With accessibility concerns regularly making headlines, businesses increasingly focus on making their products and offerings more accessible. As I consult with them, I’m often asked, “Where do we start?” So, I tell them about the blind bakers.

The blind bakers

My colleague, Sarah Herrlinger, Director of Apple Accessibility, once told me about a small bakery famous for its fantastic bread. The smell, the crust, the texture brought long lines to the bakery every day. Everyone knew where to go for consistently delicious loaves of freshly-baked bread. Though, few realized that the bread was crafted and baked by artisans who happened to be blind.

As the business grew, the bakery owner decided to replace the old wood-burning oven with a more fuel-efficient gas model. Of course, it made great financial sense. But a few weeks after the new oven installation, bread sales fell flat. The bread just didn’t taste the same. It wasn’t the gas fuel. The oven worked perfectly. Perplexed, the owner carefully watched the bakers at work and suddenly realized the problem. The new oven took away the bakers’ sense of touch, heat, and smell, senses they relied on for tasty, memorable bread. Those senses were the “secret ingredients” in the bake.

Sometimes, numbers do not tell the whole tale. The real magic of a business often lies beyond its financials or quarterly reports, and rests with teams of people “on the ground” who make decisions every day. Similarly, I find that businesses succeed with their accessibility efforts when they take a grassroots, bottom-up approach.

That is precisely how it worked for me at Apple.

Baking and sharing the bread of accessibility

When I began preaching the values of accessibility in earnest, Apple Retail already stood on the frontlines of universal access technology. Touch technology, screen readers, and a host of other innovations made devices — and the world — more accessible for users. However, accessibility seemed to be missing from our everyday operations. I knew where we needed to go, but the framework was not yet in place.

So, I started by finding my blind bakers.

To assemble my very first accessibility team, I needed team members who passionately worked to “think different.” I looked for people with natural talent for amazing customer interaction, skills which stem from patience, active listening, and a heartfelt desire to help others. Such talents had already made each of my candidates exemplary Apple brand ambassadors — and now made them a perfect fit for the team.

The team was eager, but lacked direct experience in meeting accessibility needs. So, we researched and trained. We brainstormed a lot. We took a holistic approach towards making things more accessible by insisting that it must be available “right out of the box.” In time, the team transformed their passion for customer service into genuine accessibility expertise.

Together, we hosted the first-ever Apple Store public accessibility event. We devised employee training that took advantage of natural strengths. Each employee learned to specialize and focus on different types of customers. By sharing our “recipe” for better accessibility, we transformed our store. Soon, more than 30 team members provided accessibility service for our customers every day. In time, we became the accessibility training flagship for the tri-state market (NY, NJ, CT). Ultimately, national and foreign flagships sought us out and I routinely helped them replicate success by keeping those bakers in mind.

A recipe for your (accessibility) success

Every journey begins with a single step. As with all positive change, the most important step is simply committing to action.

  • Start with the people on your team that really care
  • Get them thinking and talking about making things more accessible
  • Empower your team to take action
  • Encourage the organization to follow their lead

In a way, you just put all the ingredients together and then … let it rise.

Of course, a little yeast helps.

When I consult with businesses and organizations about accessibility, I challenge assumptions, create new paradigms, and generally mix things up. I want everyone involved to really understand how making things more accessible benefits customers, employees, the community, and the bottom line. In fact, you can get a jump start by answering 7 questions to help your business become more accessible. Or, get in touch and let’s talk about how we can help your organization take next steps.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!