How to Start Addressing Accessibility Gaps

Accommodating everybody who wants to access your association—staff, members, attendees, and more—involves more than following regulations. It means being open to conversations about who feels excluded, and why.

Associations spend a lot of time thinking about standards. Technical and medical organizations work to establish safe and sensible guidelines for their professions. All manner of associations create certification and credentialing programs to ensure its members have the knowledge required to do their jobs well. And association research departments conduct benchmarking surveys to develop some baseline targets for a variety of initiatives.

With all that standard-setting, it can be hard to hear that whatever it is you’re doing, it’s not enough. But that may be the case when it comes to your association and accessibility.

For the latest set of Association Now Deep Dive stories covering emerging job roles at associations, I spoke with Hillary Pearson, program manager, accessibility services, at the American Library Association. One of her messages to associations is that compliance with standards—in this case, the Americans With Disabilities Act—won’t quite cut it. As she put it to me, “The ADA is the floor, not the ceiling.”

To get on a path to better supporting accessibility, Pearson recommends a holistic approach, of two sorts. One is to ensure that every leader in an organization is looking at their work through an accessibility lens—to explicitly ask how accessibility issues impact everyone. The second is to do a broad accounting of cases where accessibility challenges exist. For your annual conference, that includes ensuring that people with disabilities can navigate the convention center. But does your conference’s website have a place where people can contact staff about accommodations? Are you asking attendees about that experience after the conference is over? And how accessible is that conference content you’ll be reusing throughout the year?

“The ADA is the floor, not the ceiling.”

Hillary Pearson, American Library Association

Perhaps just as important: Who isn’t coming to your event because of these challenges? In a recent Forbes piece, writer Diane Winiarski noted how compassionate leaders tend to experience higher productivity and lower turnover, and are generally more effective. A true test of that compassion, she notes, comes with responding to the kind of issues staff, members, and attendees may struggle to disclose: diminished hearing and vision, non-neurotypical behavior, mental health issues, and more.

“Sometimes disclosing a disability can be very difficult for an individual—especially if it is an invisible disability or one that is not immediately noticeable,” Winiarski writes. “These types of disabilities can cause misconceptions, even unfair judgments, from others.”

Addressing these challenges should be seen as opportunities to improve wellness across the organization, and good advice abounds about how to do it. But first, ALA’s Pearson says, don’t get intimidated by the scope of the work involved. “Fear is still a huge barrier—not knowing where to start or thinking that if you don’t get it 100 percent right the first time, it’s a failure,” she said. “You’re making incremental change. What can you do now? What can you do in five years?”

The answers to those questions will differ across associations. But here the baseline standard is clear: Intentionality, and a determination to uncover, understand, and address the accessibility gaps across your organization.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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