced by seeing the impact on his personal life and the way it affected the way he thought about design in our practice.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How did that experience translate into your design process?

MATT LIGAS

I think one of the core foundational elements of our office, the design, the way we think about design, the way Michael thought about design, was the humanist side of it. And really understanding that we’re designing, whether it’s spaces, master plans, whether it’s buildings or whether it’s objects, that at the end, we’re designing spaces for people. And it’s important for us to understand how they interact with those objects, those spaces, the buildings themselves.

I think that kind of permeates everything that we do as an office and the way we thought about things. Obviously, it changes a bit when your life really changes from being able-bodied to being in a wheelchair. I think it was an evolution of thinking about the human experience. It wasn’t like we weren’t considering that ahead of his being paralyzed, but I think it really shined a light on that and really focused his attention and our firm’s attention to it.

I think many designers think about accessibility from a code standpoint or the minimum standpoint, and I think it really, the shift is really thinking about it early on in design as almost a programming element like you do sustainability now or meeting a client’s programmatic needs.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

One of your projects where accessibility has really been at the forefront is the Accessible Military Housing project, formerly called the Wounded Warrior Home project. You’ve worked on this with CRC Companies, and you’re designing accessible homes for service members or family members with disabilities. Tell me about that project and how you got involved.

MATT LIGAS

As part of housing at military bases, they’re required to have 5 percent of the military housing be accessible. And I think for a long time it was a bit of check the box and make sure they’re meeting the requirements. They had the foresight to say, “Let’s really focus on this, address this” and brought us to the table, obviously, with Michael’s experience. And I think we were able to really elevate the way they thought about it and, ultimately, the way the military families were treated. And I think it’s really a great story. And ultimately, they had to have the desire to really push the envelope.

We built the two homes in 2011, and they were around 3,000 square feet. Fast-forward around 2017, we started looking at what we called version 2.0 of the Wounded Warriors Home or the Accessible Home with CRC. And it started with doing an interview of the occupants of the homes on Fort Belvoir, and we met with upwards of 20 families over a three-, four-day period. We spent about an hour with them. We walked through the homes with them. We talked about what they liked, what they didn’t like, what the challenges were, ways that they thought they could improve the space.

I think designers often feel like we have all the answers. But I think sometimes if you sit back and listen, you actually come up with really interesting solutions based on things that are being told to you by the occupants. After that interview, we’ve started designing the second round of homes, and 24 of them will be built in Fort Belvoir starting this fall, and we’re also building eight homes in Monterey, California. It’s been a great relationship and it’s an evolution. And I think not only pushing the boundaries initially but our clients’ desire to constantly reevaluate and question decisions that we’ve made in the past as a team to say, “Can we do this better?”

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What are a couple of the insights that came out of those user experience interviews, and how do those translate into the version 2 designs

MATT LIGAS

Some of it’s what we hear and some of it’s what we see. Storage is a big need, in providing ample storage and storage that’s at shallow depth, closets, cabinets, etc., that’s readily accessible is important. There’s a lot of products that go along with taking care of people that have disabilities and really understanding how can we create spaces that support that.

I think some of the other ones were really just subtle things that are no different than your life or my life. The idea of wanting to cook together. So creating kitchens a little bit larger so that multiple people could be in the kitchen at the same time and an open plan where the kitchen and the family room while you’re cooking dinner, you can watch over the kids while they’re playing or watching TV, etc. Those needs were no different.

Some of the other subtle things that we saw were just the ability to be able to control the climate better in the homes. Oftentimes with some disabilities, you can have trouble modulating your internal temperature, body temperature. We created zones that were serving both the bedroom wings as well as what we call the public side of the house, the living, dining, kitchen areas. And so they’re on two separate zones so that we could have very good controllability of temperature throughout the home.

There’s a whole host of other things that you need to think about, from PTSD to, like I mentioned, the modulating of body temperature, sensibility to light. It’s a complex issue, and I think the more you are around the occupants of the homes and listen to the way they are using the homes, it helps you to think about it in a more holistic manner and come up with solutions that ultimately cater to a larger population.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How would you rate the state of accessibility?

MATT LIGAS

As an eternal optimist, I think we’re doing better than we ever have. I do believe that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Oftentimes, when you are talking with someone, and whether it’s a client or whether it’s another designer, the conversation of, “Well, we meet accessibility” comes up as if meeting accessibility is good enough.

I think that’s becoming less and less common. So I think that’s a great thing. And I think the more that clients are demanding it—the baby boomer generation is going to speak with their wallets, and they’re going to demand aging gracefully in place. And I think designers are going to become much better at designing for accessibility because of that.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

So how do you do that on a project-by-project basis? And how would you recommend that this concern remains top of mind or at least well addressed?

MATT LIGAS

Well, I think the architect plays a key role in that. I think it’s our job to remind our clients of the moral responsibility as well as the legal responsibility. I think the way you do it is early on in project. Oftentimes, we have LEED kickoff meetings, and we’re talking about sustainability. Why can’t you have that [accessibility] as part of a conversation in a kickoff meeting?

I think then the follow through, it’s like any other good project management: identify the goals, monitor progress, tour best-in-class spaces. People are doing it really well. Oftentimes, you find it doesn’t necessarily cost more. It’s just being more attuned to it and really being creative.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

To truly embed accessibility into design, project leaders need to aim for more than mere compliance. They’ll need genuine attention and empathy for the ways in which people with disabilities will engage with—or perhaps struggle to engage with—the things we build. That starts with a decision: committing to making accessibility part of our process and to consider the experiences of people with disabilities, just as we do with other end-user categories. What you’ll likely find is that designing for accessibility isn’t just an added layer of requirements, but a new framework that will lead to better design, with better results.

Our sponsor for this episode is PMTraining.com. From live, virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

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