For digital accessibility expert November Champion, the simple willingness to say YES when others would not, transformed a job into a purpose-driven mission, both personal and professional in nature.
At the time, November worked in product development for Tomson Reuters in Minneapolis. The company was about to roll out WestlawNext, its latest online research platform for attorneys and paralegals.
But first, the product had to be updated to meet accessibility standards set forth by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Viewed by many as tedious and burdensome red tape, no one was up to the task – no one except November.
“Back then, the way you made a name for yourself in my department was to take a project no one else wanted,” November remembers. “It was a federal contract, so these accessibility changes needed to be made before we could even do the RFP [Request for Proposal]. That was a chore no one wanted, but it sounded interesting, and I like to learn, so I gladly took it on.”
When it came time for beta testing of WestlawNext, Tomson Reuters sent November on a two-week, multi-city tour of law firms, conducting in-person observations of how attorneys with disabilities interact with the product. The experience had a swift and profound impact on the course of November’s career.
“The first session I did was with a blind attorney in a pretty small law office,” November recounts. “So we’re wrapping up, just shooting some B-roll [supplemental or alternative footage intercut with the main shot] of her walking through the office with her guide dog. We asked if there was anything she wanted to tell our developers back home.
“She said, ‘I want to thank you for doing this work because I wouldn’t be able to have a job otherwise. My firm couldn’t afford to have a reader for me 24-7, so without access to this online platform, I wouldn’t be able to work.’ That completely shifted my motivation and focus to the importance of digital accessibility.”
November clerked at various firms herself as she made her way through law school at St. Louis University, picking up what was then a part-time Account Representative gig with Thomson Reuters along the way. But as graduation approached in 2002, she no longer viewed the legal profession as a good fit. When a full-time opportunity opened up at Thomson Reuters, she didn’t hesitate to pounce on it.
“During law school, I began to discover that I’m not the type of person who can just leave work at work,” November acknowledges. “So the Thomson Reuters job was perfect timing because I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life at that point.”
As it turned out, digital accessibility became her professional focus. She served in a number of capacities over an 11-year stint at Thomson Reuters, eventually relocating to the home office in Minneapolis where she worked as a Product Developer and User Experience engineer — evaluating, designing and implementing accessibility protocols for WestlawNext and related products within the legal and educational space.
In 2013, November returned to St. Louis to take an online accessibility strategist position with a large financial institution. Here, her first task was to drive a cultural shift within the organization, encouraging colleagues to prioritize accessibility throughout the entire development process rather than relegating it to afterthought status — a regulatory box that must be checked at the end of the project with little consideration given.
Although November’s job title has changed a time or two, inclusive design in the digital space remains her primary focus. After streamlining existing protocols for product development and quality assurance, November introduced a comprehensive accessibility program to be implemented across the entire enterprise.
Accessibility isn’t just a nine-to-five job for November, either. She’s also a founding member of a11ySTL, a networking group for people interested in inclusive design in the digital realm. She hopes a11ySTL will create more accessibility advocates, even if they have to be a little sneaky about it.
“There are plenty of Digital Accessibility experts in places like San Francisco; Seattle; Washington, DC; and all throughout the government, but in St. Louis we don’t really have as many people with this type of experience,” November observes. “There are a lot of people interested in learning, though, and I hope this can be an avenue to educating them so they can implement some of these best practices in their own jobs, covertly if necessary.”
Because inclusive design is just as crucial in the built environment as it is in the digital space, November recently became a member of the Universal Design Summit 7 Steering Committee. While building a house and building a website require very different skillsets, she’s become increasingly aware of the overlap.
“People in my field think of Universal Design from a digital perspective. It’s all about user-experience design and being inclusive, but I hadn’t really thought about the similarities,” November admits. “The more I’m involved in this committee and planning for the Summit next year, the more commonalities I’m seeing between the work we do in the digital space and the work that gets done in the building space.”
Remodeling a house so that it is equally accessible and attractive to everyone requires a significant investment of time and money, but as November points out, a website can be made more inclusive with a few simple keystrokes.
“The issue that comes up most frequently has to do with color contrast. For instance, designers like to use light gray text on a white background, which is impossible for many people to read,” November explains. “It’s the easiest thing; it doesn’t cost anything extra to fix. It’s often just one tiny, six-digit piece of code that needs to be changed, but it’s one that can have the biggest impact.”
Universal Design goes way beyond meeting minimum standards for accessibility; it creates spaces that are equally usable and welcoming for everyone to the greatest extent possible. Admittedly, it’s a big job, and November implores architects of all kinds to remember who they’re doing the work for.
“Design is about people, whether it’s in the physical space or the digital realm,” November concludes. “If you don’t include people with disabilities in your usability studies, then you’ll come up with something that technically complies with the law but doesn’t offer a good user experience.”