Avoiding litigation may be an essential priority for a company’s accessibility efforts, but this is a short-sighted view to what is more effectively played as a long game. Accessibility is a sure path to boosting your organization’s brand, expanding audiences for your products and services, improving customer and associate satisfaction, improving organizational culture, providing opportunities for innovation and creativity, and even contributing to society’s greater good.
Marc Thorson is an IT software architect and the grassroots leader of Nelnet’s digital accessibility team. With 20-plus years of front-end development experience – and 14 years of experience leading an accessibility team that’s grown from one to 13 people – Thorson has become a well-known accessibility expert within highly regulated fields such as student loan servicing and numerous other industries during his time with Great Lakes Educational Loan Services and now Nelnet. For more than a decade, the Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, and their business partners have turned to accessibility champion Thorson for his expertise and collaboration with their accessibility teams. Thorson and Nelnet’s Accessibility team also support external clients across a broad range of industries, providing compliance support, accessibility training, and more.
To learn more about why accessibility matters so much, we spoke with Thorson about the importance of accessibility, where accessibility is headed, how Nelnet can help, and how to make your organization an accessibility leader.
What is your role and how did it come about?
Marc Thorson (MT): My experience was largely focused around the student loan industry since 2000. I started as a full stack developer and, in 2009, I kind of grassroots-created the accessibility program at Great Lakes and my role as a natural evolution from front-end development. I could see the need for more specialization and identified accessibility was a need we could fill. There were a number of other folks who were instrumental, too – Jeni McDonald [now a manager for Nelnet’s Unifi Design Studio], in particular. I would say the two of us created the first accessibility checklist for the company and we were off to the races. Several years later, we added another teammate to the team, Stacy Sporie, and she’s now the accessibility team lead. Currently, we’re at 13 full-time staff plus a couple of part-time associates.
Why is accessibility so important?
MT: Our motto is, “We want to break down barriers and make everything helpful and enjoyable for everyone.” That’s what our content services are intended for. We don’t want any unintentional side effects for accidentally doing it wrong. We want to think of our entire audience and people of all abilities – and develop our products and services with that in mind. The nice side effect of that is we improve experiences for everybody. It makes things easier to understand for all users and creates a nicer experience in general.
Will accessibility be more important in the future than it is today? Why?
MT: The more we become connected by technology and interaction, and the more people become aware of the diverse skill sets and abilities of folks, the more we need to leverage accessibility to create a more productive and enjoyable life for all of us. We don’t want to leave anyone out – that’s being a detriment to society and not impacting any of us positively. Accessibility is part of a great cultural shift that we need to continue building upon.