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Accessible electronic information and communications: small steps with a big outcome

There are some simple ways that organizations and content-creators can alter our daily habits so that people with a variety of disabilities who depend on a screen reader can understand information. What is a screen reader? A screen reader reads aloud electronic communications.

Unfortunately, screen readers cannot decide for the end-user what is relevant or irrelevant information. Based on the type of document and format, the screen reader may also provide information in a way that makes no sense to the end-user. Some fixes are relatively easy, others take a little education and yes, others take more education.

I am not focusing on making your website fully accessible or how to make all existing electronic information accessible. I want to discuss the present and the future with the intent to stop organizations from creating inaccessible or aggravating information and communications. This article is just a first step to give you the heads up on some simple changes you can establish now. Other steps can help you prioritize the changes that may be necessary in your organization.

Consider these screen reader tips:

  1. Email: When sending emails, use the BCC (blind carbon copy) section of your address to send bulk emails. Use just one name in the main address section. Otherwise, recipients who use a screen reader have to listen to all the names and addresses of everyone who is receiving your email. Not only is this aggravating and time consuming, but by providing only one name in the heading you will be keeping your contacts private.
  2. Pictures: The cliché that pictures replace a thousand words is not useful for a person who is blind or has low vision or vision loss. Use open captioning features and describe what you are trying to say in the picture. Hopefully it will not take a thousand words.
  3. Plain language: If you are talking to a wide audience it is always to your benefit to use plain language rather than specialized or technical language or jargon.
  4. Fonts: Use simple fonts like Arial and Verdana at a minimum of 12 points. Artistic fonts and italics can be difficult to read for people with a variety of disabilities.
  5. Colour contrast: Electronic documents and websites should offer strong colour contrast and avoid using watermarks in the background. Always avoid glare. These steps can help any audience, which can otherwise be aggravated by unclear text on a colourful background.
  6. Creating PDF documents: Adobe has provided accessibility features since Version 7, and improved them with Version 9. Spread the word that programmers should pay attention to the accessibility features, learn them and use them regularly.
  7. All electronic documents: Make sure your documents are accessible. If you are not sure, contact the vendor.
  8. Websites: An international organization called the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provides protocols and guidelines to ensure that web-based information is accessible to everyone. Make sure your programmers know how to build and maintain an accessible website. Make sure all of the people involved are aware of their obligations to offer accessible information.
  9. A best practice approach is to prioritize existing web content to become accessible based on:
    • Usability factors, for example, questionnaires, feedback or applications
    • Information that is frequently visited, legal or vital
  10. Encryption codes: Such codes are not accessible to people who are blind or have low vision or vision loss. Often the codes are so complicated that sighted users also have problems with accessibility. Offer an accessible non-biometric alternative method to verify you are dealing with an adult.
  11. Accessible website portal: Use the upper left hand corner of your website to direct a screen reader to read aloud that there is an accessible section of your website. By placing the prompt in the upper left hand corner the screen reader will speak these words first to the end-user. Make this a temporary solution while you are preparing to provide a fully accessible website.
  12. Free screen readers: There are free screen readers available. You can download one and learn how to use it. When providing accessible information, use the screen reader to identify problem areas.
  13. Free accessible website assessments: You can find out if your website is accessible by asking a company that specializes in creating accessible websites for an evaluation. You can also contact companies that sell software that maintains a website’s accessibility. These companies often help organizations test some sample pages of their website free of charge.

If you want to understand the problems that an inaccessible website can cause, visit WebAim for information.

Alright, so steps numbers one to five should be easy, and the rest should take some homework. On a go-forward basis, there is no reason for new information to be communicated without using accessibility features. However, old information is still a problem, and you can evaluate its continuing value.

Your organization will likely realize these changes will not just help people with disabilities. For example, accessibility also aids seniors, and clear communication helps everyone receive your message. If you start providing accessible electronic information as soon as possible, in the future you will likely save time and money. You might minimize converting information to alternative formats. You may also realize benefits and profits when your organization provides accessible electronic information to a wider audience.

Suzanne Cohen Share, M.A.
Access (SCS) Consulting Services

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Suzanne Cohen Share

Accessibility consultant and author at Access (SCS) Consulting Services
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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