From Mentors to Champions — Pivoting our approach on Accessibility Mentorships

What is mentoring?

Mentoring means a lot of things to a lot of people. Here is how I think about it-

  • Mentoring is sharing your knowledge, expertise, experience with someone who can benefit from it.
  • Mentoring is taking an interest and investing in someone else’s success.
  • Mentoring is not just about giving advice but about learning and growing together, challenging and elevating both mentor and mentee to achieve new levels of professional excellence.

The Pivots

From a solution based approach to a problem based approach

A mentor matching program is a solution based approach (matching mentors to mentees) that only solves one small aspect of the problem. When you pivot to a problem based approach you have the ability to focus more on understanding and addressing the gaps in accessibility employment. Here are some I can think of —

  • Fragmented learning materials, dense, boring, sometimes overly technical and inaccessible content.
  • Lack of credible resources, too many experts and too many checklists.
  • Absence of high quality, free learning courses and programs that break down the concepts into bite sized modules and help demystify accessibility.
  • Lack of a clear path — across the board — with learning, with job seeking, with career growth.
  • Lack of job opportunities especially internships / job rotations for beginners.
  • Lack of incentive to make accessibility a part of your day job.

From relying on one mentor to creating a circle of influence

I started my journey on accessibility by accident. I didn’t know much about the subject but I was determined to learn. I had this hunger for information. I wanted to learn and I was open to learning from anyone, anywhere, anyhow. This thirst for knowledge helped me create my own circle of influence that included many different sources of great knowledge, expertise and information — Accessibility leaders, influencers, service providers, people with disabilities, accessibility experts, accessibility certification, conferences, my own research skills, product management skills and hands on experience. All of this formed a circle of influence that helped me learn and come up to speed quickly so that I can could help lead an organization’s accessibility vision and strategy. However, not everyone has the time, resources or motivation to do what I did. In many cases, it was very difficult to get access to the experts because they didn’t have time or demanded a very steep cost to share their knowledge. We need to change this.

From Mentorship to Sponsorship

I strongly believe that mentorship is meaningless without sponsorship. Great mentors not only give great advice but are also great connectors. What does that mean? It means that your mentor is fully invested in your success and you achieving your goals, is willing to connect you to people, opportunities, will talk you up, will create opportunities for you to explore your potential.

From a ‘one size fits all’ approach to one that is ‘focused on developing the next-gen of accessibility professionals who are people with disabilities’

I believe that the number 1 reason why we are still talking about web accessibility today can be attributed to the absence of people with disabilities in pivotal co-creator roles in tech. When the people creating digital experiences do not understand or have any comprehension of the lived experience with a disability, how can you expect the experience to be accessible?

From a mentee- led approach to a mentor-led approach

It is usually expected that a mentee will seek a mentor for advice and help. That works for most of us but not necessarily for people with disabilities. Here are a few things that get in the way of people with disabilities seeking mentors—

  • Fear and lack of confidence.
  • Lack of understanding that they CAN reach for accessibility jobs, that they CAN learn and train for them, that they CAN do these jobs and they CAN get paid market rate.
  • Lack of education and training resources that cater to their needs, learning abilities. One look at the WCAG and it can scare a person with a Phd.
  • Lack of internships, job opportunities can be a huge detractor. Ultimately we call want to land a great job and earn a good living.

From Mentorship to Internship

I sincerely hope you will consider this one as THE MOST IMPORTANT pivot of all of the above. We really really really need to shift our focus from mentoring to creating deeply impactful internship programs. When we create a great internship program, it does the following —

  • Provides a great way to learn, by learning on the job. We all know that hands on learning is the best way to learn!
  • Builds the confidence (especially for a person with a disability) that they are employable, trainable and that they can add value to an organization. There is another magical thing that happens when you employ a person with a disability. They will tell their friends about your internship program and it will give hope and confidence to other’s like them. It’s truly amazing to see it in action!
  • Provides the org an opportunity to test and learn what works best. This can then inform your HR strategy and inclusion efforts. This also paves the path for many more people with disabilities to enter and be successful in your org.
  • Provides an opportunity for the organization to see what accessibility looks like up close. When you bring in interns with disabilities, you will be amazed that they can teach you more than what you can teach them. The learning becomes a two way street, a give and take.
  • It brings you closer to achieving accessibility and business goals for your organization. Who doesn’t want that?

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