Creating and sharing resources–Word documents, PDFs, slides, etc.–is a key part of how foundations and organizations communicate about their efforts. But if these resources aren’t accessible, you’re automatically excluding millions of disabled people from engaging with the information you want to convey. Not sure how to implement accessibility in your development and design processes? This guide offers best practices and tools to help you get started.
Understanding Web Accessibility
People with disabilities navigate the web in a variety of ways. This means that building accessibility into your resources is crucial to ensure you’re meeting the needs of the widest possible range of users. Consider, for instance, that people who are blind or have low vision often use screen reading software to read the text on their device screens. An inaccessible resource means the software won’t be able to read the text. Or, consider the experiences of people with cognitive or sensory disabilities. If your resource doesn’t follow accessibility guidelines, it may pose a challenge for people to fully engage with and process it.
“A document is accessible if it has been designed and structured to be used effectively by people with disabilities. Assistive technology devices and software should be able to interact/access content effectively if documents are accessible.”
Ashley Eisenmenger, Public Relations Coordinator at Access Living, is blind and often does accessibility-focused user testing of digital materials (more about that process below). She explains:
“Encountering an inaccessible document is like hitting a dead end, but what’s different is you don’t necessarily know you’ve hit the dead end – you just don’t have access to information and you don’t always know if you’re missing important pieces of it. Depending on how inaccessible a space is, I may be able to tell right away I’m missing content, or I may spend hours looking for a part of the page that is right in front of me, but not accessible to me.”
Web Accessibility Guidelines
The gold standard for web accessibility are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, federal government agencies and federal contractors are legally required to comply with these guidelines. For all other entities, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility explains that while the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t specifically call for compliance with WCAG, it does require website accessibility, and striving to comply with WCAG is the best way to achieve that.
Accessibility doesn’t just benefit people with disabilities, though. A well-structured accessible resource is easier for everyone to use.
Implementing Web Accessibility
There are many free online guides and tools that can assist you in the process of creating accessible resources.
- Overview of Accessible Documents
Steps to follow for creating accessible Word documents, PDFs, and PowerPoint slides.
- Microsoft Word
Guidance to maximize the accessibility of your Word documents
Guidance on how to make PowerPoint files more accessible.
Guidance on the process of ensuring PDFs are accessible.
- Image Descriptions
- Guidance on describing images and writing alt-text.
Guidance on other best practices for image accessibility beyond alt-text.
- Data Visualizations
This guide from the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology addresses accessibility best practices for charts, graphs, and other visual presentations of data.
- Color Contrast Checker
Text and background colors must have enough contrast to ensure readability. This tool can help confirm that your color choices are accessible.
- Microsoft Accessibility Checker
This tool is built into Microsoft programs.
- Adobe Acrobat Pro DC Accessibility Checker
This tool is built into Adobe Acrobat.
- Be sure to offer a plain text version of any resources you create that includes the full text and descriptions of images.
- Use headings in your content. This makes scanning a document easier for all users, including those who use assistive technology. Make sure to use appropriate heading types (title, heading 1, heading 2, etc.) to make this easier for screen readers.
- Use tables appropriately, keep them as simple as possible, and make sure to clearly label columns and rows. Tables are very useful for presenting data, but they should not be used to control the layout of the page. For layouts, stick to using format options like columns and text alignment.
- Include alt text on images if your authoring tool provides this function.
- Avoid putting text in images unless it is purely decorative.
- Make sure your color contrast meets accessibility standards.
- Avoid using scanned documents when possible. If this is unavoidable, make sure the document uses a high quality scan.
Finding a Digital Accessibility Consultant
Understanding the basics of accessibility is a learning process and a key part of any disability inclusion journey. But you don’t have to go it alone. Digital accessibility consultants can provide guidance and services to help you build accessibility into all your resources from the beginning. When seeking consulting services, there are some important things to keep in mind. Veronica Bagnole, Digital Strategist & Product Manager at Mightybytes (the agency that designed this website), shares her main recommendations:
- Look for people who are honest and transparent about their knowledge. Web accessibility is such a new area that even the “experts” haven’t been doing it for very long. Also, WCAG standards are regularly updated, which means that the learning process is ongoing as web accessibility becomes more widely discussed.
- Ask for at least one example of a project that the consultant worked on that focused on or included web accessibility.
- Understand that the goal of digital accessibility consultants should be to implement accessibility and usability, not 100% WCAG compliance.
Conducting User Testing
Even if your resources meet WCAG standards, it doesn’t automatically mean everything will be fully accessible to users with disabilities, including those who use assistive/adaptive technology. Determining if a resource is actually accessible is best done through user testing by people with different types of disabilities. The process involves navigating a digital product and providing feedback on any accessibility issues they may encounter. Many companies and disability organizations offer user testing as a service, and it’s important to ensure that all user testers are fairly compensated for their time. For more, visit the Web Accessibility Initiative’s guide, Involving Users in Evaluating Web Accessibility.
User Testing Results
Bridget Hayman, Director of Communications at Access Living, advises that user testing processes should lead to the following results:
- Content and functionality can be perceived by all users
- Resource can be operated by all users
- Content and functionality are understood by all users
- Resource can be used on all devices and browsers