Striving to remove barriers that prevent us from building Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible Communities!

How to tell if an Email Message is Accessible

By Mike, 23 March, 2022

Your Blind friends will instantly be able to tell if an email message is accessible or not.  That's because they are using the Screen Reader technology which the accessibility standards are designed for.  If these standards were followed, then things work.  If not then there are usually problems.

If you write Inclusive, Accessible Email Messages, then they probably will be accessible.  You will know whether or not you followed the accessibility guidelines.  You can also talk to your Blind friends and ask for feedback.

But what if you are in a position of needing to decide whether or not to forward an email message to the community that you didn't write?

Now it becomes incredibly important for you to look at the email and compare it against the accessibility guidelines before forwarding it to the community.  Surely you don't want to create a situation where you are the one who is making the decision to exclude your Blind friends or other friends with disabilities.  If the message is not Accessible. don't forward it.  Refer it back to the person who wants it forwarded and help them understand how to make things right first. Accessibility is everyones responsibility!  Be an advocate in striving to remove barriers that prevent us from building a Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible Community!   This is how change happens.

Most of the features in an email message are easy to check for accessibility.  Remember, Screen Readers translate "text" into audible speech.  

The first thing to look at is whether the email message is made up of text or if it contains components that are not text.  Sometimes people send out an image that contains text. This might be the entire message.  It can often look just like text but sadly, for the Screen Reader, and for your Blind Friends, this will not be accessible on its own.

One simple way to tell if the message contains text or if it is an image containing text is to simply try to copy and paste some portion of what you think is text.  If it is text, you will be able to copy just a word or two from the text.  However, if it is not text, then you will not be able to copy just a word or two.

Remember, just because there is an image in the email message, doesn't mean that it is not accessible.  The thing that will determine if it is accessible is whether or not the image contains appropriate "Alt Text".

Now we are getting down to the more important aspects of knowing if what we have is accessible or not.  

The question is, how can we tell if the image(s) do contain appropriate alt text?

I can think of a couple of good ways we can do this.

#1. If you set your email client preferences so that images are not automatically downloaded whenever an email message is opened, you will be able to easily see the Alt Text if it does exist and be able to assess the value of what it says.

With your preferences set this way, your first view of the email message will be similar to how your Blind friends will experience it.  The message will show only text.  Any place where an image is inserted, you will see an outline of where it would otherwise appear.  However, inside that outline you will see the "Alt Text" if it is included. Otherwise, you will see, the image name or the words Null Image or something that is meaningless instead.

As a sighted person, I have been using this method for some time now and I am both astonished and disheartened by what I find.  The majority of images do not contain ALT text at all.  Most of the images that do contain ALT Text use extremely short and often meaningless descriptions of the images.  The vast minority of what is left are meaningful Alternative Text descriptions of the images.  

Conclusion: If we all needed to rely on the ALT text that is generally provided we would certainly be disgruntled at the very least.   However, not everyone does experience email images this way.  Sadly, it is only those in our community that are being "Designated as Other!"  But now there is also a growing number of people like you and I who care enough to set our email client options this way who are doing everything we can to part of the solution.

The good news is that by setting up your email preferences in this way, once you have had the opportunity to look at what would be loaded where the image will appear, (and check for Alt Text) you can click or select an option to go ahead and download the images when you decide.  At this point you will see the actual picture.  Before that you will be able to see the presence or absence of the Alt Text and its content if any.

This simple two-step process will not only give you a certain way to tell if the email message you are about to forward contains images with or without Alt Text, but it will also provide you with an added level of security since some vulnerabilities exist through downloading content that is not text automatically.

Here is an article from PC Magazine on How to Stop Images From Automatically Downloading in Emails.  It covers how to set this up for most of the popular email clients.

#2. A second way to tell if images in an email message do or do not contain Alt Text is to use a Screen Reader yourself.  Yes!  You can do this fairly easily.  Did you know that most Smart Phones come with a free built-in Screen Reader?  They do!  You can use the Screen Reader on your phone to read the email message exactly the same way many of your Blind friends read the same email message.  This is the absolute best and most surefire way to tell if the email is accessible to a Screen Reader.

Using this method does require that you learn at least some basic things about how to use the Screen Reader on your Smart Phone.  For example, how to set it up in the settings (under Accessibility) so that you can easily turn this feature on and off with a shortcut.  You will want to know how to do this because once you enable the Screen Reader all of the gestures for swiping on your Smart Phone will change to work with the Screen Reader instead of the way you may be used to using them as a sighted person.  So this is important information before you simply turn this feature on.

You will want to spend some time learning the new gestures so that you can navigate through an email message using the Screen Reader on your Smart Phone.  Once you do, you will easily be able to tell when you come to any images, whether or not they contain the "Alt Text".  You will also be able to tell if that "Alt Text" has any valuable meaning.  For example a Photo with "Alt Text" that simply says "Picture" is not at all useful.

Once you are finished checking the email message for accessibility using the Screen Reader on your Smart Phone, you can simply turn it back off with the shortcut setting.  This is the way I like to check things for accessibility.

Here are some links to information about how to Set up and use the Screen Reader on the most popular Smart Phones.

Final Thoughts

Can you think of other readily available ways that most people can check an email message to see if "Alt Text" has been added to the images?

I realize that the steps in this article may seem a bit more advanced for some people. But really they are not all that advanced if you think about it.  Not much more advanced than sending pictures in the first place or changing other settings in your email client.  And well, Blind people do need to take the time to learn how to use the Screen Reader on their phones.  If they can do it, so can you.  It's only a matter of a small amount of time and learning.

However, if you are a community leader and you job is to send out or to forward email messages to the community, then this is Mission Critical.  Mission Critical to make certain that email messages are Inclusive and Accessible before they go out to the community.  Take the time to learn how to check if they are.

Remember, if you are being excluded from Community Wide Messages because of age, gender, culture race and/or disability, this is simply wrong! This sends a clear message that says, "You are not one of us" and "You don't belong with us" ... Creating the ultimate "Otherness"!  There is no possible excuse that makes this OK!  People with disabilities have already heard every excuse imaginable.  The right thing to do is fix the problem. Remove the barriers that prevent us from building Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible Communities! 

As we strive to remove barriers that prevent us from building a Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible Community, we also take the time to learn these things.  This is time well spent!

Hopefully this will help!


Striving to remove barriers that prevent us from building a Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible Community!