Intentional Accessibility: Making Content Available to All

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Accessibility – the design of products, devices, services or environments for people who experience disabilities.

President Richard Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act on September 26, 1973, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in programs run by federal agencies. In 1998, Congress amended the act, which strengthened Section 508, requiring that federal agencies also make electronic and information technology accessible to anyone (employee or public citizen) with a disability.

Make content accessible – sounds simple, right? In an age where apps, software and websites are created faster than you can type LOL, ensuring that information is accessible to everyone is harder than you might realize.

Here’s the reality – making something compliant and accessible takes time, energy and intention. It cannot be an afterthought. If it is an afterthought, it will be a poorly designed one.

So, what can you do to make the content you create accessible? Let me share a few tips and resources I’ve picked up as I have learned about Section 508 compliance that might be helpful for you too.

I need some SPACE!
Microsoft Word documents are the plastic bottles of written communication (and they rarely get recycled either – we just keep producing new ones!) so learning to make these documents accessible is a huge step in the right direction.

One of the most common accessibility issues I have seen with Word documents is formatting. Say you want to add a few extra spaces between two paragraphs – what do you do? Most people opt to press the enter or return key (called a carriage return) multiple times. However, this manual spacing creates repeated blank characters, which poses a problem for non-sighted readers. The same issue occurs when you use the space bar or Tab key to align text in a document.

So, how do you fix these issues? Try changing the paragraph settings to create space after or before a new paragraph, and use columns and rulers to align text properly.

Check it out
Making Word documents and PDFs accessible is easier than ever with built-in Accessibility Checkers available in each application.

Microsoft Word’s Accessibility Checker is located under File > Info. Under the Check for Issues section, you will see the option to Check Accessibility. Word will review your document for accessibility issues, and a side panel will appear with the inspection results as well as information on how fix any found issues.

Adobe Acrobat’s built-in Accessibility Checker makes it easy to create accessible PDFs as well as perform full checks for accessibility. I recently used this checker and uncovered an error I was making that I didn’t even realize was an accessibility issue (making the document title appear in the application title bar – not the file name).

Use these checkers each time you create a document or PDF. Any excuse not to use them is just that – an excuse.

Which way do I go?
In a recent GovTech.com article, Sachin Pavithran, the chair of the U.S. Access Board and the director of the Utah Assistive Technology Program, stated that a major issue with website accessibility is situating content in a way that makes it easy for someone with a disability to navigate and prioritize information.

My team has been working on a website redesign for months, and the most difficult part of the process hasn’t been choosing a standard font or the images used on the home page. The challenge has been getting a consensus on how content should be laid out so it flows logically and is easy to navigate. However, in these conversations, decisions are based on opinion or preference – not a standard.

When it comes to the web, I agree with Jonathan Lazar, Professor of Computer and Information Sciences at Towson University, who wrote in a recent USA Today column that the regulations for web accessibility need to be reviewed and modernized.

Lazar states, “Denying equal access relegates people with disabilities to second-class status in society and deprives them of an equal shot at economic success and independence. People with disabilities cannot meaningfully participate in twenty-first-century society without access to technology, any more than anyone else can. That’s why accessibility is such an urgent matter of public policy.”

Additional resources:
How to Use Alt Text on Images in Your Communications, GovLoop Post by Lauren Girardin
Section508.Gov
Social Security Administration Word 2010 Checklist
Department of Health and Human Services Section 508 Accessibility Checklists
WebAIM: Web Accessibility

Lacey Scully is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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