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



How to tell if an Email Message is Accessible

By Mike Thompson, 23 March, 2022

How to tell if an Email Message is Accessible -  email icons and people networking overlaid with hands typing on a laptopYour 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 Accessible first. Accessibility is everyones responsibility!  Be an advocate!  Strive 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.  

To determine if an email is accessible, you should check if it's only text or if it includes non-text components, such as images with text. Even if an image looks like text, it won't be accessible to a Screen Reader and your Blind Friends without additional measures.

If you're not sure if an email message contains text or an image with text, you can try to copy and paste a few words. If you can successfully copy just a few words, then it's text. But if you can't, then it's likely an image containing text and may not be accessible to those using screen readers.

Just because there's an image in the email doesn't mean it's not accessible. What matters is whether the image has appropriate "Alt Text" to make it accessible.

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. Setting your email client preferences to not automatically download images can help you easily see the Alt Text, if it exists, and assess its content and value.

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.

I have been using this method for a while now and I often find that images do not have any ALT text at all, or the descriptions are very short and unhelpful. It's disappointing to see that very few images have meaningful alternative text descriptions.

Conclusion: If we had to rely solely on the generally provided ALT text, we would be disappointed. However, not everyone experiences email images this way. Only those in our community who are designated as "other" are affected. But there is a growing number of people who care enough to set their email client options this way and are doing their part to be a part of the solution.

By adjusting your email settings to not automatically download images, you can review the Alt Text and determine if it's useful before downloading the image. You can then choose to download the image if you want to see it. This way, you can ensure that you are providing accessible content before forwarding an email message, especially those who rely on Alt Text to access the message.

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. To check if the images in an email message contain Alt Text, you can use a Screen Reader on your smartphone. Most smartphones have a built-in Screen Reader that you can use to read the email message, just like your Blind friends would. This is the best way to determine if the email is accessible to a Screen Reader.

To use the Screen Reader on your Smart Phone, you need to learn some basic steps. First, you have to set it up in the Accessibility settings and create a shortcut to turn it on and off easily. Once you enable the Screen Reader, the gestures for swiping on your Smart Phone will change to work with the Screen Reader, which you need to get familiar with. Therefore, it's essential to know these steps before you turn on the Screen Reader feature.

You will want to spend some time learning the new gestures that work with the Screen Reader. This will help you navigate through the message and identify any images that contain Alt Text. It's important to spend time learning the new gestures before enabling the Screen Reader, so you can easily identify whether the Alt Text has any meaningful description, as "Picture" is not 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?

These steps may seem a bit advanced, but they're not much more advanced than sending pictures or changing email settings. Blind people need to learn how to use a Screen Reader on their phones, and you can too with a small amount of time and learning.

However, if you are a community leader, it is important to ensure that email messages you send out or forward to the community are inclusive and accessible. This is mission-critical. Take the time to learn how to check for accessibility before sending out messages.

Remember, being excluded from community-wide messages based on age, gender, culture, race, or disability is wrong and sends the message that you don't belong. This creates a sense of "otherness" that is unacceptable. There is no excuse that can make this behavior okay. People with disabilities have heard every excuse and the only solution is to remove the barriers that prevent us from building diverse, vibrant, inclusive, and 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!

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