The Accessibility Maturity Lifecycle

Posted on Monday, 5 October 2020 by Marissa Sapega

When we talk about the accessibility lifecycle, you may associate it with having a beginning and an endpoint. While every organization clearly needs a starting point for accessibility, there is not necessarily a “final destination.”

“Accessible” is not an endpoint

Think of the drive for business profitability. Is there ever an “end” to that? (One would hope not, or you wouldn’t be in business for long!) Or the goal of cultivating an inclusive and supportive work culture—also an ongoing project.

While these objectives may play out as part of a lifecycle, they are without a set endpoint. Accessibility is the same way. An organization may undertake different initiatives during different stages of the lifecycle, but it continues without end.

Accessibility Maturity

Accessibility maturity relates to the extent to which an organization manages accessibility as a quality in its long term strategy and day-to-day activity. Increasing accessibility maturity means being more deliberate in paying attention to accessibility across all aspects of organizational activity. It means being proactive rather than reactive, considering accessibility as an opportunity for supporting innovation and growth, and not only a risk to be managed.

What is the accessibility maturity process?

An organization can measure its current level of accessibility maturity to identify a desired future state and a plan for moving towards that future state. A simple measure of accessibility maturity is the Accessible Design Maturity Continuum, emphasizing that accessibility improvement is a continual process.

Accessibility maturity can also be mapped to the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI). It is a process level improvement training and appraisal program administered by the CMMI Institute.

CMMI defines five levels of maturity:

  • Level One: Initial
  • Level Two: Managed
  • Level Three: Defined
  • Level Four: Quantitatively Managed
  • Level Five: Optimizing

Let’s break them down.

Level One: Initial

In this stage, an organization has little to no understanding of accessibility or its benefits beyond a sense that it is probably “good” to have accessible content. No one has made an effort to evaluate the accessibility of the firm’s digital assets, it’s highly unlikely anyone has heard of WCAG, and the organization as a whole has not been exposed to independent subject matter expertise on the topic.

If your organization seems to be at this level, don’t fret. Everyone has to start somewhere. Unless an organization was created with accessibility in mind, it’s very possible every organization that can claim substantial conformance today started at this level.

Level Two: Managed

Similar to Level One, organizations at this level still lack full comprehension about the magnitude of what accessibility encompasses. They may be vaguely aware of it; there may be one or two employees who have become de-facto accessibility specialists without the authority to influence decision-making. The organization may have engaged with a vendor or undergone some level of accessibility evaluation on a one-off basis, but overall, accessibility is seen as a low priority.

Many organizations will recognize this level as a description of their accessibility maturity. The very fact that awareness about accessibility exists or the organization has undergone an evaluation in the past is a positive indicator that things have and can move in the right direction.

Level Three: Defined

At this level, organizations have made clear progress towards becoming more accessible, giving some a false sense of completion. They’ve fixed some things and have garnered some internal buy-in at the department level. At this point, most organizations transition from the mindset of accessibility as a “project” (i.e., a fixed endpoint) to a program, which is seen as ongoing.

Companies at this phase are at an exciting juncture where accessibility initiatives can really take off. The ball is now rolling; at this point, organizations require new efforts to keep pushing accessibility forward, ensure they maintain the progress achieved thus far in a sustainable way, and avoid losing cumulative knowledge and skills.

Level Four: Quantitatively Managed

It is possible for organizations that reach this level to become complacent. They’re committed to accessibility, with clear ownership for initiatives, and possess processes and tools to monitor the current state and measure progress. However, accessibility may remain siloed, somewhat reactive, and responsibility for accessibility may not yet be widespread throughout the organization.

This can be a dangerous level for an organization that is striving to fully embrace accessibility. For some stakeholders, what the organization has already achieved is significant and seems like “enough.” If key accessibility stakeholders and internal advocates stop pushing at this level, and if accessibility is not embedded in all processes that affect the organization’s digital properties, there is a risk of a slow decline in accessibility over time. Not to mention that the organization will never reach its full accessibility potential and take advantage of the concomitant benefits.

Level Five: Optimizing

At the highest level of accessibility maturity, an organization actively considers accessibility when defining organization strategy and implementing processes and procedures. The entire organization is committed to accessibility, starting with senior leadership. Accessibility is integrated into the earliest stage of the product lifecycle. All employees with responsibilities for digital content have accessibility as a formal responsibility, have undergone accessibility training, and have resources to fall back on when they encounter a problem.

Looking Level Five’s scope, it may seem daunting to reach this level. But, as mentioned earlier, every organization at this level started somewhere. It takes long-term commitment (and potentially support) from a partner to reach this level, but it is entirely possible for every firm to get there.

Where is my organization on the Accessibility Maturity Lifecycle?

Good question! While you may have an inkling of where your organization falls by reading the descriptions above, most firms rarely slot neatly into one level at first glance. Fortunately, The Paciello Group can help you determine where you are and which products and services will best support your progression to future levels.

Through our accessibility strategy service, we can conduct a comprehensive current state assessment of your accessibility maturity, help you identify a vision of a desired future state, and provide a roadmap for helping you move to that future state. Every organization is unique, so our process involves working with you to identify specific challenges and opportunities that an organizational accessibility strategy should address.

We can also provide specific activities to support organizations as they work to improve their accessibility maturity over time. These include:

  1. Independent asset review (manual accessibility review)
  2. Remediation support – this can be in the form of our on-demand HelpDesk, on-site support, or remote assistance
  3. Role-based training
  4. Design, policy, and process training
  5. Ongoing website accessibility monitoring
  6. User research and usability testing with people with disabilities

No matter the level at which your organization currently sits, there is support available to help you move forward. Contact us today to learn more about how we can create a strategy to take you from your current level to your desired one in a way that works best for your company.


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