This is an Accessibility Emergency!

Done right accessibility is part of the planning process for communications. No organization wants to make their communications plan in the midst of an emergency, and in the middle of an emergency is a difficult time to make your accessibility plan. There are many things in this world that we make harder than they should be, and communication can be one of those things. In the past few months, we have all had to take a closer look at the way we interact with others. What we are finding is that people with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted by these changes. In a recent WebAIM study of all US states websites related to COVID-19 a vast Majority of sites were found to be critically inaccessible.

During the pandemic and its state-mandated restrictions, I’ve found that my frustration level with inaccessible content has gone up higher than ever. Here are some important ways agencies and businesses struggling to present vital information to the public can remain accessible while releasing the information as timely as possible. Here are six tips to make the display of vital information for the public more accessible to everyone, including anyone unused to reading scientific data, to ensure successful access, and to provide access to the physical spaces that everyone needs to share.

Tip One: Present information clearly

The number one problem I’ve seen with COVID-19 information pages is that the presentations are far too dependent on pictures. Of course these are useful, but they should not be the only way critical information is conveyed. Many COVID-19 related sites present information in lovely infographics. When a person with a disability encounters an infographic they may immediately be blocked from accessing the information, leaving them unable to make critical decisions that affect basic issues of life. Infographics executed properly can really help. But some key things need to be considered to convey the data accessible.

For example, someone with a learning disability might get confused if too much complexity is presented with no clear separation of ideas. A graph may be clear to someone who constantly reads graphs, but confusing to someone else confronted with numerous overlapping colored lines. State the most vital information and conclusions in text as well as the infographic. Don’t rely on the public to be experts in reading graphs, interpreting graphs or even being able to see the graph.

If too much information is included in the image or surrounding page, a person with ADHD may lose focus and never get to the most important details. Think about the top two or three things a person needs to know and limit your infographic to those ideas.

Tip Two: Bake accessibility into your infographics from the start

Another problem is that infographics are often thought to be not at all accessible so that you need to find some other means to present the information to a blind person. Infographics can be accessible but you have to use an appropriate tool to create the infographic. Use a tool designed to create data visualizations that are accessible to everyone. My favorites are Highcharts and Everviz.

Tip Three: Use plain text on web pages

The most frustrating thing I have seen in the past few months is old, long-standing accessibility problems rearing their ugly heads again.

Within a day of the California shelter in place, an agency that knows better posted a PDF that had been created by scanning a page of paper. The result was an image that contained no readable text for a blind person. Why am I still seeing this? After 25 years of talking about digital accessibility for the web, why are we still creating PDF documents, especially by scanning paper, to share information?

If you have information or instructions to share, for GAAD’s sake, don’t put it only in a PDF! An image may sometimes be worth a thousand words, but an image of text is worth no words at all to a reader who can’t see it. An image of text is also not searchable, cannot easily be reused because you must retype or OCR the text and, when posted on the web, the contents will not be indexed by search engines. You would hope that vital public documents could be found and read by everyone! A better option, even if you include a PDF, is to put the critical text directly on to a web page. Best is to make the page containing the critical text the page you publicize or link to. Don’t bury the lead behind vacuous useless landing pages that users must click past to get to the important information.

Tip Four: Pick your palette before the crisis happens

Many of the web sites containing COVID-19 information fail at basic color contrast rules. With so many easy-to-use tools to test this, some of them built right into browsers’ development tools, why are we still fighting this battle?

Choose a color palette early, test that its contrast is accessible, then make sure it is used consistently. Having an established palette means someone in a rush to publish information doesn’t have to spend time and energy thinking about text color and backgrounds. And you only need to do the work to ensure accessible contrast once.

Ideally, since you are probably posting to your existing web sites those sites should have been set up accessibly when they were created. Having all the infrastructure like your web site themes in place and being able to focus when you are under pressure on just getting the content out is valuable.

Tip Five: For “GAAD’s” sake, caption your videos

Consider a person who needs to know what COVID-19 symptoms are because they think they might have the virus. Their search turns up a video explaining the symptoms, but it has no captions and the person couldn’t hear the audio. This is a real life example. In this case, the person in the video was even reading from a script that could easily have been used to create captions.

Create captions, post a transcript, and do what you need to do to ensure people of all abilities can get your information.

Tip Six: Think outside the box: don’t literally leave people on the outside

Come up with ways to work around the new barriers posed by physical distancing.

This final tip is not about the web or digital space at all, but about in-person space. Though we are not currently dealing with each other in person much, when we are, everyone should still have access.

Early on in the pandemic, one of my friends told me that our local grocery store turned her away when she went to buy food. They said, “We can’t guide you around the store because that would break social distancing rules.”

If that’s true, were there alternatives? We came up with a few ideas that could have been used but were not. A guide could have maintained their distance but kept talking to make sure she could follow their voice. Or how about she could have listed what she wanted, and someone could have gathered it up and she could then pay like everyone else? Or they could set up an accessible curbside pickup, like calling the store for your order if a website did not exist.

Getting it right

As you can see from all of these tips, accessibility is not some burden that you would be imposing on your audience or customers, if you consider a few simple concepts. I know we’re all feeling stressed in these strange times, but think about the parent of a child who can’t find out if their school is closed because you took a picture of the school’s closure time table and just posted that, another real life example.

It’s been a very hard few months for everyone, but it’s that much worse for those of us who already face so many more problems with inaccessibility. With the significant added risks of COVID-19, we face more barriers than ever before. Think about who you’re affecting when you rush to release inaccessible content and only later stop to ask, “How can I make this better?”
it’s easier for everyone to get it right the first time.

By lucy greco

Lucy is a technology enthusiast that is passionate about getting people with disabilities the best access to the same technology as their able-bodied peers.