Making Your Digital Communications Accessible for People with Disabilities

By Jess Powers

With the rush to rapidly push communications out during the COVID-19 pandemic, accessibility considerations can fall by the wayside. There are a few simple things that you can do now to make sure that your online content is more accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Use Checklists for Web Accessibility

The web accessibility initiative (WAI) sets guidelines for making online content accessible for people with disabilities. This generally includes people with visual or auditory disabilities as well as people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities. People with some physical disabilities may also have difficulty navigating certain websites. But everyone should be able to access information independently and equally.

WAI offers a host of information and tools to use to make sure that your website is accessible for people with disabilities. However, sometimes these automated tools are inaccurate. It is always helpful, if possible, to ask someone who uses a screen reader to check a web page or document for usability.

Headers are Your Friend

Formatting informs and assists how people read online. Most people scan a page of content. A screen reader like JAWS “reads” the content of anything online for people with visual disabilities. Users can tab through text and images much like a sighted reader scans a page.

It’s helpful to break up text on the page so readers can jump from one section to another to find what is relevant for them. Bullet points, headers, and formatting important words in bold or italics is helpful. Use formatted headers so the reader can skip ahead.

Accessibility requirements are also true for PDFs or complex documents with lots of design. Where possible, design documents with formatted text and headers so the user can tab through the pages. It is also important to describe images — including complex ones like charts and infographics — using alt text. At the very least, providing a text version of the document for download is an acceptable substitute.

Simplify Your Writing

Write content for the web in plain language. The recommended reading level for people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities is at the ninth grade or lower. Some sources suggest the sixth-grade level. Most complex sentences are at the 12th-grade level, yet the average reader reads at the eighth. People who are non-native English speakers also benefit from language that is easier to read.

Hemingway app is a great tool to check that what you write is simple and clear. You can cut and paste your text into the main page, and it evaluates your sentences and word choices. Sentences that are hard to read are highlighted in red or yellow. You can usually break them down further and make them even more concise. Words in the passive voice or that can be made more direct are also highlighted. Hemingway app also estimates the grade level for a particular body of text.

From a user experience (UX) perspective, someone with a cognitive or learning disability may benefit from having information represented visually (such as through icons) as well as through words. The repetition of concepts or ideas is helpful.

Use ASL or Captions on Videos or Zoom

With the prevailing trend of Zoom calls and video communication as we are all social distancing, many organizations forget to include captions or to use American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation. Deaf or Hard of Hearing people may need these services. And people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities and English language learners may also find captions useful to follow along.

There are several free online tools available to create captions on a video. Presently, Zoom allows a host to assign an attendee to close caption a call manually or to enable a third party service. Like converting voice to text on your phone, the latter is not always accurate. It is generally necessary to recheck any captions generated by a service before sharing it online.

At the very least, it’s a good practice to ask people, when registering, if they need sign language interpretation or captions.

Be Inclusive

Just as you want to be mindful to include people of different backgrounds in images, it’s important to include people with visible disabilities in your content. Stock photos of people with disabilities are notorious for perpetuating stereotypes or for using nondisabled models.

Keep up to date with terminology that is acceptable and current for inclusivity. Back in mid-February, Mediabistro, a company that connects media professionals to jobs and training, sent out an e-newsletter with the subject line: “Are your stories lame?” Many people responded that this phrase is outdated and offensive to people with disabilities. They later apologized.

The Center for Disability Rights has a useful Disability Writing & Journalism Guidelines resource on their website. But if you do make a mistake, don’t be afraid to accept feedback, to apologize, and to learn from it.

Making content that is accessible for people with disabilities isn’t a perfect science. But showing effort towards reaching that goal is critical. And making information as available and accessible as possible is an essential skill in today’s marketplace.


About the author.
Jess Powers writes about marketing, food, and wellness. She has experience in nonprofit communications and emergency management. Follow her @foodandfury.