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

Inclusive, Accessible Email Messages

By Mike, 21 March, 2022

As we strive to remove barriers to building diverse, vibrant, inclusive communities, the way we communicate becomes extremely important. It is common to send out email messages to the entire community or groups within the community for various reasons. These messages are intended to help bring the community together. Often to share information about upcoming events, or news of things that are happening within the community.

But ... if these email messages are not inclusive and accessible, they may not serve to bring the community together at all. They may end up doing the opposite instead. This point can not be overstated enough! Think aboit it for a moment. If you receive an email message that was sent to the entire community that excluded you because of your age, gender, culture race and/or disability what does that do? 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! 

Yikes! This is probably not what we intended. But this IS what happens. This is not only a barrier to building the kind of community we all want to be a part of, but it is destructive to the community building process.

So what can we do instead?

This kind of practice should be replaced by the establishment of just relationships among individuals, communities, and institutions of society that will uplift all and will not designate anyone as “other”.
- Universal House of Justice


What makes an email message inclusive?

The first thing that comes to my mind is who is being addressed and how. For example, a message to a community that starts out, "Hi guys," is clearly not addressing everyone. Starting out with , "Hello everyone," might be much more inclusive.

If the content of the message uses jargon that is specific to only a subset of the members in the community, that might also not be inclusive. For example, even though many of us are tech savy these days ... Some are not. So if the message says something like, "lets meet on Zoom, you can DM me for the link and we will all have a great time!" Clearly some people who are not tech savy might feel excluded. They may not even understand what you just said. This is not at all to say that you can't invite your non-technical friends to join a zoom meeting even if they don't have, and don't use a computer or smart phone. But that might be the topic for another article.

The point is that if we don't take time and care to be inclusive in our messages then we might be doing more harm than good by sending them even if that is not what we intended.

Can you think of other examples of things that make an email message more inclusive?

Yolanda behind a computer desk burried up with a stack of keyboards
Yolanda working to update a computer at the office.  The keyboard was not working so she asked if we had any others she could try.  I brought her a few more.  She is now burried in keyboards just for fun!


What makes an email message accessible?

Accessibility is a term that is used to describe the design of products, devices, services, vehicles, or environments so as to be usable by people with disabilities. In this case, an email message.

The first thing to understand about making an email message accessible is to understand how a person with a disability will read it. People with disabilities of all kinds do use computers and do read and send email. But understanding how this is done will help you in making your email accessible.

For example, Blind people use software called a screen reader and sometimes hardware in the form of a Refreshable Braille Display. A screen reader will speak the text that is written on the computer screen. A Refreshable Braille Display is usually a rectangular device with grouped rows of pins. The pins are raised and lowered to spell out letters in the braille alphabet.

So what does this mean for you? You don't need to know Braille or produce anything in Braille as a part of your accessible email message. But the thing that you should understand is that both the Screen Reader technology and the Refreshable Braille Display do rely on "TEXT" from the computer to translate for use by a Blind person. This is an important point can sometimes be a source of confusion for some people attempting to make materials "accessible". These technologies can NOT currently translate pictures or images. Only text.

Does this mean that you can't use pictures or images in your email messages if you want them to be accessible? No. Of course not. You can and should use pictures and images in your email messages just as usual. That is, keep doing it but with one small addition. That addition is called "Alternative Text" or "Alt Text" for short. This is not anything more than a short description of the picture or image which gets added in a special place for images which get embedded into documents like email messages.

Alt-text will not affect how an image is displayed. It provides information about an image in an alternative text-based format. A screen reader will read this Alt Text out loud and the person using it will have context and meaning that the picture or image is intended to convey. I like to think of it as if my picture or image is being described for a Radio audience that wouldn't be able to see it. Another way to think of it is like you are describing over the telephone.

Why use this particular form of Alt Text to describe pictures and Images? Simple. Because it is and has been an International standard way of doing it now for decades. This is because there are many different kinds of Screen Readers. There are also many different kinds of Document types. And as you probably already know, there are many different email clients that send and receive these messages. That means somebody needed to come up with one standard way of dealing with accessibility that works across the board. That set of standards is called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) international standard. This covers both web based and non-web based documents; Including email.

The WCAG standards are there for everyone to reference anytime they are needed. They are also kept up to date as technology continues to evolve. These standards cover a wide variety of things that make documents accessible to people with all types of Disabilities. This even includes people who are simply aging and are having trouble with things like shaking hands and being able to click on small items that are too close together.


How does a Blind Person use a Screen Reader?

Now let's learn and understand more clearly exactly how your Blind friends use a Screen Reader to get accessible information from the computer. This way we can understand what will help make things accessible and what to change as we write our email messages.


How does a Deaf/Blind person use a Refreshable Braille Display?

Now let's see an example of a Deaf/Blind person using a Refreshable Braille Display. As you watch this video, please pay particular attention to what Haben Girmas message. She tells us that Disability never holds anyone back. Disability is not something that people need to overcome. The barriers that exist are created by society. And it's up to every single one of us to work together to remove those barriers. This is both powerful and completely on point for those of us who are striving to remove barriers that prevent us from building a Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible Community!


With Knowledge, let's take Action!

With a basic idea of how our Blind and Deaf/Blind friends will experience our email messages, let's look at a few basic things to consider as we compose them so that they will be accessible. These things come down mostly to basic common sense and also following some simple accessibility guidelines:

  • Improve the readability of your email by using larger font sizes

Generally, anything smaller than 14 pt on a desktop or laptop screen will be difficult for many people to read. Text can appear even smaller on mobile devices. It is usually good to use a font size from 14 to 16 pt. Keep in mind that you will likely have older people in the community who will love you for doing this.

  • Use fonts that are easy to read

The use of fancy fonts in email messages has become more popular. But before you use some crazy font think about how accessible it is. Some fonts are just easier to read than others. Sans serif fonts like Arial, Tahoma and Calibri are good standard fonts for accessibility.

  • Use color wisely

Make sure that the use of color is not the only way important information gets conveyed.

  • Use Alt Text with your pictures and images (unless they are decorative)

As we learned from from these videos, Alt Text is the International standard way to convey descriptive information about a picture or image. Different email clients will have different ways to add Alt Text as you include an image. 

There are two basic parts to consider when adding the Alt Text.

  1. The method for how to add Alt Text to an included image
  2. The content of the description that goes in the Alt Text block. This part for me is actually the harder part. Once you learn how to add the Alt Text tyou will do it the same way every time. But what you say requires some thinking on your part. Here is a link that provides some pretty good information on how to write good Alt Text to describe images.

Here are some links that provide step-by step instructions for how to add Alt Text to images using some of the most popular email clients:

Can you think of other examples of things that make an email message more accessible?


Other Important Considerations

If your email message contains more complex content such as tables or other special media formats, it is a good idea to consult the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for specific details on how to handle them.

Sending and Forwarding Email to the Community

If you are a community leader who is in a position of sending out email messages to the community or simply forwarding them, then you have an important role. Knowing whether or not an email message is or is not accessible is one of them. Making sure that the content of the message does not violate community ethical standards is another. For example, does the message contain any hate speech or incite violence? Does the message contain any racist content? Would you forward it if it did? Probably not. Why? Because it violates basic community ethical standards. This sends a clear message that says, "You are not one of us" and "You don't belong with us" ... Creating the ultimate "Otherness"! Does that violate community ethical standards? Is it a barrier to building a Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible Community? If it is then don't forward it.

Being in a position to send information to an entire community requires a degree of responsibility. Just because someone wants their message to be sent out to everyone does not mean that it should be sent. The sender is the one who is primarily responsible for its content. That responsibility includes accessibility. There is nothing wrong with telling the sender that it needs to be fixed before it can be sent out to the entire community. In fact, that would be the right thing to do. You could even be helpful in explaining what needs to be done and how to do it. You might even point them to an article like this one for details and a more clear understanding. Smile!


Final Thoughts

If we all took just a small amount of time to learn how to make our email messages inclusive and accessible, just think how much that would change some very important community dynamics. The way we communicate with each other does matter. Inclusion and Accessibility play a huge role as we strive to remove barriers in building Diverse, Vibrant, Inclusive, Accessible communities.

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