Digital Accessibility in the Age of COVID-19

By: Lilian Aluri, REV UP Intern and NYU Vote 2020 Fellow at AAPD

August 25, 2020

A graphic illustration of a woman working at a desk with a computer, lamp, coffee cup, and plant. The woman faces away from the picture towards the computer and has long dark hair and wears a pink sweater and green pants and next to her on the floor is a gray cat.

COVID-19 has pushed the world into a new digital era in which we are using the internet more than ever for connecting with family and friends, tracking the news, organizing for social justice, working from home, and fighting off boredom. Zoom is the new bar, classroom, and more. You name it, and we have found a way to move it online during the pandemic. A GALLUP poll indicated that nearly 7 out of every 10 employed adults in the U.S. were working at home at least part of the time this May, and many businesses expect that some remote working will continue even after the pandemic.

In this new digital life, it is more important than ever to consider how accessible or inaccessible the digital world is to the 61 million Americans with disabilities. In the U.S., 15% of adults have hearing loss or a hearing disability, while about 10% of adults have blindness or low vision. Another 3% have intellectual or developmental disabilities. Many of us know that accessibility is important, but perhaps don’t know where to start or think of it as “too much work.”

This graphic displays a bar graph with the title in the top banner that reads "Types of Disabilities, Type of Disability Among Workers With a Disability: 2017" and the bottom banner has the logo of the United States Census Bureau in white and text indicating that the data comes from the 2017 American Community Survey. The data indicates with a bar graph that the breakdown of disability types in the workplaces is 34.4% ambulatory, 31.1% hearing, 29.2% cognitive, 21.5% vision, 16.4% independent living, and 7.5% self-care.

U.S. Census Bureau Data on Types of Disabilities in the Workforce

I’m here to say #1: digital accessibility is not only important, it is absolutely critical. Digital accessibility is about the shared human right to engage in the world we live in. #2: It’s not that difficult. Making digital information accessible takes work and requires planning ahead, but following digital accessibility is just another skill to learn. If we all can learn to navigate Zoom, we can learn how to provide captions for our events, and more.

Where to Start

Digital accessibility encompasses making virtual events, social media posts, websites, digitally shared documents, and more inclusive to people with a range of disabilities. Thankfully in 2020, we live in an era with endless resources for how to achieve digital accessibility. Below are some great resources from the disability community:

In this blog, we have put together some tips and definitions to get you started on making your digital communications accessible!

1. Social Media

Alternative Text

Alternative text (also called image descriptions) are word descriptions of what is in an image. Alternative text (alt text) and image descriptions allow people with blindness and low vision to experience images in addition to text when they are using a screen reader—an assistive technology that reads text on a computer or phone screen aloud.

While image descriptions should be used any time an image is included in digital communications, social media makes it easy to include image descriptions. Platforms like Twitter allow you to add alt text when making a post, and on Instagram and Facebook which allow for more characters, you can also add image descriptions at the end of the main text of the post. Some tips for making effective alt text include:

  • Keep image descriptions to the length of a tweet (280 characters).
  • Focus on what is important in the image and why it was included.
  • Quote important text in the image word for word.
A light blue rectangular graphic with "Digital Accessibility in the Age of COVID-19  |  AAPD" in small black text above larger black text saying "Example: Alternative Text." Below the text, on the right is a graphic of a woman sitting and on the right is the text: "Image Description: An illustrated young woman with medium brown skin, short dark brown hair and bangs is sitting on a white stool against a green background, and she is wearing a red sweater, pink cropped pants, and black slippers."

Readability

When writing, there are a few things you can do to ensure that your social media text is clear and readable:

  • Put hashtags and links at the end when possible so that someone using a screen reader can read the social media post without being interrupted.

2. Videos and Virtual Gatherings

Captioning

Closed Captions (CC) are lines of text, often at the bottom of a video or TV screen, that not only provide a text transcription of any words said but also describe other sounds, such as background music. Closed captions help make the audio part of videos accessible to people who are hard of hearing or deaf. While platforms such as Youtube may have automatic captioning, you make sure your video captions are accurate by using a captioning service to provide captions for your videos. Live captioning for events (virtual or in person) is called CART, which stands for Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART), and there are endless companies that provide captioning and CART services. Here are a few:

When coordinating captioning for videos and live virtual events, you can help captioners and speed up their work by sending them the names of all participants, the agenda, scripts for remarks from speakers, and the headshots of speakers. Captioners usually provide a text-only link to share with participants that can make the captions easier to read by allowing the reader to:

  • View whole paragraphs of the transcript
  • Control how fast they are reading the captions
  • Remove the distraction of the video or visuals

In Zoom, meeting hosts can assign a captioner so that CART is available directly in the platform. Note that when using breakout rooms, you will have to coordinate multiple captioners to cover the multiple breakout rooms. The number one thing to remember is to START EARLY with all of your captioning and CART needs, and make sure you have all of your captioners hired and any videos pre-captioned at least 72 hours before the event. It takes time for captioning to be completed and reviewed for accuracy.

Pink rectangular graphic with small black text saying "Digital Accessibility in the Age of COVID-19  |  AAPD" above larger text saying "Example: Closed Captioning." Below is an illustration of a computer screen with a city scape and a video play button in the middle of the screen. On the bottom of the screen are words representing captions in white text on black bars saying "Narrator: Over 8 million people live in New York City."

American Sign Language (ASL)

American Sign Language (ASL) is a language using hand and face movements that is used by about half a million people in North America, largely people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Learn more about ASL through the National Association of the Deaf. With such a large community of ASL speakers, there are countless ASL interpreters that you can hire to make your webinars and events inclusive. Here are just a few:

Just as we recommended when working with captioners, providing information on speakers, scripts and statements, and any other event materials in advance helps ASL interpreters prepare for events! 

For smaller meetings and gatherings, whether or not you need ASL will depend on your audience. But when hosting events open to the public, including ASL is key to ensuring everyone can engage in your event. Remember, ASL is its own language! Providing only captions to an ASL-speaker is like providing only English captions to a Spanish-speaker. When incorporating music (beyond background music), there are lots of ASL interpreter groups skilled in interpreting music, including DEAFinitely Dope and Amber G. Productions.

Incorporating ASL interpreters into Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms is easy! In Zoom, encouraging participants to use the “Gallery View” and select “View Video Participants Only,” will help viewers to prioritize the ASL interpreters. When presenting a slide-deck, Zoom attendees can select “Side-by-Side” view to ensure that ASL interpreters are still visible and can even pin the videos of the interpreters to their screen. Platforms such as Streamyard also allow you to choose a layout in which an ASL interpreter’s video screen is minimized but visible next to the main video screen.

Light green rectangular graphic with small black text saying "Digital Accessibility in the Age of COVID-19  |  AAPD" above larger text saying "Example: American Sign Language." Below is a illustrated computer screen with a video play button in the middle of the screen. On the left of the screen is an illustration of a light-skinned woman with dark hair signing in ASL as the interpreter in this example. On the left of the screen is a light-skinned man who is the speaker in this example.

Audio Descriptions

Audio descriptions in videos or presentations serve the same purpose as alt text for images. During a recorded video, audio descriptions of what is happening on screen enables people with blindness and low vision to engage more fully in media that is both visual and audial. Live visual descriptions in a zoom call might include describing one’s own appearance and video background and any visual graphics included in slide decks. Check out this example of audio descriptions during the ADA 30 Lead On Celebration this year. Disney has also committed to providing audio descriptions for many of their productions on the Disney Plus streaming platform.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Especially when it comes to planning live events, making sure that captioning and ASL interpretation are properly implemented can be difficult and any manner of things can go wrong (as with any aspect of event planning). Practicing and rehearsing your event in advance will help you prepare for what might go wrong with your accessibility technology. Also, the more events you host with accessible technology, the smoother your events will go!

3. Documents and Articles

Alternative Text

Much of the earlier conversation about image descriptions applies to images and logos included in documents. In documents, blog posts, and any other writing, make sure that your images are described. In Google, you can right click on an image and choose “Alt Text” to create an image description. Similarly in Microsoft Word, simply right click on an image and select “Edit Alt Text” to add a description.

Document Logic

Document logic means how you organize your document with titles, headings, and regular paragraphs. Both Google Docs and Microsoft Word allow you to change and create “Styles,” for all titles, headings, or normal text in a document. Using this feature to identify headings versus paragraphs of text helps screen readers understand how to correctly read different parts of a document. 

Yellow rectangular graphic with small black text saying "Digital Accessibility in the Age of COVID-19  |  AAPD" above larger text saying "Example: Document Logic." Below is a white box with a title, author line, and excerpt of a poem. To the left of the white poem box is a column of words with the header "Styles:" on top and underneath are three words each of which correspond to a section of the poem. The word "Title" has an arrow drawn to the poem title which is "Excerpt from 'Still I Rise'," the word "Subtitle" has an arrow drawn to the author line "By Maya Angelou," and the word "Body Text" has an arrow drawn to the body of the poem:
"Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise."

Plain Language

Earlier, we mentioned plain language when discussing Social Media. Plain language is about writing clear and concisely. Using plain language makes communications easy to understand for the general population, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and people who speak English as a second language. To learn more, check out this guide to writing in plain language from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD). For examples of plain language writing, you can also check out this COVID-19 Guide in plain language created by the Green Mountain Self-Advocates on the COVID-19 or this Guide to Contacting your Representatives in Congress by AUCD.

Yellow rectangular graphic with small black text saying "Digital Accessibility in the Age of COVID-19  |  AAPD" above larger text saying "Example: Plain Language." Below are two different sentences. The first sentence on the left has a red frowny face next to it and says "ORIGINAL SENTENCE: The fundamental purpose of AAPD is to advance the political and economic well-being and efficacy of individuals who have a disability." The sentence on the right has a green happy face and text saying: "IMPROVED SENTENCE: AAPD advocates for the political and economic empowerment of people with disabilities."

Text Size

Many of us remember our parents or grandparents complaining about text that is too small to read or face this difficulty ourselves. More people have difficulty reading small text than you may think. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, 1 in 10 adults have trouble seeing even with glasses or contact lenses. Using a larger font helps so many people to more easily read your materials. Instead of 10 point font, consider 14 point font or larger (16 point or larger on websites). 

High Contrast

Using images with a high contrast of very light and very dark colors can be easier for folks with low vision to view. The same tip applies to choosing font and background colors. Stick to text and background combinations that have high contrast, for example black text on a white background or white text on a black background.

Descriptive Links

A screen reader will read out all text, so replacing long links in a document or social media post with a short description of the link can be extremely helpful for all readers. Whether or not you are using a screen reader, reading “learn more about describing links” is much more helpful than reading “learn more” or reading the full link, which I will spare you from. Check out Oregon State University’s summary of using links accessibly and this example a screen reader audio from Dallas College.

Accessibility Reviews

Some document editing softwares can automatically check how accessible the document is and let you know what can be improved. For example, in Microsoft Word, you can use the Word Doc Accessibility Checker under the  “Review” tab.  For example, the Accessibility Checker will tell you if you forgot alt text for an image or have unnecessary spaces in your document. Adobe Acrobat Pro, a PDF reader, also has an Adobe PDF Accessibility Checker.

4. Websites

Making websites accessible involves a combination of all of the accessibility tips and tools mentioned above. Typically, making websites accessible involves some knowledge of web design, but thankfully there are many companies and guides dedicated to making websites accessible. Here are some companies that can help you through the process of making your online presence accessible and inclusive:

The basics of accessible website technology (check out Dreamhost for more items) are:

  • Including alternative text for images and graphics
  • Incorporating captions in videos
  • Ensuring that users can navigate the website using the keyboard
  • Using large enough fonts and high contrasting colors
  • Avoiding tables of information except when communicating data points

5. Remote Working

COVID-19 has forced many workplaces to work remotely, increasing the need for organizations to proactively ensure that their systems and communications methods are accessible to people with a range of disabilities. For both in-person and remote working, the first step to making an inclusive workplace is asking employees what accommodations would help them be more successful, on a regular basis, and following through with requests. People often know what they need best, so asking is always a good place to start.

When it comes to making working from home accessible, ensuring digital accessibility through the methods mentioned earlier in this article is important, but not enough. Providing work schedule flexibility and offering to reimburse office furniture or any other accommodations needed are two ways to empower employees while working remotely. How many organizations have adapted to remote working has demonstrated how valuable and feasible work from home is as an accommodation. Making work from home accessible can help make more space for all employees to take care of their mental health. For more information on remote working an accessibility, check out these articles:

Pink rectangular graphic with small black text saying "Digital Accessibility in the Age of COVID-19  |  AAPD" above larger text saying "Example: Remote Working." Below is a dialogue between two colleagues. Janna the boss whose icon is a black woman with short natural hair says "Please let me know if there is anything we can do to support you working from home!" Paul the employee, whose icon is a young man with medium brown skin and shoulder-length dark hair, says "Hey Janna, there are definitely a few things that would help me work better at home! Let's talk during our check-in?" Janna says "Sure thing!"

Start Somewhere

Making your digital presence accessible may take time, but the important thing is to start today, start with your next social media post, start with asking your employees about their accessibility needs. COVID-19 has brought so many challenges and tragedies to our world, but it has also given us an unlikely opportunity to transform the world we live in into a more inclusive and supportive world for everyone!

Notes:
1.  This article is far from comprehensive in covering digital accessibility technology and tools, please let us know what resources and tips you would like to share and anything that we are missing here. Email the author with additional recommendations to add to this blog at laluri@www.aapd.com.

 2. A huge thank you to the AAPD staff for providing input and feedback for blog! For best practice on digital accessibility, watch how organizations by and for folks with disabilities center accessibility in their digital communications. Disability orgs don’t get accessibility perfect all the time, but following their example is a great start!

 3. Language accessibility is another massive barrier. In the U.S., 1 in 5 people speak a language other than English at home. As you consider ensuring that your digital work is accessible, it is also important to consider how you can create translations of your work and incorporate language interpretation when possible.

4. If you’re having difficulty convincing your organization to invest in digital accessibility for inclusion and civil rights alone, it can be helpful to point out how adding alt-text and improving web accessibility can improve your Search Engine Optimization and presence online! Check out these links for more information on digital accessibility:

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