What Special Forces Teaches Us about Web Accessibility

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Dale Cruse“De Oppresso Liber”—”To liberate the oppressed”—U.S. Army Special Forces motto

U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers operate by five essential truths. These axioms inform how they make every decision both on and off the battlefield. Each truth contains insights that guide how we can build websites and applications accessible to everyone.

Special Forces Truth 1: Humans are more important than hardware.

Military leaders are fond of saying, “Mission first, people always.” They all know that’s the right way to lead. Special Forces troops deploy to support our interests in foreign lands. One way or the other, their missions are always about people.

Being all about people strikes at the heart of accessibility efforts, too. After all, web accessibility is where empathy meets technology. Accessibility is inclusive rather than exclusive. When we design and develop, we often need to remind ourselves that we’re creating for people, not machines.

At all times, we must understand each other’s challenges. No matter if you’re blind, deaf, have a broken arm, or are just hungover, every single one of us needs some form of accommodation at some point in our lives.

Special Forces Truth 2: Quality is better than quantity.

Special Forces soldiers know one well executed plan is more valuable than several scattershot attempts. The U.S. military values the ability to do one thing and do it well. “One shot, one kill,” is always the expert marksman’s single goal.

As technologists, we know that good accessibility design is good web design. Period. It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about — if we’re talking about the web, we’re talking about accessibility. It’s imperative that we designers and developers create high-quality work that is interpreted accurately and appropriately by assistive devices.

Special Forces Truth 3: Special Forces cannot be mass produced.

You can’t do this alone. None of us can. No one knows that better than Special Forces soldiers. They know relationships are paramount in any endeavor and so do we.

Think like a soldier and make yourself a multiplier by showing others how to think about, plan, and deliver accessible products. Then encourage those people to train additional people as well. In other words, train the trainer. Build a team. Assist, advise, and train them. Share. Be respectful and inclusive no matter what your role is on that team.

Make accessibility a competitive differentiator between your team or company and others. Infuse your team or company with accessibility considerations. Make accessibility part of who you are as a designer and developer.

If you’re a leader, prove to your followers that accessibility is essential to everything you create. Earn their hearts and minds and they’ll reward you.

Special Forces Truth 4: Competent Special Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur.

Plan for accessibility ahead of time. Accessibility isn’t something to tack on to the end of a project. It’s something that must be baked into your process from the outset. Accessibility requires strategic planning and vision. Hire people who think about and value inclusion.

Don’t worry: We’ll all get better at this the more we do it. It’s like flexing a muscle: Sure, it’ll get stronger, but we must be patient and allow it to develop. It takes time and that’s okay.

Special Forces Truth 5: Most Special Operations require non Special Forces assistance.

Like Special Forces soldiers, let’s attack the accessibility problem together. Let’s build relationships based on trust. Move beyond any internal rivalries. Improvise to master chaos together. Accessibility is everyone’s job, from management to design to development to sales to marketing. The accessibility must be part of company culture with buy in at all levels of the organization to succeed.

Sensible business decisions, accommodating design, and valid code set the stage for accessible web experiences. Find ways to include accessibility at every stage of creative development. After all, accessible design is all about craftsmanship. Master these skills and techniques to be able to help those who have the will to help themselves.

Like Special Forces soldiers, these truths guide us in our daily efforts as well as our strategic planning and vision. Together, these are the fundamental guidelines that all Special Forces operators follow. These truths guide their way and ours.


Dale Cruse is a former U.S. Army public affairs soldier. He’s the author of “HTML5 Multimedia Development Cookbook” and leads the McGraw-Hill Education accessibility effort.

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Posts from the McGraw-Hill Education Social Media & Content team.

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