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Ramp in an attractive architectural interior representing content design accessibility

Accessibility in content design means creating business communication assets that everyone can access and understand, regardless of their disabilities.

In October 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for plaintiff Guillermo Robles to sue Domino’s Pizza Inc. for failing to make its website accessible to people with visual impairments. The suit was based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which includes legal guidelines to ensure that everyone can participate in society.

The central question was whether ADA protections extend to websites. Time will tell how the courts rule, but everyone agrees that the internet is a key facet of modern life. Everyone needs to be able to access the information that companies publish, whether it’s on a website, in an app, or printed on a page. Companies have a duty to consider audience members’ disabilities when designing their messaging. The first step is recognizing bias.

Accessibility Starts with Managing Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is “a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.” Bias leads us to see the world through our own eyes without considering others’ perspectives. Unfortunately, everyone is subject to unconscious bias. No one is capable of anticipating every perceived microaggression or physical or mental difference represented in the audience. Thankfully, there are a several steps companies can take to manage bias.

1. Build Diverse Teams

The first way companies can manage unconscious bias is to diversify their teams. For example, Apple is famous for having cross-disciplinary design teams. Most projects have a representative focused on accessibility to help steer product development in a way that accommodates everyone. Many of these accessibility specialists have personal experience overcoming the challenges presented by biased design. Developing a diverse workforce and creating environments that embrace disability-related feedback are phenomenal ways to manage unconscious bias.

One of the most underrated features of the Apple ecosystem is the focus on accessibility.

2. Educate Teams About Accessibility

A second way to manage unconscious bias is to get educated. There are training programs designed to help teams understand disabilities better. A knowledgeable and caring team can develop better messaging. The goal isn’t just to avoid running afoul of the ADA, but to respect your audience enough to serve everybody.

3. Conduct Multiple Reviews

Thirdly, companies can manage unconscious bias by creating feedback loops that ensure all messaging is reviewed by multiple people before publication. At ProEdit, our writers, editors, and instructional designers use a quality assurance cycle to double-check for all kinds of issues, including unconscious bias. When more people vet a message, there’s a higher likelihood that we’ll observe and correct exclusionary messaging and design. There are a lot of guidelines to consider here.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is a global standard for web content accessibility. Version 2.0 of the WCAG was published in 2008, with version 2.1 published in 2018. The system is based around the following four objectives:

  • Perceivable: observable content presented in multiple ways
  • Operable: flexible interface allowing a range of input devices
  • Understandable: clear, simple language with comprehensible functionality
  • Robust: diverse compatibility across platforms, browsers, and devices

The WCAG defines three levels: A, AA, and AAA. In general, most significant organizations should seek to reach at least the AA level, which makes content accessible to users with a wide range of disabilities. Achieving the AAA level often requires significant website changes.

Disability Examples

The ADA does not explicitly list the disabilities it covers. Instead, it defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” A few examples include the following:

  • Autism
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Blindness
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Deafness
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • HIV infection
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Mobility impairments
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Partial or completely missing limbs
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Messaging and design should account for these conditions. The ADA mandates various accommodations. (Consult the ADA for specifics.) From a branding perspective, messages should also avoid stigmatizing, minimizing, questioning, or making fun of conditions like these.

Accessibility Considerations

The following design considerations are a good start to making your business communication more accessible:

Alt Text

Key images on your website should have alternative (alt) text in the HTML. Visually impaired visitors often use a screen reader to read website content. Screen readers read the alt text aloud. Alt text also appears for everyone in place of the image if it fails to load for some reason.

This is alt text being displayed in place of a broken image.
Screen readers use alt text like this to help people with visual impairments understand the images that content designers use to help tell stories.

Captions

Captions display spoken words and sounds as text for users with hearing impairments. Add captions to videos, elearning modules, and anything else that uses sound to relate your message.

YouTube captioning accessibility example
YouTube uses technology to generate optional closed captioning. However, manually adding your own captioning helps prevent speech-to-text software errors.

Narration

Any time a visual element in a video or animation is critical to your message, it should be narrated. Sometimes, artists make videos and animations without narration or dialog as a creative choice. Even then, it is a good idea to add an option to turn on narration for those who want it.

Our elearning development explainer video could simply have been a string of visuals, but we added narration to tell more of our story and make the messaging accessible to audience members with visual impairments.

Color Palette

Choose color palettes that people with color blindness can discern whenever color choice is a functional rather than a decorative decision, such as color-coding, navigation, and warning systems.

Color blindness pallet boosting accessibility
Try to use color palettes that are accessible to people with color blindness. Remember that there are several kinds of color blindness. (Image: Martin Krzywinski)

Flashing Elements

Protect people with photosensitive epilepsy by adding a warning before displaying flashing elements, making flashing elements optional, using flash rates less than two Hertz, or avoiding flashing design elements altogether.

Screen shot of the photosensitive epilepsy accessibility warning in Disney Pixar's Incredibles II
The Disney Pixar film Incredibles II includes a photosensitive epilepsy warning before the film begins. (Image: BBC News)

Trigger Warnings

Consider warning your audience before displaying particularly disturbing images or discussing unsettling topics to avoid triggering people who’ve endured traumatic experiences. Now, some research suggests that trigger warnings may be counterproductive among populations without PTSD. It also suggests that trigger warnings may lead to suboptimal avoidant behaviors among people with PTSD. With that said, certain audiences may benefit from knowing that troubling content is coming, which allows them to prepare emotionally before being confronted with it.

A BBC News trigger warning example describing graphic violence and upsetting scenes overlaid on a non-autoplay video about Islamic State's violence in Mosul, Iraq
Some topics, audiences, and media channels may warrant some sort of trigger warning, like this BBC News video about violence in Iraq. Autoplaying video may not give audiences enough time to control the content they’re exposed to. (Image: BBC News)

Keyboard Interface

Design website navigation to allow complete control with just a keyboard. In most modern browsers, pressing the tab key moves the focus to the next navigable element in the webpage. In Google Chrome, a URL preview appears in the bottom-left corner. Press the enter key to follow the link.

Keyboard navigation using the tab key in Chrome with a URL preview for accessibility
This text link is in focus, so a preview of the destination URL appears at the bottom of the browser window.

Helpful Prompts

Provide all information required to engage with content on the page where it appears. Avoid requiring users to remember instructions from a previous page. This can help people with dyslexia feel organized.

Accessible elearning module with information about engaging the content available on the page where it appears
Elearning modules should explain how to engage the content on every page. This allows users to review instructions whenever they want a refresher. This module’s player controls also use a palette designed for users with color blindness.

Confirmation Feedback

Websites, apps, and other interactive media should clearly confirm submissions, selections, navigation inputs, and other engagements. Bold confirmation animations make it easier for people with various impairments to observe the confirmation. They can also provide extra assurance to someone with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Accessible Elearning Interaction
Interactive experiences like elearning assessments should feature clear feedback when users engage with the content. Maximize user orientation using a combination of text, symbols, link focus styling, and accessible colors.

High-Level Accessibility Acknowledgements

There are too many disability categories and use cases to cover in a single article. And, the topic of accessibility deserves more than just an introductory overview. However, every organization needs to start somewhere. This article is a brief introduction to help organizations start upgrading their communication design.

The Future of Accessibility

Accessibility is growing. Technology companies are doing more to help more people engage with society. As designers, we need to take advantage of these technologies to make content available to everyone. After all, modern culture is placing a higher value on accessibility than past generations did. Consequently, organizations that do not not keep up with the times risk enduring public shame for not serving people with disabilities. Dignifying people by giving them access to our media is the right thing to do.

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