Three ways to make documents more accessible

Higher revenue and positive brand association are just a few of the benefits

It’s just another day for Erik Weihenmayer as readies his climbing gear at the bottom of a tall rock face in Colorado. He laces up his climbing shoes, tightens his harness, and straps on his helmet. With the help of his climbing partner, he double checks the number of carabiners he’ll need for the ascent. He chalks up his hands and begins to climb the steep cliff side, cars and trucks flying by underneath him; an ever-present reminder of the canyon floor several hundred feet below. He pulls his arms and legs effortlessly up the rock face and with each movement he is one step closer to the summit. However, Weihenmayer makes it clear that he’s in it for the journey, not the destination: “When people say they summit for the view, I think they’re missing a lot of the equation of why we do the things we do. The summit is, honestly, pretty anticlimactic. The movement is, for me, the most exciting part.”

Weihenmayer has successfully climbed the seven summits: the tallest peak on each continent. This is an incredible accomplishment for anyone, but he has accomplished this feat missing something that most of us take for granted: his sight. Weihenmayer is completely blind.

Accessibility matters. Period

Visual impairment is a term used to describe any type of vision loss. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 250 million people live with vision loss worldwide, approximately 36 million of whom are completely blind. As the senior population increases and screens are used extensively by people all ages, vision problems are increasing in frequency.

Visual impairment is only one form of disability, however, and there are many other types of visible, invisible, and situational disabilities that make it difficult to complete everyday tasks. According to the 2017 Statistics Canada Canadian Survey on Disability, one in seven Canadians aged 15 or older reported having a disability (this is almost four million people). The most common disabilities reported include those related to pain, flexibility, and mobility, which are directly related to the aging population. Furthermore, it’s important to understand disabilities through the lens of two opposing models.  In the medical model of disability the person is seen as being broken and needing to be fixed. The solutions are often afterthoughts, bolted onto existing products or services. In contrast, the social model of disability switches the lens to see the environment as disabling by allowing barriers to exist. The solution is to fix the environment (instead of the person), resulting in accessibility that is built into the design process, resulting in barrier-free products and services.

The aim of AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) is to do just this: remove barriers. The act was established in 2005 with the goal of making Ontario accessible to all by 2025. There are five standards that make up the act: customer service, information and communications, employment, transportation, and design of public spaces. Companies of all sizes (with the exception of those who are self-employed and without employees) must comply with AODA or face consequences. Government fines are one type of penalty, but bad PR, potential lawsuits, and loss of brand trust are longer lasting, and potentially more costly, consequences.

Although AODA sets the standards to make products, services, and spaces accessible to the greatest number of people, these standards reflect the bare minimum, and accessibility advocates do not see these standards as going far enough. AODA allows companies to rely on manual accommodations (for example, providing a screen-reader-friendly version of a property tax bill when requested), versus accessibility (designing all property tax bills to be read by a screen reader through good hierarchical design and document tagging, for example). The need for accessibility to be woven into organizational fabric is real and it has never been as easy to do as it is today – especially in the world of document design. From an organizational standpoint, often the greatest barrier to change is not knowing where to start. Although there’s a lot to learn, below are three ways to design both printed and digital documents with accessibility in mind.

Hard-working hierarchy

Hierarchy helps communicate the organization of content, through both spatial cues (indentation, line spacing, and margins) and graphic cues (text and image size, style, colour, and position). Hierarchy provides a roadmap for document structure, it allows readers to scan documents easily, establishes emphasis, and derives meaning from an otherwise complex block of text (imagine reading an unformatted textbook and trying to understand flow and meaning without any spatial or graphic cues – ick!) The key to establishing clear hierarchy is consistency.

Hierarchy is not only important from a layout standpoint, but also from a technical standpoint. By using styles in a word processing or layout program—Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or InDesign, for example—the document now contains an inherent level of hierarchy that can be quickly and easily understood by screen-reading technology. H1 or Heading 1 is typically assigned to the title of the document, making it the highest ranking item and what a screen reader will read first. H2 and H3 are nested within H1 accordingly and identify text in descending importance – subtitle and body text, for example. Skipping heading levels can be confusing and should be avoided when working to establish strong visual hierarchy and technically accessible documents.

Don’t rely on colour alone

Colour blindness, whereby limitations in the range of visible colours exist, affects up to 8% of the male population and 0.5% of the female population. Choosing colours with excellent contrast to one another is an important consideration to help colour blind individuals, as well as those who are partially sighted. Black text on a white background results in the highest possible contrast. However, if you want to add colour, online freeware like WebAIM (www.webaim.org) makes it easy to choose appropriately contrasting colours that comply with varying levels of web accessibility standards. Beyond colour contrast, it’s important not to rely on colour alone. When creating charts and graphs, use texture, shape, and text to convey important information. Beyond helping partially sighted readers, this is an important consideration if a graph will ever be printed in black and white. Can the chart still be understood if there is no colour?

Above are two charts: one in colour and one in greyscale. These charts demonstrate why graphic communicators must not rely on colour alone when creating charts. All three bars in the greyscale chart are the same shade of grey, making it nearly impossible to differentiate between them. 

Source: PennState’s accessibility resources

A pictures is worth 100 characters

For those with normal vision, viewing a document that contains images is a quick and easy way to better understand the document’s content. Whether a logo at the top of an internet bill, or a full-page portrait in a magazine, images help readers contextualize content. For someone who is partially sighted or blind, they rely on alternative text or alt text to describe the image, graph, or other media. Screen reading technology reads the image description aloud, in-line with the rest of the document’s content. What described video is to TV and movie-watching experiences, alt text is to images in documents. Alt text should be concise—approximately 100 characters—and meaningful. Alt text can be added to images in Microsoft Word (right click on the image > Format Picture > Web tab), Google Docs (right click on the image > Alt text…), and InDesign (with the image selected, click Object > Object Export Options > Alt Text tab > Custom).

Kevin Shaw, president and founder of TellMe TV Inc., demonstrated how he uses his screen reader to navigate websites. He said that even the giants like Amazon.ca don’t always get alt text right. When tabbing through Amazon.ca’s home page, they had forgotten to apply alt text to several images. Instead of hearing a description of each product for sale, tabbing through the images resulted in a stream of gibberish that sounded something like “19878_new.jpg, 19879_new.jpg,” and so on. Needless to say, this a frustrating experience for Shaw and a missed opportunity for Amazon.ca.

Finally, it’s good practice to caption all images, whether they will be printed on paper or displayed on the web. Placing a descriptive caption gives context to an image that may not otherwise be obvious, not only making a document more accessible to those with disabilities, but more usable for everyone.

Seeking universal human experience

While there is a lot to learn about making a company’s products and services accessible, there are so many positive side effects to putting in the effort. Innovation, increased revenue, and positive brand associations are just a few. Accessibility is a basic human right and it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that everyone has equal access. When adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, was asked what he is looking for in his adventurous lifestyle, his answer summed up why accessibility is so important: “I’m seeking universal human experience.” Aren’t we all?

Additionally, Weihenmayer believes that “it’s not enough to do things because you want to prove the world wrong…the most powerful engine is to be motivated by this question of ‘what’s possible?’”

In the world of printed and digital document design, let’s create documents that provide everyone with access. It’s not only the law, but it’s good business and it’s the right thing to do. Once built into your company’s culture, it will take little-to-no extra effort to design accessible documents from the start. By removing barriers and making everyday information more accessible, we provide a platform on which the Erik Weihenmayers of the world can continue to inspire and continue to learn what’s possible.

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Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.