Stop trying to recruit unicorns with acorns

Craig Abbott
17 min readJan 19, 2024
A unicorn running. Its back legs are supported by wheels, much like a wheelchair harness for dogs. It’s surrounded by bursts of rainbow colours.

Picture this. A job advert for an electrician.

The skills required for the job, as you’d expect, state that you need to be a fully qualified electrician.

However, when you read on, they also expect you to be an expert in plastering, paving, plumbing, joinery, tree surgery, landscape architecture, and gas fitting. All for half the salary of a bricklayer.

Absurd, right?

These roles are all required to build a house and make it compliant with regulations, but they all demand different skills and expertise. You wouldn’t hire 1 person to build you a complete house on their own, and to the standard that is required.

Yet, this is exactly the baffling landscape we’re seeing today in job adverts for accessibility specialists. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what we actually do, coupled with an underestimation of our value.

I want to talk a bit about why these job adverts often miss the mark, and highlight some of the examples that have left accessibility professionals both frustrated and undermined.

The problems with recruitment

Many organisations seem to view accessibility through a narrow lens. They do not recognise the breadth and depth of expertise that is required to create a well rounded accessibility role.

We had a similar situation 10 to 15 years ago, when start-ups were constantly trying to hire a single person that could do visual design, user experience (UX) design and software development.

This results in bloated job adverts hunting for somebody who likely does not exist in the job market. A mythical creature. A legend. Their reputation transcends the entire industry, yet nobody has managed to find a real one. Hence the term ‘unicorn’.

The unicorn fallacy

The reason people want unicorns, like everything, boils down to money.

There is a general view that if you find a unicorn it costs less. Basically, people are wanting to pay 1 person to do the job of 3, or more in some cases.

In reality, what you often get is 1 person who is ineffective in several areas because their skill set is too shallow for the responsibilities they’ve been given.

Unfortunately, something similar is now happening in the accessibility industry, and it often rides off the reactive nature of how people approach accessibility in the first place. A common pattern I see is this:

  1. An organisation fails an audit or gets some bad press about its lack of accessibility, so their hand is forced to do something.
  2. They sign off on hiring 1 lone accessibility specialist, and they fully expect this maverick to fix all their problems.
  3. They don’t see the value when comparing the role to a mature practice, like software engineering, so they shoe-horn it in and pitch it at junior level so they can pay less.
  4. They dump all of their accessibility problems and unrealistic expectations into their ‘key responsibilities’ section of the job advert, creating a bloated incomprehensible mess.
  5. The person who gets the role is ultimately overworked, underpaid, burns out and leaves the organisation and possibly the industry having made minimal impact.

It largely stems from ignorance. A lack of respect for accessibility as a whole, and a lack of understanding of accessibility as a specialism.

The misinterpretation of accessibility roles

Accessibility, at its heart, is about building environments, services, and products accessible to everyone, regardless of their impairments or circumstances.

It’s an essential role in any organisation. But the skill set required will vary massively depending on whether you need a web specialist, a mobile app specialist, a document specialist or you need somebody to assess the physical spaces in your building.

There will be a massive difference in the experience, skills and expertise of somebody who can tell you if a session timeout meets the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and somebody who can tell you if the incline on your wheelchair ramp is the correct ratio to meet the building regulations.

Think of it like this. A cardiothoracic surgeon and a general practitioner (GP) are both doctors. Right? But they have very different specialisms. I bet there aren’t many people that would be cool having open-heart surgery if they thought their GP was just going to crack open their chest and give it a go!

With the same logic, people shouldn’t be ok with a document accessibility specialist just signing off on a physical space being compliant with local laws and building regulations, and vice versa.

In a lot of organisations, if you have the word accessibility somewhere in your job description, you’re fully expected to just know everything about accessibility. Which, of course, is ridiculous.

Types of accessibility specialist

Most accessibility specialists will all have skills which revolve around user-centricity and inclusion. But the actual skills they need in their industry and their role will vary massively.

As I’ll outline repeatedly in this post, most organisations will just mash several of these into 1 job role, but the reason I’m highlighting them separately is because there are separate certifications for each one. So, the accessibility industry very much views them as different skill sets.

Digital accessibility specialist

Digital accessibility is a complex field, demanding in-depth knowledge of markup languages, UX design, interaction design, assistive technologies, use of colour and imagery, typography, layout, and an understanding of how disabilities affect usability.

You will need to know how to assess websites and mobile applications against WCAG, and how to articulate your findings to colleagues. You will also need to understand one or more of the following,

The certification for a digital or web accessibility specialists would be ‘ Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS)’.

Document accessibility specialist

Document accessibility shares some similarities, like use of colour and layout. But instead of markup languages, you need an in-depth knowledge of different formats and different tools like Microsoft Office or Google Drive.

You will need to know how to make presentations, documents and spreadsheets accessible. And ultimately, you have to be able to shout very loudly at anybody that uses PDFs. Just kidding! You don’t have to shout. Swearing is fine.

The certification for a document accessibility specialist would be ‘ Accessible Document Specialist (ADS)’.

Architectural accessibility specialist

An architectural accessibility specialist, required for physical spaces, again may have overlaps like use of colour and layout. But, when we talk about layout, the context has completely changed as you’re now talking about the positioning of physical objects.

You will likely need an understanding of different regulations and laws, architectural design principles, and an understanding of different materials and their properties, such as their acoustics and whether they will interfere with hearing loops.

The certification for an architectural accessibility specialist would be ‘ Certified Professional in Accessible Built Environments (CPABE)’.

Other accessibility specialists

You might also come across other types of accessibility specialists who have expertise in areas such as transport, healthcare, communications, tactile maps, and event organisation.

I guess, the point I’m trying to make is that for pretty much every industry, it has its own nuances, and therefore requires its own specialists when it comes to accessibility.

That’s not to say you can’t get a specialist who can cover different areas competently. Many senior accessibility specialists can, and are qualified to do so. But, they should be fairly compensated for the level of experience they bring, and sadly, that just is not happening.

The accessibility pay gap

The lack of understanding around what an accessibility specialist does spills over into compensation, leading to a massive discrepancy between roles despite having a lot of overlapping skills.

Again, if we take a mature practice like frontend engineering. When we look at Glassdoor or LinkedIn, organisations are offering around £50,000 to £70,000 per year for a working level candidate, and they specify a foundational skill set that includes HTML, CSS and Javascript.

Now, if you do the same for an accessibility specialist, at the time of writing this post, the average salary for a working level accessibility specialist, if you can even find an advert with a salary listed, is usually around £30,000 to £40,000 per year. Most of the time they don’t even advertise the salary because they’re ashamed of how low it is, it just says ‘competitive’.

The lack of job adverts which expect you to apply without knowing the salary range is a huge problem too, but that is another rant for another day.

In most cases the salary for an accessibility specialist is around half or two-thirds the salary of a frontend engineer. Yet, the advert will still specify that you must have a foundational skill set that includes HTML, CSS and Javascript. Because you have to find, explain and often fix the problems created by the frontend engineer that’s getting paid twice as much!

Maybe it’s because the benefits of software engineering are immediately evident in the digital products we use every day, whereas the impact of accessibility work, although profound, is more subtle and often goes unnoticed by the majority.

Or, perhaps accessibility is systemically undervalued because it is for, and often implemented by people with disabilities. Which makes it a role rife for discrimination.

Unrealistic requirements

The demands in job adverts for accessibility specialists are often unrealistic, listing requirements that would take a lifetime to master.

Here are 3 sets of responsibilities taken from 3 different job adverts for an accessibility specialist which I’ve ranted about over the past 12 months.

Note that they all pretty much expect you to be a software engineer with additional skills and qualifications, yet the salary is substantially less.

Role 1

Salary:
£42,000

Requirements:

  • IAAP Accessibility Core Competencies certification.
  • IAAP Web Accessibility Specialist certification.
  • 2 years experience managing a team.
  • Proficient in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and WAI-ARIA.
  • Proficient in agile methodologies (Scrum)
  • Familiarity with modern web frameworks (React, Angular).
  • Familiarity with mobile development (Flutter).
  • Proficient using a broad range of Assistive Technologies for auditing (Dragon NaturallySpeaking, JAWS and ZoomText).
  • Experience with accessibility hardware (Braille Displays).
  • Understanding of accessibility evaluation tools and methods in both web, native mobile and desktop environments.

My comments:
This is the role of 2 to 4 people. An accessibility specialist, a frontend developer, a mobile app developer, and potentially a delivery manager. The salary at £42,000 is not reflective of the management responsibilities or expectations of what looks like a lead level role.

Role 2

Salary:
£35,000

Requirements:

  • Proficient in WCAG 2.2 and WAI-ARIA
  • Proficient in Universal Design principles and UX
  • Proficient in Jira ticket and project management
  • Proficient in applying WCAG within different technologies (HTML, CSS and JavaScript etc…)
  • Proficient in React Development
  • Proficient in Flutter Development
  • Proficient in Microsoft Office accessibility
  • Experience using screen readers and other assistive technology
  • Experience working with Design Systems
  • Experience working with Agile Methodologies
  • Experience working in a large organisation, preferably e-commerce

My comments:
This is the role of 4 or 5 people. An accessibility specialist, a frontend developer, a mobile app developer, a UX designer, and potentially a delivery manager. The salary at £35,000 is less than the previous example, and while it might not be a lead level role, it’s probably a senior role based on the breadth and depth of skills they’re looking for.

Role 3

Salary:
£38,000

Requirements:

  • IAAP certified.
  • HTML, CSS, Javascript.
  • Proficient in React.
  • Proficient in Swift / IOS.
  • Demonstrable experience managing an entire accessibility team
  • Demonstrable experience of creating a vision and strategy for accessibility.
  • Demonstrable experience of implementation of accessibility standards.
  • Demonstrable experience assessing products and services using a range of techniques assistive technologies and providing fixes for accessibility bugs.
  • Demonstrable experience of creating training and educating stakeholders on accessibility.
  • Demonstrable experience in creating accessible documents such as Word, PowerPoint and PDF.
  • Demonstrable experience conducting WCAG audits to level AA.
  • Experience writing guidance and advice on latest accessibility standards.
  • Technical expertise in accessible design and UX.
  • GitHub Project Management.

My comments:
Again, this is the role of 4 or 5 people. An accessibility specialist, a frontend developer, a mobile app developer, a product manager, and potentially a training manager. The salary at £38,000 is not reflective of this responsibilities and expectations of this lead level role.

The Ripple Effect

The salaries and unrealistic expectations with these job adverts have far-reaching consequences.

Firstly, they perpetuate the idea that accessibility is not important or valued. And secondly, they set people up for a career of being overstretched, overworked and underpaid.

Usually, regardless of the official job title, if you read between the lines it’s actually a different full-time role with accessibility thrown in. It’s almost always a ‘frontend developer, who can also do accessibility and stakeholder management’.

This creates a vicious cycle where:

  1. Somebody is hired to do an impossible task.
  2. They are underpaid and overworked.
  3. They struggle to make an impact, because the task is impossible.
  4. The value placed on the role decreases, even though it was already low.
  5. When the person inevitably leaves, they are not replaced.

Eventually, even accessibility enthusiasts start talking negatively about the industry. And, who’d want to get into accessibility if everyone is complaining about it?

These unrealistic expectations are not just frustrating for job seekers, it hinders the progress of accessibility itself. When organisations seek a mythical expert who can do it all, they miss out on hiring real, skilled professionals who can make significant contributions in specific areas of accessibility.

This loss of talent is detrimental not only to the field of accessibility but to society as a whole, as we all benefit from inclusive design.

The issues with IAAP

A lot of organisations miss out on experts with lived experience by insisting on qualifications such as IAAP (International Association of Accessibility Professionals).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that there are officially recognised qualifications for accessibility now. But, I know a lot of people who are experts in their field and renowned in the industry who are not certified, and likely never will be.

The certification process is not inclusive

One of the reasons many of todays experts will likely not be IAAP certified, is that it’s common for neurodivergent people to gravitate to accessibility roles. It’s somewhere we feel we belong, and we want to fix a lot of the things that didn’t work for us, or those barriers we had to face ourselves growing up.

But, the IAAP certification process is very much set up in a way which mimics the standard setups in the education systems that created barriers for a lot of neurodivergent people in the first place.

IAAP has a formal exam with an invigilator which you will need to study for. Which is super overwhelming and stressful for a lot of neurodivergent people. It’s not designed in a way which caters for these people drawn to the accessibility industry in the first place.

It’s kind of ironic that accessibility specialists often need to advise organisations on reasonable adjustments, but the certification they often need to do does not afford them the same opportunities.

It’s IAAP or nothing.

The main issue I’m seeing with IAAP, is that because it now exists, a lot of organisations insist on it. They won’t take lived or on-the-job experience as an alternative. This oversight of talent is detrimental not only to the field of accessibility but to society as a whole.

I worry that the accessibility industry, like everything else, will become an uneven playing field where neurotypical and non-disabled people reign supreme. If we wrap a rigid education and certification system around a profession which was largely built on the back of lived experience, we’ll lose the a lot of the expertise and diversity which accessibility is renowned for.

I feel like it’s too early to insist on a certification in an industry where very few people can actually agree on what good looks like, and where the certification process itself excludes a lot of experienced and talented individuals.

I’d like to see an alternative path for IAAP certification, which lends itself more to an evidence or coursework based approach, as there is ample evidence that shows neurodivergent people do not do well in standard educational setups which rely on revision and examination. Particularly when they have conditions such as Dyslexia, Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Here are some articles which highlight this:

I guess for a lot of us, IAAP being mandated is a bit of a red flag at the moment. It highlights that the organisation hiring probably does not understand the industry or the importance of an inclusive hiring process. It also suggests they’re not actually confident in what they need when it comes to accessibility. So, a lot of us probably wouldn’t want to work there anyway!

Moving forwards

We currently live in an accessibility paradox. There is a huge push to establish accessibility as a specialism and hire people with these skills. Yet, there is a failure to recognise the importance of making the training, the certification process, and the world itself, actually accessible.

So, what’s the way forward?

For me, the solution starts with education and awareness. Hiring managers and organisations need to understand the diverse specialisms within accessibility and tailor their job adverts to hire the right person for a particular job.

Accessibility specialists should also be compensated fairly, in line with their expertise and the significant impact of their work. Paying them half of what a software engineer earns is not just unfair, it directly contributes to pay gaps.

Despite accessibility being an industry where people with disabilities can thrive and outperform their peers, it’s already festering with bias and discrimination because the people hiring for these roles just don’t get it.

Understand people’s needs before hiring

A lot of accessibility specialists are people with lived experience. It’s great that people are wanting to hire us now, but make sure you understand that a lot of us need adjustments.

I’ve seen it time and time again. People hire an accessibility specialist because it’s a hot topic and it’s always good publicity. But then they just leave that person to drown in an environment and an organisation where they are not supported.

Often, accessibility specialists will require additional equipment, like computer hardware and software. They may need a particular chair or a desk that’s close to an accessible toilet. They may also need flexible working hours or flexible working arrangements and open plan offices can be overwhelming.

With the right environment, people with accessibility needs often outperform their peers, particularly in the field of accessibility. But the environment and the culture of the organisation needs to be accommodating, fair and equal. If it’s not, it cements the existing bias that people with disabilities cannot perform to the same level as their peers, even though they were never given a fair opportunity to do so.

Understand the role before hiring

As head of accessibility at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), I had to start from scratch when I was building a team.

I had to write job descriptions, map it to existing capability frameworks, and get sign off from HR (Human Resources) to hire people into roles that had never existed in the department before.

But, you don’t need to do that!

There has been a lot of great work in the public sector over the past few years on establishing accessibility specialist as a profession.

Thanks to that work, there is now an accessibility specialist DDaT role (Digital Data and Technology), which you can just use. You can do a direct lift-and-shift, or use it as inspiration to tailor the role for your organisation.

If you’re looking to hire an accessibility specialist, this is a good place to start. It will help you to understand what the expectations should be from the role and the level you hire at.

Huge props to the following people for making this happen:

  • Beverley Newing, from Ministry of Justice
  • David Caldwell, from Home Office
  • Kevin White, from Scottish Government
  • Andy Black and Jane Dickinson, from Department for Education (DfE)
  • Christopher J, from Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA),
  • Wojciech Domanski and Shaun Conner, from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC)

Compensate fairly

Because accessibility specialist is now a DDaT role, it maps directly to the Civil Service salary structure. Which is great to get a rough understanding of where you should be aiming.

Public sector salaries tend to be around 15% to 20% less than the private sector, but this is offset by better job stability and an outrageously good pension scheme.

The pension scheme in the Civil Service contributes around 25% to 30%, whereas a good private sector pension contributes around 6% or 7%, so bear that in mind when pitching your salaries.

Each level is mapped to a salary band, and whilst these might have marginal fluctuations based on department and location, they’re an accurate figure of what you should expect to be paying.

I’ve outlined them below, with an adjustment showing a 15% increase for where you should likely be aiming in the private sector.

Junior accessibility specialist:

Government pay grade:
HEO (Higher Executive Officer)
Government salary range:
£31,055 to £38,331
Salary range + 15%:
£35,713 to £44,081

Working level accessibility specialist:

Government pay grade:
SEO (Senior Executive Officer)
Government salary range:
£37,688 to £42,619
Salary range + 15%:
£43,341 to £49,012

Senior accessibility specialist:

Government pay grade:
Grade 7
Government salary range:
£51,055 to £64,373
Salary range + 15%:
£58,713 to £74,029

Accessibility lead:

Government pay grade:
Grade 6
Government salary range:
£61,235 to £72,323
Salary range + 15%:
£70,420 to £83,171

Tactical vs Strategic hiring

If you have too many tasks that are spread over too many areas, hiring a full-time unicorn to do it all is not the right solution.

Instead, prioritise the work, and if you can only afford 1 person, look at short term contracts.

Hire a contractor web accessibility specialist for 6 months to sort your website. Then hire a contractor document accessibility specialist for 6 months to sort your documents. And so on.

These tactical solutions are great for when you have a lot of work and not enough headcount.

The downside is that whilst you’re looking at documents, your web accessibility could be regressing because it’s now not being prioritised. So it’s important to be thinking long term, even if the tactical hiring gets you out of the mud for a while.

Work with a specialist recruiter

Recently, I’ve met people and noticed organisations that do genuinely care about accessibility and growing teams in the space.

I was recently a guest on the Digital Accessibility Podcast, which is run and hosted by Joe James, a technical recruitment consultant who specialises in hiring accessibility specialists.

Joe is trying his best to become the go-to consultant in the UK when it comes to sourcing and hiring the best talent in the accessibility industry. He works with some of the largest tech companies and consultancies to help them understand what they need, what their budget should be, and to find the right people for the role.

As well as his podcast, which is shining a light on a lot of the challenges in the industry, he is also putting together a robust salary survey for the accessibility industry and is hoping to bring back a large London based accessibility event, as we lost a lot of these over the pandemic. So keep your ear to the ground for those!

A lot of people recoil at the mention of recruiters because there are so many bad actors in the field. But having got to know Joe, I can honestly say he is genuinely invested in the role and the fight of accessibility professionals.

So, reach out to Joe or other specialist recruiters if you’re not confident in recruiting accessibility specialists on your own.

Final thoughts

The road to better recognition and fairer compensation for accessibility professionals is long, but it’s a journey we must take.

By understanding the true breadth and depth of accessibility as a profession, adjusting our expectations and valuing these professionals for the specialists they are, we can create a job market that not only attracts but retains the talent needed to make our world more inclusive.

We need to make sure that neurodivergent people and people with disabilities are not pushed out of the industry by rigid certification processes, and we need to create more roles which are realistic and fairly paid. Even if these are tactical shorter term contracts.

It’s better to hire the right person for the right job at a higher rate, than it is to hire the right person for the wrong job and pay them to chase their tail as you slowly crush the life out of them until they leave.

Finally, as always, let’s not forget, accessibility is about equality. It’s about creating a society where everyone has the same access to products and opportunities. And we can’t do this if nobody understands what work needs to be done, or who is best placed to do it!

As always, I hope this was useful.

Rant over.

Thanks,
Craig

Originally published at https://www.craigabbott.co.uk.

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