Accessibility Pro Certified: To Be or Not To Be

From 24 Accessibility:

Becoming a great accessibility professional is not something that occurs overnight. This field is broad and deep with many opportunities to make the world a better place. Expertise in digital accessibility is needed in many roles including UI/UX designers, software developers, testers, trainers, project managers and strategic planners. How do you know if you are already an accessibility pro or are on the right path to become one?

Who Defines the Digital Accessibility Profession?

Digital accessibility is a relatively new career. Today, most of the leading experts are self-taught. If you are lucky enough to already know an expert, you could ask them for their opinion about how to launch your career or validate that you are on the right track. But what would be even better is to have an industry standard definition for this profession and a certification process vetted by the accessibility community. In 2015 the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) set out to collaboratively define the accessibility profession and create a series of certifications.

Professional versus Expert

Before we look at the IAAP definition and certification of an accessibility professional, let’s first clarify the difference between a professional and an expert. Technically, you are a professional when you are paid to do something. Usually professionals are good at what they do, because they won’t keep their job long if they are not good. But being a professional does not make you an expert. Let’s look at a proficiency scale that could be used to measure ability to perform a job:

Proficiency Scale

  • 0 – None – no basic knowledge or experience.
  • 1 – Fundamental Awareness (basic knowledge) – still needs experience.
  • 2 – Novice (limited experience) – very likely to need help.
  • 3 – Intermediate (practical application) – successfully completes most tasks independently. needs help from an expert from time to time.
  • 4 – Advanced (applied theory) – successfully completes tasks independently. recognized in their organization as a “person to ask difficult questions”. assists in developing learning and reference materials. coaches others.
  • 5 – Expert (recognized authority) – demonstrated excellence across multiple projects and/or organizations consistently recognized as the “Go To” person. creates new applications and/or leads development of new resources. fosters greater understanding with internal and external colleagues.

So, being an accessibility professional does not instantly transform you into (insert your fav a11y high level expert’s name here).

Does a Certification Make me an Expert?

No exam or certificate can make you an expert. Think of professional certification like a driver’s license. Having a driver’s license does not magically make you a world champion race car driver. But a driver’s license does indicate that you are aware of the basic concepts of driving and safety laws. Similarly, having a digital accessibility certification validates that you are aware of the core concepts needed to be a professional in this field.

What is the Scope of the Accessibility Profession?

For this a11y December, I’m staying focused on the digital realm. (But promise me you won’t forget that accessibility really spans technology, architecture, the physical environment, consumer and industrial design, transportation, smart homes and more.) Even narrowing our scope to just the digital realm, we have a ton to cover!

Core vs Specialized Knowledge

Digital accessibility has core knowledge that everyone in the field should know, as well as specific technical areas of knowledge.

Core Knowledge

To truly excel in accessibility, I believe you need to know about the different types of disabilities, assistive technologies, accessibility principles, universal design, legal requirements and management strategies. And I swear I would have said this even before the IAAP published the Outline for Certified Accessibility Professional Core Competencies (CPACC). Take a look at the knowledge that IAAP has defined as core to the accessibility profession. The three top level topic areas are:

  • Disabilities, Challenges, and Assistive Technologies
  • Accessibility and Universal Design
  • Declarations, Standards, Laws, and Management Strategies

Remember, that these “core competencies” are the non-technical foundation. We will next dive into the first intermediate technical topic.

Specialized Knowledge

While knowing the core concepts is a great foundation, technical accessibility professionals will also have at least one area of specialization. For example, an online .com business would want all of their digital accessibility experts to have core accessibility knowledge (the “why”) and then specialize in additional technical knowledge (the “how”) based on their specific job duties. Specialized areas of digital accessibility expertise could include:

  • Design
    • user experience design
    • user interface design
    • branding design
  • Content Creation
    • text creation
    • document creation
    • image creation
    • multimedia creation
  • Development
    • web development
    • native mobile development
    • desktop software development
  • Testing
    • web
    • native mobile
    • desktop
    • PDF

The IAAP Certification currently has two types of exams:

  • professional – foundational, broad, cross-disciplinary
  • technical – intermediate specific

The Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competency (CPACC) is the professional exam. The CPACC is the foundational certification that demonstrates broad knowledge and commitment to the accessibility profession. The Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS) is the first technical certification. The WAS is designed for an intermediate level professional.

Additional specific technical exams are already planned at the intermediate level including procurement, document creation, and mobile accessibility. Did you know it takes 10-15 months to develop and implement each professional certification exam? At the moment, there are no plans yet to create an expert technical exam. How does IAAP decide which exam to develop next? Market demand and supply for that professional skill are a major deciding factor.

Pyramid with three levels; Foundational Core Competency at the bottom level, with a speech bubble Certified A11Y Pro in Core Competencies CPACC. Intermediate Technical/Specific in the middle level with the speech bubble Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS). Expert at the top level.

Will there ever be a Top Expert Accessibility Certification?

Defining the required competencies at the top expert level of our profession would be a very challenging and subjective task. An expert certification would be limited to the handful of top professionals that are recognized as the best in our business. Could there ever be a top expert level cert? Yes, there could be. Will there be? I bet not. Because the effort to create that super high-level exam would not (in my humble opinion) have a good return on investment. We can see who the top experts are without an exam…they are recognized and respected as outstanding contributors to our field.

Should I Be a Certified Web Accessibility Professional?

Deciding if you want to take the IAAP certification exams is a personal decision. There is no one size fits all answer. However, if you are serious about advancing your career in web accessibility, then I think there is no downside to taking the exams.

To be successful as a web accessibility professional, I think you must have:

  • Serious Career Interest: You are interested in being a web accessibility professional because you believe it is a career that suits you. You hope to stay in this field for an extended period of time.
  • Desire to Write Web Code from Scratch – You know (or are very interested/motivated to learn) html, css and javascript. To advance beyond the intermediate level in this field you must understand web code.

If you can say “Yes!” or even just “I think so.” to both of these interests, then we can look at motivations for taking one or both of the currently offered certification exams.

I Want to Break into the Field

If you are trying to break into the field of digital accessibility, I recommend first studying for the CPACC (core) exam because it gives you a big picture view of this career. After passing the exam, you will have a good foundation of knowledge and should realize that success in this career path depends on life-long learning.

Your next step would be to get experience doing hands-on Web Accessibility work. Then plan to study and take the Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS) Exam. Pro-tip: You technically do not need to take the CPACC before the WAS. You can even skip the CPACC and just take the WAS. But I think the CPACC is absolutely worth your time…because CPACC covers the “Why”, while WAS is more focused on the technical “How”. I think you can be better at what you do when you understand the foundational “why”.

I Have Some Experience

If you have some experience in the field of digital accessibility, studying and taking the CPACC exam can help you validate what you already know and help you find and fill gaps in your knowledge.

I recommend taking the WAS after you’ve achieved your CPACC. While I do know some smart folks that studied and passed both exams on the same day, that is a lot to ask of your brain in one day.

Once you’ve received your certification(s), share that information with your employer as an achievement and add it to your resume, LinkedIn and other career posting sites. Notice that CPACC and WAS may be listed in the preferred section of job postings. Having these certifications can give you an edge during interviews or be part of your evidence to request a promotion.

I Have Tons of Experience

If you have tons of experience in digital accessibility, why would you take the CPACC? Well, let me tell you! You might discover, when looking at the CPACC outline that there is an area of accessibility that you didn’t know about. I also encourage you to study and take the exam, so you can better understand what it is like. As a person advanced in their accessibility career, you can then help others into the field…and you may find yourself recommending the exam to others.

Last, but not least, as you review the study outlines for either CPACC or WAS, you may be delighted by how much you agree with what the exams are covering. If you do have suggestions for improvement, don’t be shy! IAAP is always open to your feedback and updating the exams to keep pace with our ever-changing profession.

I’m an Expert Already

Why would an expert bother to take the CPACC exam? As an expert you already know everything, right? Actually, the best experts realize they don’t ever know everything. Would you learn a lot by taking the CPACC? Probably not. Would you learn a tidbit here or there? Maybe. Would you discover that the study outline for the CPACC is damn good? Or that there needs to be changes? How will we ever know if you don’t look? Yes … yes … hundreds of accessibility professionals have already reviewed this outline. But …your review and feedback would be valuable. You are an expert after all.

Supply & Demand: We Need More A11Y Pros

In the 20+ years that I’ve been involved, I’ve yet to see the supply of accessibility professionals able to keep up with the demand. Yes, there are fabulous pros in this field, but it is hard to keep accessibility moving forward if we just shuffle those same people from one organization to another. If we really care about accessibility, we must build more professionals.

The IAAP Certifications are helping create and/or validate accessibility professionals. Did you know that more than 900 certifications have already been achieved since the first exam debuted on March 22, 2016?

One of the most exciting results of this formal accessibility certification has been the interest shown by higher education. For years we’ve been trying to get high ed to build digital accessibility into their curriculum. Now that we have the IAAP certification in place, colleges and universities are coming to us!

Yes, there are some great examples of where accessibility is (or has been) taught in higher ed, but show me an accessibility program that is not highly dependent on a single faculty member. What happens when that faculty member leaves? Accessibility courses must become a part of the core curriculum of all higher ed degrees. Imagine the impact when Accessibility is a standard requirement for all degree plans just like Mathematics and Writing.

Ready? Set! Certify!

Now it is time for you to think about how you will get involved in the accessibility professional certification. I double-dog dare you to review the CPAAC and WAS study outlines! Got feedback or suggestions for improvement? Awesome! Speak up and know your input can help our industry! After reviewing the study outlines, I bet you will be motivated to do at least one of the following:

  • volunteer to help develop additional certification exams
  • help others get certified
  • get certified

As a kid who discovered this career field more than 20 years ago, I’m grateful for all the people that helped me become an a11y pro and continue to help me grow. One of my favorite hobbies these days is to help others into this deeply meaningful and satisfying career path. If you want to become certified (and you happen to have a disability) there is even a Deque University Scholarship available for free access to prep courses for the CPACC and WAS. Together we really are making the web and the world a better place.

The post Accessibility Pro Certified: To Be or Not To Be appeared first on 24 Accessibility.

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