As someone who regularly creates a lot of widely distributed communications deliverables (documents, slide decks, social media campaigns, graphics, videos, you name it), I often think about 508 compliance. Years ago, when I got started creating communications collateral, I remember looking for a one and done training that would teach me everything that I needed to know about making a deliverable 508 compliant. I wanted to be able to confidently set forth on my design journey without worrying about whether I correctly made piece of communications collateral accessible.
The reality is, as I’ve learned over time, accessibility is not as straightforward as I originally thought. While 508 compliance is important, it is only the baseline for what accessibility hopes to achieve – unbarred access to the fullness of information and the richness of experience that a non-impaired individual has when interacting with deliverables.
While getting certified in 508 compliance for web design and having a 508 compliance officer around is extremely helpful in getting started, this should never be the end of a company’s journey to providing greater accessibility. Read on to figure out why.
So, what is 508 compliance? Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination based on disability in the federal landscape. Amended in 1998, Section 508 deals with equal accessibility to electronic information to ensure that individuals with disabilities can access it in a way comparable to that of their peers without disabilities. While the details are slightly more prescriptive than that, the goal is quite simple: Make the same information available to all.
This process includes steps such as (but not limited to) ensuring there is sufficient contrast between colors for colorblind individuals or ensuring that videos have timed closed captions for the deaf or hard of hearing. Sounds simple enough right? Wrong.
Even if we know what we should do, putting in the effort to think through what audience members may need, particularly when we don’t have the same needs ourselves, takes time. This is especially true in an age where most platforms we use to house and transmit information are new or updated every few months, meaning the development of accessible material is not simply a checklist, but a workflow that requires research and planning.
Though it may seem daunting, there are a several practical considerations you and your organization can employ to increase everyone’s awareness of accessibility needs and build a plan that will empower both 508 compliance personnel and others to ensure accessible materials are being generated across departments and functions as much as possible.
Consideration 1: Think about your audience.
Building staff capacity to understand and respond to potential accessibility barriers takes time and resources. Start by practicing incorporating 508 compliance into the development of internally facing deliverables. When conducting a meeting, don’t default to the style or format that is most comfortable for you. Rather, consider your audience and the tools/format they might need to absorb the information most successfully. Starting on a smaller scale can help you see the positive results more easily, which makes the impact of your efforts feel more personal. In turn, this can help solidify habits of building audience-centered deliverables.
Consideration 2: Understand disabilities that may come into play with different types of media.
When I learned that alternative text was needed to make a document readable, I thought I had cracked the Da Vinci code of accessibility. I went to go make a video feeling armed with my discovery, just to realize that since you can’t add alt text to a video, and even with subtitles, some agencies will require the addition of audio descriptions. For this same project, I also learned that for certain scene sequence transition speeds, there is a risk of seizure for those experiencing seizure disorders. The world of 508 is vast and requires a mindset of continuous learning to produce the best deliverables we can.
I came to understand that accessibility compliance is not an arbitrary set of rules that one must memorize, nor is it set in stone. The more we learn about others’ experiences, the more we innovate to make the world around us more accessible. Increasing accessibility requires a thoughtful understanding of what an individual may experience as a barrier to reaching your information in respect to the mode you are using to deliver it. Therefore, it must be reconsidered for each new platform and technology that you use.
When you are venturing into the use of a new medium, don’t be afraid to map out and define specific guidance on what types of compliant color combos, scene transition speeds, headers, etc. you will or will not use, and bake it into your branding and guidance the way you would for any other aesthetic preferences.
Consideration 3: Start small and then scale.
Every platform is different in the ways you can use them to make 508 compliant deliverables. For example, some social media platforms have robust functionalities for uploading subtitles on videos, some don’t. As opposed to trying to make a video tailored for all platforms, consider choosing one video production option and testing on one platform for accessibility and then add others over time.
Making a plan of action as to how you will use a singular platform/software to make the most accessible deliverables possible is better than using many platforms and having deliverables that vary in accessibility.
Consideration 4: Simplify your content.
This may sound obvious, but countless times I’ve experienced clients wanting to use movement, action, effects, lions, tigers, and bears (oh my) to convey messages that aren’t clearly stated under the guise of, “in addition to ‘ABC’, we want the audience to know ‘XYZ’.” To which I respond, “Then tell them ‘XYZ’, also.”
Design is only meant to draw attention to and solidify the message being stated. In most cases, graphic or other sensorily interactive elements are meant to connect those who may have trouble meaningfully absorbing text or voice alone to the content. In this way, certain design elements can be effective tools to increase accessibility for those who may struggle to pay attention or mine for key points in long formats, such as myself. But in doing so, we have to mindful that the content is accessible for all, even if delivered through different methods.
We have to get away from the tendency to use every feature just to show people that we can. The business environment is not a modern art class, where we want messages to be freely interpreted or to have deep underlying meanings. We need messages to be clear, concise, decluttered, and impactful. Design should help support the communication, not take away from it. If a design element, platform, or feature serves no purpose to the message, consider streamlining it, or taking it out entirely. While design can be used to enhance accessibility, we have to make sure that we begin with that purpose in mind to be effective.
Learning to do anything new can take time to implement. But as with any change management initiative, helping staff understand the value and benefits of change for your work environment, customers, and the public is key to getting people on board to making progress as a united front. Accessibility for all must also be considered this way – for one person, achieving it may seem complicated, but as an organization, better accessibility IS possible. Let’s continue prioritizing making content and deliverables that are accessible to all people!
Lisa Prather is a Strategic Communications, Marketing, and Change Management Consultant. She is an intellectual adventurer who enjoys learning about other countries, customs, languages and cultures.