Go Tell It On The Mountain— Spreading the Word about Your Accessibility Work

Heather Mariger

So you have been working on your web accessibility plan — you have administrative buy-in and an accessibility steering committee, you have a timeline and a scope of work, you know your priorities and have identified important metrics and milestones, you even have a budget and training schema. It is bound to succeed! You will have success with your accessible web presence in no time, right?

But what if you threw an accessibility party and nobody came? The best plan in the world is useless if people don‘t know about it. Promotion and communication efforts are often overlooked when developing an accessibility plan. Yet, publicity is crucial if that plan is going to succeed!

You need a plan to promote and communicate your work as systematically as the other aspects of your accessibility plan. Unlike the days of Martin Luther, nailing an announcement on the doors of the student union is not going to cut it. You need to provide ongoing, targeted and multi-formatted information if you want a campus full of busy faculty, staff and students to notice, let alone pay attention. In other words, you need a communications strategy.

The following are some things to think about when developing that strategy:

Who do you want to tell?

There is a lot of information that needs to get out to about your accessibility plan. Some of these things everyone will need to know—messages about the importance of web accessibility and the fact that your leadership is committed to accessibility are things that should be shared with the campus community. You may even want to share your plans and periodic updates with the community at large to publicize your commitment to full student inclusion and diversity.

However, not all communication is useful or helpful across the board. Too much information or communiqués on aspects of the plan that don‘t pertain to the reader can overload a person and cause them to tune out. Planning targeted messages lets you get the right information to the people who need it. Different stakeholder groups want (and need) only the information that pertains to them and their role in the greater accessibility plan. Some groups you will want to target include:

Now that you know who you want to tell...

What do you want to tell them—and when?

You have so much you want to share—it is important stuff! But, keep in mind that everyone is busy (and likely distracted) so you need to get their attention, get to the point, and provide information that is specific, quantifiable, or actionable—all in easy to digest bites.

Communicating your process is not a onetime event; it is ongoing and timeliness is key. Your audience will need up to date information as the plan progresses or evolves. Always consider the purpose of the communication: Is it informational? Instructional? A reminder? Consider if what they need to know affects how much you should include and when you should send it? Also consider when it will be most useful to the recipient? If it is information on training, you need to provide enough time that people can get it on their schedules but not so much that they forget about it. If it is an announcement about a new tutorial on making course materials accessible, faculty will need to get the message before they have already created those materials. Creating a timeline for your messages as part of your plan can save headaches down the road.

There are a lot of different messages that you may want to send along the way. Your plan should start off with an initial kick-off and awareness campaign. Crucial to this is letting the different target groups know how the plan will affect them—what will be expected from them, what deadlines will they need to meet, what support is available and any other policy or procedures that they need to know about.

You may want to share this information in chunks—instead of everything at once, you could share information about the plan (and how it affects them) a slice at time. Each week, or month of the year, you could share a new piece such as:

Once you have let everyone know about the plan, you have only just begun. You will want to share actionable advice to groups. For example you might send a blast email to faculty and staff members that say; “Did you know that using the heading styles in your Word toolbar helps create a document that will be accessible once placed onto the web?” Periodic useful tips and FAQs serve as prompts and can let people know that there is support for them in the process.

You will also want to send targeted communication to keep people apprised of progress—essentially letting them know how the plan is going. Spot updates on the good and the challenging will keep people engaged. When formal results are available, let people know; if they feel they are a partner in the work, they are more likely to participate.

Spotlight some of your communications on good work or on what other groups are doing. This can motivate and reward those who are doing a good job and foster a sense of unity across the different target groups. You can also use your messages to recruit and advise. Encourage people to advocacy and to get involved in the implementation plan and process.

Finally, send out reminders of upcoming deadlines and opportunities. Help your audience track important dates. A timely reminder about an upcoming milestone is more likely to generate success than trying to get results once a date has already passed.

How do you tell them?

Now that you know the who, the what and the when—don‘t forget the how. The form that your communication takes is every bit as critical as the rest of the process. There are two things that you need to consider when deciding on the best format to use: the audience and the message. You need to take both into account when planning the “how” of your strategy.

For example, Social media is a great way to engage students—you can use it to pique their interest and direct them to learn more—however, Tweeting substantive content might not fit in the 140 character limit; depending on what you want to say, this medium might just be silly. Likewise, while your campus may have a Facebook page, a memo from the office of the President on the accessibility initiative might seem out of place. However, a campus wide email with that same memo could hit the sweet spot. You want your medium to resonate with the targeted recipients and focus on details that impact them directly.

Plan to use a variety of formats to get the word out. Much like multi-modal learning, different people use and react differently to different methods of delivery—by doubling (or tripling up) you will be able to reach a larger portion of your target market. However, you can go too far in trying to ensure that your message is going out - you need to find a good balance between informing and annoying.

The following is a list of possible formats for dissemination. Please keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list but it will hopefully stimulate your creative juices and help you to start thinking about how you can leverage the different options available at your institution:

When it comes to getting the message out—be creative!

Some examples

The following are some examples of communication plans. Not all of the examples come from higher education but they still provide useful models to work from:

Agency of All Good Things - Accessibility Implementation Communication Plan(pdf) - a great analysis of audiences and key messages

California State University, Northridge - Web Accessibility Implementation Plan(pdf) - from 2007 but still relevant - Section 8 deals with communication. Also check out Cal State Northridge‘s Communications and Implementation Plans website

An 8-Step Process for Creating Effective Internal Communication Plans(pdf) from Strategic Communications provides a good overview of the process of developing the message and determining the audience

Conclusion

Each institution is different and you will need to develop a communication plan that works for your situation. However, if you remember the basics of audience, message, timing, and format, you have all the tools necessary to create a successful strategy for your institution. Also remember that you have an additional trick up your sleeve—get your campus marketing or communications department involved. They have resources, insight, and a lot of experience, getting the word out. After all, the more voices shouting from that mountain, the better.