Over the last few months, PEAT has been working to close the accessible technology skills gap. Leading organizations are increasingly making digital accessibility a priority for both internal systems and external products and services they bring to the marketplace. However, they are struggling to find job candidates with the accessibility skills they need—and 57% report that as a result, their products and services are less accessible than they want.

PEAT has been working to address this gap by focusing on education in partnership with an organization called Teach Access. Their mission is to build a foundation of accessibility knowledge at the higher education level to ensure that current students gain the knowledge they need to help make technology accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

Over Memorial Day week, I had the privilege of going out to California on behalf of the PEAT team to observe the first ever Teach Access Study Away program in Silicon Valley. This program was made up of 25 undergraduate and graduate students from four colleges: Olin College of Engineering, Michigan State University, California State University Northridge, and the University of Colorado Boulder. The students came from wide-ranging backgrounds, including majors such as computer science and user experience, but also marketing, journalism, and psychology. Their levels of accessibility expertise also varied widely, with some having no prior experience at all.

Room of students in conversation, seated in groups of 4-6 at tables

Over the course of the week, participants had the opportunity to experience a day in the life of an employee at several different campuses, including Google, Oath, Adobe, and Facebook. In addition to experiencing each company’s culture firsthand, from dining in the Google cafeteria to exploring Oath’s TV studio, they also had the opportunity to build connections with the accessibility teams at each company and hear from experts from Intuit and Microsoft.

But it wasn’t all fun and games…or was it?

Throughout the week, the students worked together in small cross-institutional teams to solve an accessibility challenge, with guidance and feedback from industry partners. On the final day, the teams presented their work to representatives from Teach Access member companies. It was fascinating to watch the unique solutions the groups brainstormed, and one project struck me as especially compelling, particularly because it worked to address the problem of accessibility awareness head-on.

This group drew insights from noticing that many people with disabilities often “hack” mainstream products for their own purposes. For example, they might use resistance bands to do tasks that require high levels of dexterity—a creative solution that people without disabilities may not necessarily consider. The team’s end result was a fun, engaging card game aimed at elementary and middle school students. The game assigns different characteristics and skills to each player, ranging from “wolf eyes” to tentacle hands. They posit that this out-of-the-box thinking can help participants become future innovators by considering the myriad ways that people may need to use a product.

All in all, the Study Away program was like nothing I had seen before, and I was so glad to have the opportunity to see it in action. It was exciting to see how enthusiastic each company was to have a chance to address potential job candidates, and even more exciting for the students to see that enthusiasm firsthand. They left the week truly understanding just how valuable an accessible technology skill set will be for them in the job market, and how it will help them make a real impact on ALL users.

It was especially encouraging to see so much interest across all levels to close this accessible skills gap, and this program is just one way to address it. Teach Access hopes to continue to grow this program in the future, and we at PEAT look forward to seeing this and other creative approaches to helping our future tech leaders design with accessibility in mind.