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We are not SHOUTING or SCREAMING! Font sizes and accessibility

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Recently I sent an email in a medium-large font to someone who thought I was shouting. The reply I received was disturbing. The person was offended and read the information as if I was angry. With one of my email accounts, I use a regular font for sending information to people who do not have a vision disability. In another email account, I have a larger font preset to make my email accessible to people with vision loss. I used the latter to send an email to a person with no difficulty with their vision. It is amazing the reaction some people have when seeing lettering in a slightly larger font.

I rapidly replied to the person explaining my position on font size. After receiving the explanation, the person was relieved. Understanding that this particular episode could happen again, I am considering placing some type of message at the bottom of my emails about the reasons for using a larger font size due to accessibility issues.

Fortunately, in this case, the person let me know her reaction to my email and I could quickly respond. In other cases, a person might just avoid me and I would have no idea what I did to disturb the relationship. Believe me when I say, if I want to send an angry email, the reader will have no doubts, and it will have nothing to do with font size. The issue about font size and why only certain font types are preferred when talking about accessibility, deserves another review on behalf of people with varying vision loss.

People who are blind use a screen reader. Screen readers can read basic paragraphs and are a whole other topic. This article is about meeting the needs of people who for whatever reason have a vision disability and can still read. The font size and type you choose to use when creating all sorts of documents is an easy way to make it accessible for people who have some type of vision loss but can still read.

With respect to fonts, Arial and Verdana regular (i.e., not italic) are considered the easiest to read, and both are free. Minimum font size should be no less than 12 points. The preference is 14 points. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) website provides simple Clear Print Accessibility Guidelines (PDF document) recommending 12 to 18 points, depending on your font type. Recommendations include:

  • Use fonts with a medium heaviness
  • Avoid light type with thin strokes
  • Avoid artistic fonts
  • Use bold type instead of italics for emphasis and resource references

The guidelines are quick to read and memorize. There are reasons for each recommendation and simple alternatives provided.

Documents that have not been written using accessibility rules, such as strong colour/tonal contrast, are also a problem. Use high colour/tonal contrast for text and backgrounds, for example, black or dark blue on a white or yellow background. You can also reverse the colours.

There are more recommendations when the discussion turns to other methods of sending your information. Other considerations for your emails include:

  • Avoid using complicated backgrounds, designs and watermarks. Complicated backgrounds are often difficult to read for everyone, with or without a disability. Without these options, there are still beautiful methods to provide information
  • Choose off-white to avoid glare. Bright white can cause glare, which can make information difficult to read for people with a variety of vision disabilities. Glare also causes eyes to get tired
  • Use colours only in titles or highlighted information
  • Avoid crowding your text
  • Design simplicity is the key to success

The CNIB and other vision-loss associations around the world have proven research that aids all of us to have a good quality of life. Well, at this time, so much for improving quality of life until everyone becomes used to the idea that large fonts are not always SCREAMING!

If, you are concerned when reading an email, by all means, do the author a favour and politely ask about their intentions. You may find out the sender has read and adhered to these accessibility guidelines. If the person is truly angry then send them a copy of this article and let them know that font size is no longer an appropriate indicator of anger. What is your alternative when you are angry? Use words to express your anger. I am frustrated that in our communications something as simple as a larger font maybe misconstrued as an angry email.

For those of you who use font size to indicate anger, QUIT IT! :)

Suzanne Cohen Share, M.A., CEO
Access (SCS) Consulting Services o/b 623921 Ont. Ltd.

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Suzanne Cohen Share

Suzanne Cohen Share holds a master’s degree in Health Policy and Critical Disabilities, including disability law. Suzanne is a well-known cross-disability accessibility expert and consultant, a popular lecturer, trainer, researcher and author.She is the author of Accessibility Standards PolicyPro published by First Reference Inc. Suzanne is the proprietor of Access (SCS) Consulting Services. Read more
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6 thoughts on “We are not SHOUTING or SCREAMING! Font sizes and accessibility
  • Hello Derek Read,
    Thank you for taking the time to read the article and clearly state the numerous issues to take into account when writing. I agree that the simplest method to write is to use plain language, paragraph setting is the easiest for users who do not know how to make a document accessible, and using bold for titles.

    You are also using a lovely size font when writing. Again, thank you for your time to educate others.
    Sincerely,
    Suzanne Cohen Share

  • Derek Read says:

    I would argue that one should avoid setting font sizes entirely in HTML emails. Send the same message to everyone and let them use their own software to help with any vision difficulties. Presumably people in such a position are best qualified to decide how to deal with whether they need to render fonts at a larger size and if this is a persistent issue for that person one would also assume that the software would be permanently configured to do so. Most software that displays text has some sort of “zoom” feature built in (often accessed by a simple gesture, like Ctrl+ mouse wheel or similar) or at least configurable through a menu or other settings (CSS overrides for example).

    Better websites have all moved to using valid HTML and relative sizes for fonts and layout so that a page can be scaled up or down without affecting the design, or to allow the layout to be thrown away entirely while leaving the pure HTML content. Relative font sizing could be used in an email if you feel you really you must differentiate portions of the message this way but that will depend entirely on the content and in the majority of cases I don’t believe it adds to the meaning.

    A writer is usually not in a position to know the exact needs or preferences for all their readers (email or otherwise). So, the less you do to get in their way the better. The reader then has less to muck around with to get their software to render things the way they want.

    Many types of formatting can be misinterpreted by different people (as with your example that ‘large font = screaming’). Some people have difficulty seeing certain colours and many cultures assign specific meanings to text depending on the context and colour (red might mean happy or angry, a name written in white text can indicate death, etc).

    It might be best to practice writing a first draft of a message in “plain text” to get as much of your message across as possible without the use of formatting and by using paragraphs and punctuation only. Then, if really necessary, you might add some simple formatting (bold or headings for example) to draw the attention of the reader to one specific section, or to break up a long message into many sections for clarity.

    You may find that you are forced to write more clearly, and choose less ambiguous phrasing, when you are unable to rely on formatting to convey meaning.

  • Hi Sharon,
    I’m glad you find the article useful. As far as I’m concerned as long as you provide appropriate credit then feel free to re-post. Thank you for asking!
    Cheers,
    Suzanne

  • Thank you P.J. Gardner. This article seems to resonate with many people. I hope the guidelines are used and considered helpful for everyone.
    Regards,
    Suzanne

  • Sharon Toji says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. I wonder if you would let me reprint it on one of my websites? I listed the website that I usually use for such articles, but also have another one, http://www.accesscommconsulting.com/

  • P.J. Gardner says:

    Very clear article, Suzanne. Thanks for summarizing the guidelines about making fonts legible as well.

    Best, P.J. Gardner