Can you describe your role for our readers?

My “day job” is as a user researcher for Sallie Mae. I sit with a UX team of ten and support user research needs from across the company. Because I’m a user research team of one, I partner a lot internally.

For the past three years, I have also been leading our accessibility efforts in partnership with our legal and compliance teams. Again, lots of partnering.  My main initiatives in regards to accessibility are raising the awareness of its importance, remediating inaccessible experiences, and integrating accessibility into our process to ensure all new experiences will be fully inclusive.

How would you rate the accessibility maturity at Sallie Mae Bank?

We’re not starting at zero, as we’re actively addressing the importance of accessibility with stakeholders, remediating inaccessible content, and changing our process. But we have plenty of work to do. Based on the Digital Accessibility Maturity Model (DAMM), I would say we’re solidly at the “Managed” stage, working our way to “Defined.”

The Digital Access Maturity Model (DAMM). Source: Level Access.

Part of our process work is establishing standards, prioritizing them based on the project, and being consistent with them in an effort to ensure that for future projects, muscle memory takes over and everyone involved knows what to do.

So is there an accessibility program in place?

Not yet. We worked with a company called Level Access to draft an accessibility policy, which we’re iterating upon now. We’re in the process of putting together a working group that will establish the accessibility program at Sallie Mae more formally.

How do you feel about people who view accessibility solely in terms of compliance?

I think that’s a perfectly acceptable starting position to take. Compliance is very much our approach and perspective – at least at our relatively immature stage of accessibility. We can use the conversations around compliance to start to make the business and ethical cases as well.

I think of it as a maturity model. A company doesn’t move from immature to mature all together. Some stakeholders already understand the importance and can be champions. Others need some help. Likewise, some stakeholders already see the compliance, business, and ethical cases, whereas others might just see compliance. We can use compliance as the anchor for the others in due time.

Do you have a particular example you like to fall back on to convince stakeholders?

I like to focus on how big the population of people with diagnosed disabilities is, and how much bigger the population is with undiagnosed disabilities. The “curb-cut effect” is most pronounced and beneficial for this undiagnosed population.   

Is accessibility a part of CSR or does it deserve its own program?

I think accessibility should be a key part of any CSR program, and also deserves its own program. Accessibility is that important. The ideal, the north star of accessibility, if you will, is when every single person in the organization is proactively thinking not just of accessibility, but inclusion. So to me, having at least two teams thinking deeply about accessibility seems like a step towards that goal.

What is the situation like in the financial services field? Any accessibility role models?

Hmm. In financial services, I think of CSR involving the fiduciary responsibility we have to our customers to act or at least to facilitate behavior in the customer’s best interest. Considering a customer’s abilities in service of that best interest is something I think accessibility can help to facilitate. As far as role models go, I think Barclays does a particularly good job of dealing with accessibility and inclusion. They’ve even developed a set of “diverse personas” that I’ve used in my accessibility work.

Barclay’s Diverse Personas. Source: AbilityNet.

What are some of the biggest accessibility challenges at the moment and how can companies overcome them?

It’s challenging to justify budgets to fix what’s inaccessible, as it takes some work and some thought. I think the perception that accessibility is merely meeting whatever level of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) you’re shooting for is a big challenge.

The standards are there and they’re helpful. But they’re nowhere near enough. It’s very possible to build a completely inaccessible product that meets broad standards. The blog post “Building the most inaccessible site possible with a perfect Lighthouse score” by Manuel Matuzovic shows that well.

To overcome these challenges, businesses should think critically about accessibility on every project, and holistically. If that means starting with WCAG checklists, so be it. Additionally, it’s important to incorporate assistive tech users and people with disabilities in user testing programs.

UXPin’s Jerry Cao argues that products have to be usable and delightful. That’s why we don’t see masses of people wearing a (practical but ugly) fanny pack. What do you think?

I don’t think usability and delightfulness are mutually exclusive. A product can be so usable that it becomes delightful. Cao’s example is a fanny pack and his assumption is that everyone agrees fanny packs are so unfashionable that they could never be delightful. Well, I have a fanny pack. And it is so useful that I find it delightful.

It’s actually a hiking waist pack but it essentially has a similar function to a fanny pack and it’s the perfect size for so many use cases. For example, a day in the city with my kids. It has water bottle holders and just enough space for snacks and sunscreen. Also, I can wear it on my shoulder or around my waist, depending on whether I need it to be secure while hiking or out of my way on the subway.

If you think about Dana Chisnell’s Three Approaches to Delight, I find my fanny pack particularly helpful with “removing the unnecessary.” I need it for the use cases I just described, and no more. It is so efficient in its utility that it delights me.

So would you say usability and accessibility come before aesthetics or are all three equally important?

Usability and accessibility absolutely come before aesthetics. Cao admits so in his article by citing Maslow’s hierarchy of design needs. “Pleasurable” is at the top of the triangle, supported and preceded by “functional,” “reliable,” and “usable.” These foundations have to be met first. Full stop. We’re not pure marketers making things pretty in isolation.

But there are products that are usable, accessible, and aesthetically pleasing.

Sure! The OXO Good Grips products come to mind. They’re designed with comfy, easy-to-grip handles that benefit everyone. But the idea was born when the founder realized how people with arthritis struggle to hold conventional kitchen utensils.

The OXO Good Grips products. Source: OXO.

Accessible playgrounds are another great example. My kids tend to like these more because they’re more fun and interesting than regular old playgrounds. They just visited an accessible playground in Hartford, Connecticut, and were raving about the accessible zipline.

Accessible playscape at Bushnell Park in Hartford. Source: Mark Mirko, Hartford Courant.

Speaking of physical products: Google Maps recently introduced some new features to make mapping out wheelchair-friendly routes easier. What are some other ways companies can use tech to make the physical world more accessible?

I love Google maps. Total map nerd here. I think the key is crowdsourcing useful user information. The AccessNow app is a good example of this, which aims to crowdsource building accessibility information. Integrating crowdsourced accessibility reviews into maps the same way Google does with, say, restaurant reviews would add a very useful service when I’m looking at a map and trying to figure out a good accessible destination – not just a route to get there. 

Do you expect to see more of this in the future, for example at Sallie Mae?

I hope so. Sallie Mae is an online-only bank, so we’re not thinking in the physical world as far as products go. But we should be thinking critically about accessibility and inclusivity in terms of employee experience.

Let’s wrap up with the best piece of accessibility advice you ever got.

Okay, here goes: Whitney Quesenbery, who literally wrote the book on accessibility, says that usability and accessibility are twins separated at birth. Usability took a user research path, which granted it deep insights, but not a lot of power. Accessibility took a legal rights path, which gave it lots of power, but not a lot of love.

A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences. Source: O’Reilly.

This insight is so useful to me, both as a research and as an accessibility lead. Specifically in suggesting ways to raise the visibility of and make a palatable argument for accessibility.

We need the power and authority to make recommendations based on the deep insights of those with disabilities. In the disability community, there is a saying: “nothing about us without us.” I think that’s the path forward for effective accessibility efforts.

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