November 21, 2023 by Robin Pizzo
75% of the estimated 42.5 million people with disabilities in America report using the internet on a daily basis. When done properly, the internet can be a powerful tool to increase freedom and independence among individuals with visual, auditory, cognitive or physical limitations. Making your website accessible is not only the moral thing to do, but it also improves user experience, mitigates legal risk and increases audience size. Your current audience likely has many individuals who will benefit from accessibility best practices as well as prospective audience members who may have previously felt excluded from your communications.
Email accessibility is the art of crafting email messages that everyone can use and understand – including those with visual, auditory, cognitive, mobility, and other permanent or temporary limitations.
This also means honoring diversity and practicing inclusion through your organization’s updates, promotional information and making sure that digital communications reach all of your supporters.
Have you taken steps to include folks who have low vision or other visual limitations such as color blindness? Are you thinking about cognitive limitations such as ADHD or the brain fog we’ve all come to know associated with a temporary illness such as COVID-19? Could there be language barriers such as folks reading your material coming from a household where English isn’t the primary spoken language? What about physical limitations such as the ability to navigate using a mouse? In addition to what you’re saying through your email content, it’s important to consider how you’re saying it. Each person’s abilities and experiences cause them to consume information in different ways and you may unintentionally leave people out of the conversations.
W3C has developed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, also known as WCAG, that help to define success criteria for accessibility in emails including: Use of Color (1.4.1), Contrast (1.4.3), Link Purpose (2.4.4) and Headings and Labels (2.4.6).
If you are lucky enough to get someone to open your message, you have about nine seconds of their attention. Make the most of it by considering these best practices with every message you send:
Plain language is a style of writing that aims to be understood by as many people as possible. From news media to health information, the way we write often creates barriers to who can understand it. Plain language aims to remove these barriers by using simplified sentences and everyday vocabulary. Learn more about plain language writing style at plainlanguage.gov.
Your supporters want to see themselves represented in your communications. Are the images you include diverse and inclusive, as well as related to the organization’s work and its supporters?
You are shaping the message going out into the world and what you select matters. The Selecting Inclusive Images for Public Media webinar explains the power you have working in public media to help break up the bias in our culture. The blog post How to Choose Inclusive Images for Public Media Marketing offers more recommendations as well.
If you are looking for more inclusive images from sources other than stock photo sites, there are other resources available.
In addition to the subject line and sender’s name, all emails also need alternative text to accompany each image. Alternative text (also referred to as alt text, alt tags or alt descriptions) is a written description explaining the purpose of the image. This text helps assistive technologies describe the image to allow for a comparable user experience regardless of someone’s ability to see the image. This text also shows if an image fails to load on the screen. Additionally, alt text helps improve SEO by helping search engines crawl your website.
Use this text to describe the purpose of the image and answer why you included it for those with low vision. What is important about this image for your audience to know if they can’t see it? If the image is purely decorative, such as a dividing line between content sections, leave the alt text blank and a screen reader will ignore the image. Learn more about how to write alt text.
Including more or less text than this can negatively impact readability. “This helps users with certain reading or visual disabilities that have trouble keeping their place when reading long lines of text. If the width of the text container is resized, it should be allowed to scale in a way so 80 characters or less are shown” (W3C).
Proper headings add organization and structure to written content. Using headings and making them visually apparent is especially helpful for users with cognitive disabilities.
Include appropriate headings in order (h1, h2, h3, h4) for clarity, navigation, screen readers, and quick scanning. Only include one <h1> heading. H1 is the main headline for the message and may help to identify the start of the content when using assistive technologies. Then always follow a logical downward hierarchy for all subheadings to keep the content in a logical reading order.
With each new line, the brain has to decipher where to focus the eye next. When center aligning, it may decrease reading speed and overall ease of consuming the information.
Readability is reduced with all caps because all words have a uniform rectangular shape which means that readers can’t identify words by their shape.
In design, we’ve gotten away from the underlines on hyperlinks and have been using color to distinguish them more and more. Can someone with a form of color blindness see the distinction clearly?
In addition to underlining, always add descriptive text with a hyperlink. Someone using assistive technologies will have no idea where “click here” or “read more” will take them.
Visual impairments, including aging eyesight, can make it difficult to read small text. Make sure all text is legible, including footer text and Unsubscribe links. Messages may be marked as spam if folks can’t see where to click to get off your lists.
Contrast ratio refers to the difference in brightness between the text and its background color. The contrast ratio of CTA buttons should be at least 3:1 between the font color and button color. This is the minimum ratio that has been determined to still provide clarity for individuals with degrees of color blindness. Additionally, CTA text should be larger than body copy text to help it stand out and make it clear to users what is a clickable button.
Have you ever clicked on a button and been taken somewhere other than where you expected to go? Adding spacing around buttons helps ensure people are clicking where intended regardless of physical dexterity.
If your audience cannot read your email content, this will ultimately lower engagement rate metrics and increase unsubscribe rates. By prioritizing email accessibility, you will also set yourself apart from competitors as a shocking 99% of HTML emails being sent are considered to have “serious” or “critical” accessibility issues. Lastly, creating accessible email content makes it easier for everyone to understand, not just those with permanent or temporary disabilities.
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