Why Universal Design
Accessible design should be embraced as a philosophy in technical communication. Three takeaways to build accessibility into your next project.
Accessibility is a life-long interest of mine. I started with the more obvious physical barriers of automatic doors, wheelchair access, and alternative computer input technology. In more recent years, I expanded by learning more about topics where I sometimes held inaccurate assumptions. I’ve found that when it comes to websites and office documents, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
I come from a journalism background and learned all the standard tricks to create a visually appealing layout. But often this type of design is difficult for screen readers to follow. I was sadly unaware of alternative text for graphics for too long. And while my pattern of utilitarian designs has yielded documents and web pages that work well for people with ADHD or autism, I feel I’ve failed my visually impaired audience many times.
We can’t rely on luck. Accessible design should be embraced as a philosophy that is applied to any project.
Accessibility in projects
My first really big job as a technical writer involved putting together a procedure manual for grant staff. Using interviews to find out what would be most useful, I decided on three outputs: hard copy, interactive PDF, and website. Providing the manual in only one format would have made the end product useless to a significant percentage of users.
This process parallels the argument for universal design. Why put in the effort to create a manual that only works for half the staff? Why create a website that only functions for neurotypical, able-bodied visitors with good vision and hearing? A diverse society has diverse needs, and failure to include accommodations for all members can send a message that not everyone is valued or valuable.
Because needs aren’t universal across all abilities and disabilities, there will be some cases where an audience needs more than one version of the end product, such as audio for some and print for others. It may be a little extra work, but it’s worth it if we’re going to be a society that includes all its members regardless of how differently our bodies or brains may work.
Accessibility in documents
Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that their downloadable attachments aren’t automatically accessible. PDFs, text documents, and even spreadsheets should all be checked for accessibility and modified if needed.
The use of styles, headings, and designated line spaces or indents can help reduce some of the most common accessibility issues with text-based documents. Most office software (including spreadsheets and word processors) have built-in accessibility checkers that are programmed to identify elements you may have missed. Common missing features include a document title (different from a file name), alt text, table headings or description, and high contrast between the background and text.
Accessibility on the web
If you’re responsible for content on a website, whether it’s used internally by staff or externally by clients or stakeholders, it’s critical to keep accessibility in mind. If you don’t know how to check the accessibility of your document, do a quick search for your software application and “accessibility checker.” You should get step-by-step instructions or even a video for this process.
Many web content management systems make it easy to create websites with high contrast options and alternative text where it needs to go (if you populate this). These websites can also be set up with hyperlinks that open in new windows. These all provide greater accessibility for your audience.