Accessibility spec work

Published on May 8, 2023


A large company asked me to get on a call to give them information to help them "understand best practices in terms of process & tools". They weren't interested in paying me for my time. But they were quite pushy about putting something on the schedule. This felt somewhat predatory, and made me feel like I'm not likely to work with this company.

When large companies ask you to do consulting for them for free, with the hope they might like what you say enough to pay you.

A white woman viewed from the back, working at a computer with a large screen.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I heard from several other accessibility experts that the same company, although different employees, reached out to them with the same message, phrased the same way.

The ask

Hey Nicolas Steenhout! I am part of an Accessibility team at {company name removed}. We are currently speaking to experts in the space to understand best practices in terms of process & tools. It would be great if we can connect to get your perspective and learn more about the space

When I asked for more information to get an idea of exactly what they wanted from me, they said:

Hey Nicolas, I hope you are doing well! As previously mentioned, we are currently speaking to Accessibility experts to better understand best practices in terms of process & people. Right now this would be an exploratory call to understand the landscape & some best practices. Let me know if we can chat over a brief 30 min call on Tuesday or Wednesday this week? In case that doesn’t work, feel free to suggest an alternative day that works better for you. I appreciate your time and look forward to your response.

They wanted me to provide strategic accessibility consultation.

I pointed out that what they wanted was my time and expertise, garnered over more than two decades. They wanted me to provide strategic accessibility consultation. I said I’d make myself available, but that I’d have to bill them for my time.

They came back with a reiteration that there would be no compensation for my time. But if they like what I have to say, and decide to continue the conversations, then maybe there might be a bit of money involved.

Since this is an exploratory call to understand the landscape & some best practices, there is no compensation attached. But there is the likelihood of compensation if further conversations continue

The problem

To me, this stinks of spec work. It’s not exactly what people tend to understand as spec work, but it’s close. “Let’s ask the experts for their time and dangle the remote possibility of revenue later down the road”.

I supposed some people might feel flattered to have a large company like that ask them for their opinion. I don’t feel flattered at all. I feel used.

Don’t get me wrong - I do pro bono work often enough. But it’s typically with small outfits that have a mission I believe in. This company is valued at over US$4 billion, and declared revenues over US$200 million last year.

If they want expert time, the least they can do is pay for the expert’s time.

Accessibility work is hard

There are a lot of factor making accessibility work hard. It’s an uphill battle. Convincing companies to take an interest in accessibility is often an exercise in frustrations.

There should be some joy at being asked by a large company to tell them about accessibility. But that wasn’t really the ask. There was no information beyond “we want information about best practices”. Why do they want this information? What are they going to do with it? How serious is the company about accessibility?

I dislike this thing of “what’s in it for me?”, but there’s only so much of myself I can give. I used to spend nearly a full time work week working on free open source projects, for no compensations and nearly no thanks. I believe in the mission. I believe in making the world more accessible.

What I can’t afford is to keep on giving to the point of burn out. Julianna Rowsell, who incidentally was also asked for free consulting by that company, said something that resonated with me:

if you’ve done this for long, you start to realize you are constantly setting yourself on fire to help others out and it burns you down and out.

Free advice is rarely valued.

I’ve also learned over the years that companies value what they pay for. Free advice is rarely valued. Asking for free advice with the implied “if we like what we hear, we’ll maybe pay you” clearly indicates that they don’t, actually, value my feedback.

Are they going through an exercise of showing interest in accessibility because it’s fashionable right now, but it’ll get nowhere? I don’t know. I am not likely to know because they didn’t say.

What they could do

If they really have an interest in learning about the lay of the land, about best practices, they could do research. There’s a lot of information about this kind of thing. Assigning staff to read blogs like mine, or Lainey Feingold’s, or to look at social media. Or even look up more official spaces like the WAI website. These things could all be done for research, before even reaching out to experts.

And they could compensate experts for their time.

But it seems they want their information pre-digested. And I’m sorry folks. I’m not giving it away for free. Or if I do, it’ll only be on my own terms. And I hope that if you’re an accessibility expert, you also won’t give it away for free.