A discouraging CPACC exam experience

A community member’s experience and call to reevaluate and dismantle the self-manufactured barriers we create in tech, including those present in the structures and practices of individuals, institutions and organizations we hold in high esteem in the a11y community.

Caitlyn Mayers
Caitlyn Mayers

Apr 15, 2021

Image of illustrated exam papers stacked on top of each other in dark blue with illustrations of a thought bubble, question mark, exclamation mark and squiggly lines around the paremeter.

I’m fortunate enough to work at a company where goal-setting is an integral piece of the company culture and career development. One of my 2020 goals that was shockingly not obliterated by the hand 2020 dealt us all was to prepare and sit for the CPACC exam, which I was able to do during some time off recovering from wrist surgery on my dominant hand.

Taken from the IAAP's Website, "The IAAP Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC) credential is IAAP's foundational certification, representing broad, cross-disciplinary conceptual knowledge about 1) disabilities, 2) accessibility and universal design, and 3) accessibility-related standards, laws, and management strategies." The IAAP offers additional certifications, such as the Web Accessibility Specialist (WAS), which covers a more technical and accessibility practitioner-focused body of knowledge and expertise.

The certification is not required for my role as an Associate Creative Director, but as I am developing an accessibility program and taking on a lead role in accessibility, I decided that this certification would be well worth the time and effort.

I spent 2 weeks prepping a few hours each day while I was on leave and sat for the exam. I took the prep course from Deque, which was \$45, and it was the only prep material I could find that had quizzes. I took those quizzes repeatedly over the two weeks until I passed them every time. I 100% recommend this course to everyone who wants to prepare for the CPACC exam.

I also polled the Stark Community and asked if anyone had taken the exam and had any study recommendations. Of course, Claudio LuĂ­s Vera immediately suggested I also read through the IAAP Body of Knowledge for the exam, and it is honestly not possible to pass that exam without detailed review of this document AND the documents it references / links out to. Claudio, as always, came through with clutch accessibility knowledge and recommendations.

There were two study resources I wanted but couldn't easily find: a Practice Exam and Easy Flash Cards. Even without those, I learned so much through the study process and I am happy that I sat for the exam, even if the exam was a bit rough (read a little further for more detail on this.) The exam covers core topics that are foundational to understanding models of disability, universal design and universal design for learning, accessibility governance, and organizational accessibility maturity.

The exam cost $450 for a non-IAAP Member. Even the membership cost, which is approximately $300, is fairly steep for an optional certification. I think this is something to keep in mind if you're interested in taking the exam — if the exam is cost-prohibitive, I would highly recommend taking the \$45 practice course from Deque and reading the Book of Knowledge. You'll benefit tremendously learning from that material without having to pay for the exam itself.

My CPACC exam experience

My thoughts on the process of studying for the CPACC exam are distinct from how I view my experience taking the exam. My exam experience is likely unique for a few reasons, but I feel it’s important to share and discuss.

The exam is proctored, meaning that you’re observed while taking it to ensure that you do not cheat. In non-pandemic times, it’s administered at specific testing centers in-person, but because of the pandemic, I was able to take it from my house. It still did require proctoring, so I had to complete a few steps in order to sit for the exam, which included scheduling the two hour time slot for the proctored exam session.

Signing up for the exam itself was more complex than I expected and was also implemented on a surprisingly inaccessible site. When I encountered form fields without labels and a calendar picker for the session time that relied on color alone to convey which dates were available and which were not, I started to become skeptical of the credibility of this certification.

The next step in the process was preparing my computer for the exam by installing the testing software. I also had to take a photo of myself (with glasses, etc. removed) and upload it before taking the exam so the proctor could verify that the person who signed up for my exam was the same person that sat for it.

I highly recommend installing the software and getting set up well before exam time just in case something goes awry. I, however, neglected to do this with much lead time, but sat down 15 minutes before the scheduled exam time and got everything squared away, took that photo of myself, and waited, camera on, for the exam to begin at the start time.

The proctor started the session and I began the 100 question multiple choice exam. When I was about 5 questions in, the question on my screen vanished and I was then shown a message that said I was being connected with support. I had no clue what was going on, so I just sat there, waiting for something to happen, panicked that my computer setup was causing issues.

I sat there, waiting, for what felt like an eternity but was likely only a minute or so, until someone on the other side of a newly visible chat window began typing and asked me to take my glasses off my face, hold them up to my camera and show all facets, making sure every part of my glasses could be observed. Now, my eyesight isn’t bad enough that I can’t see without my glasses, but things are starting to get quite a bit fuzzier these days. What would have happened if that tiny green dot and the video view of myself weren’t easily visible without my glasses on?

I assumed, because the biometric photo at the beginning wanted my glasses off, wearing glasses triggered a review by the proctor and that I would be good to go after they confirmed that my glasses were not a cheating device and were, in fact, simply assistive technology to help me see clearly. But when I held up my glasses, the proctor noticed the Apple Watch on my wrist. At this point, every device I owned was in do not disturb mode and my phone was not near me, so I honestly didn’t even think about the tech on my wrist being a potential issue.

The support person then asked me to remove the watch from my wrist and store it outside of the test area altogether. During that process they also asked that I show them where I put the watch, as if it was a magic trick and I was the magician trying to pull one over the audience. I again began to panic as I removed it and saw the bookcase cubby bin behind me and to my left, grabbed the bin, put my watch in it, showed them I put my watch there, put it in the bookcase and held my watchless wrists back up to the camera for the viewer to confirm no watch remained.

They then asked me to show them the entirety of the room in which I was taking the exam: the floors, the walls, the ceiling, and everything that was behind me. My laptop was plugged into a charger and external monitor at my desk and I was slightly afraid that unplugging the monitor would cause issues with the software — the software deactivated one of my two screens while I was taking the exam (again, I assume to prevent cheating). I let them know I was plugged in and proceeded to show them everything I could about the space I was in with the camera. After I sat back down, they said thank you, didn’t have any more requests and told me they’d add the time I lost during that little sideshow back to my exam time.

I was quite a bit flustered at this point, but I sat back down, gave myself a minute to breathe and refocus on the task at hand. I was upset by the fact that the systems check they had me go through wasn’t done before they allowed me to begin the exam, but I put that in the back of my mind as best as I could and went back to the exam.

One of the biggest challenges for me as a test taker is rushing — I either don’t take enough time to fully understand the question or I hastily choose an answer and that rushing ends up being my downfall. Because the language and phrasing of each question and possible answers were rather important, I began reading the questions and answers aloud to force myself to slow down and to improve my ability to accurately comprehend the ask and possible answers.

Suddenly, the questions vanished again.

I was quickly frustrated again, thinking “WHAT NOW!?!”

The proctor messaged me and told me that I could not read the questions aloud to myself. This was the tipping point where I became angry.

I verbally agreed to not using my words aloud during the exam, and was allowed to resume. I finished the exam, reread all of my answers, and finished the test in roughly an hour, which was half of the allotted time. I immediately ranted about the experience to my husband because the whole experience bothered me. I left the exam experience flustered, disappointed, and convinced I did not pass.

In the time I spent in full study mode preparing for the exam, I learned how to build a more inclusive world. One of the core study topics was universal design for learning — principles for creating an environment where a diverse group of learners can consume new information in a manner that suits their learning strengths and demonstrate their new knowledge using the skills that allow them to most effectively demonstrate the mastery of the subject at hand.

Everything about the process of signing up for and taking the exam felt antithetical to the material it covered. That really bothered me, and I walked away from that exam wondering how many people had tried to sign up for or take the exam and could not participate after being presented with the same barriers I faced.

I especially thought about this gatekeeping as it applies to conversations being had in this space and in the larger design community about design / industry certification. In general I’m a fan of a process that applies more rigorous standards to the practice of design, but given my own experience with this optional, totally voluntary certification, I wonder if our gatekeeping is counter-productive. Why is it that, for a topic that is supposed to be about equity, inclusion and access, the process of obtaining the CPACC felt designed to exclude the very people its contents are supposed to serve?

I have a few suggestions for improving the exam based on my experience:

  • Use a testing vendor that provides an accessible sign-up experience
  • Consider additional test formats beyond a multiple choice test that could allow people that aren’t strong test-takers to participate and succeed in this certification
  • Reevaluate the need for such strict anti-cheating practices that disrupt the experience and could impact a person’s ability to successfully complete the exam

I sent the draft of this post to Sam Evans, the IAAP Certification Manager, to give the organization my feedback and the chance to respond to it so the response could be included in this post. While some of her feedback was indicative of positive progress in fostering a more inclusive certification process, her response came across to me as defensive and it felt like she didn’t really get my feedback. Since the response was long and detailed, the full text of the response is included as a supplement to this article, which you can read in detail at the following link: Sam Evans’ Response to Caitlyn Mayers’ Feedback.

I’m happy to report that I did pass the exam and successfully obtained my CPACC. I spent 2 full weeks studying a few hours each day, which is not a lot of time, but I’d like to think that the last 5 years of research, learning and growth in this space helped me prepare for the exam as well. I’m very glad I took the exam because the information I learned studying alone was worth it, but I have mixed feelings about it after my experience actually taking the exam. If we are to succeed in our effort to build inclusive spaces, our challenge must include reevaluating and dismantling the self-manufactured barriers we create along the way, including those present in the structures and practices of individuals, institutions and organizations we hold in high esteem.

Caitlyn Mayers is a visual designer with a decade of experience creating digital experiences. Caitlyn currently serves as Associate Creative Director and Accessibility Lead at CapTech Consulting and is a passionate advocate for Accessibility and Inclusive Design practices. You can connect with Caitlyn via Twitter or LinkedIn.

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