Monday, March 16, 2015

Are all impairments disabilities? See for yourself.

When trying to determine how to make your content accessible to people with disabilities, you may have already suspected that not all impairments are considered disabilities; therefore, no standards are absolutely required for assisting people with these impairments. For example, as many of us get older, we may not have 20/20 vision (or better), but with corrective lens (e.g., contacts or glasses), our vision may be brought pretty close to 20/20 vision. Therefore, poor vision does not equate to being disabled. Without those corrective lens, you might very well be blind, but in those cases, it is a choice that you make as an individual not to get the proper medical attention. How many times have you seen someone's grandparent mutter with annoyance that someone should make the print larger on something, so they can read it when you can clearly tell they don't own a pair of reading glasses?

Some impairments are not disabling by any legal definition, but they are also not always correctable with assistive technology or other aids. For example, I have a visual impairment. If you've never met me in person, you are probably surprised that I have any issues whatsoever. I get around on the computer very easily, chatting away on emails and social media and programming websites, and I don't wear glasses. Well, actually by law, I do: I'm required to wear them when I drive. But I can easily avoid using them in front of my computer most of my day-to-day activities. Why?

My visual impairment is that I was born with weak eye muscles (lazy eye), which essentially made one eye more dominant than another, convincing my brain to shut it almost completely off, in a sense, because my brain couldn't handle the information blending together in that odd way you would describe as "double vision." Without binocular vision, synchronized control over both eyes focused on a shared subject, I have (a) no depth perception and (b) am at a higher risk to lose vision completely in my weaker eye.

Right now it is just slightly poor vision, not blindness, so part (b) means I'm not disabled, but what about part (a)? The ability to discern the locations of objects around us is very important. I can't tell you how many times I've "miscalculated" while engaging in the world I'm trying to perceive, how many accidents, how many bruises, and how many cuts from hitting and sliding against things I should know are right there because I can "see" them - I'm not "blind." I just can't see where they are in relation to me. While this is causing me numerous injuries, it is not a disability. I can occasionally get it right (and do survive many a day without new injuries).

But there is another aspect that is becoming more prominent given our advancements in technology, particularly in the entertainment industry: 3D. Televisions are supporting 3D content. Movies are being filmed for 3D viewing. This content is not viewable by me, period. My brain cannot understand it. I cannot participate with everyone else in viewing this content. Thankfully, the same content can be provided in 2D, an alternative means, but that often means viewing it at a later time than it is presented to the larger audience.

Sound anything like these defined accessibility issues?
  • Creating a video with dialogue that is posted before closed captioning is provided, requiring the deaf to wait after everyone else has viewed the content.
  • Creating a flyer with textual content embedded in an email before alternative text is provided, requiring blind or low vision users to request the alternative content and wait after everyone else has viewed the content.
It's an interesting issue to me obviously because it is a personal one. I can function quite "normally" otherwise. That is, I can function without assistive technology (supported by your efforts to provide the alternative content at the time of information creation) or other aids for most of my daily living activities. Therefore, I don't have a legally defined disability.

So what impairments are, in fact, disabilities? There is quite a list among visual impairments. Here are some low vision problems along with solutions to make content accessible for users with these impairments:


The inability to see perceive some range of colors properly or at all. Examples are red deficiency, green deficiency, blue deficiency, and complete color deficiency.  See where you stand with this color acuity challenge!


  • The ability to read content based on a significant enough contrast in foreground and background colors (e.g., light color foreground against a white background, red foreground against a black background).
  • The ability to value or grade content based on the declaration of color(s) for importance or criteria of specific content (e.g., red for very important information, categories like dogs, cats, and llamas in the colors red, blue, and pink).


  • Design content with enough contrast between the foreground and background to make informative content legible. Check out this Colour Contrast Check application to see how compliant your colors are. As we get closer to the Section 508 Refresh, it will be important to focus on being compliant, at minimum, to WCAG 2 AA.
  • Identify important content or categorical content in more than one way. For example, important content can be red and bold. A required field could also include the term "required" or "*" with a definition of this term at the top of the form. Different categories can be defined at the top, such as C1 for Category 1, C2 for Category 2, C3 for Category 3. Similarly, you can define them with graphical icons using the alternative text on the images to assist the blind as well with the categorical references.
  • Never define actions entirely based on their color (e.g., "Press the green button to continue, the red to cancel.").

Macular degeneration

Associated with loss of vision in the center of the visual field.


  • The ability to read content based on its size, particular if it is textual information embedded in an image.


  • Do not create textual content for a specific size; don't use images for detailed information. Allow the user to resize or zoom in on the content by using text.
  • Do not create a burden on the user to view content by requiring a significant amount of horizontal scrolling in order to view that content. Make your content as responsive as possible (i.e., using percentages for the sizes of tables and images instead of exact pixel widths).
  • Keep text alignment simple to reduce scrolling and losing content. Do not use justified alignment ever.


Associated with loss of peripheral vision as well as an increase in the blurriness of visible content.


  • The ability to read content based on its size, particular if it is textual information embedded in an image.
  • The ability to read content based on its color, due to poor contrast.


  • Keep the font size, at minimum, 12 point, but allow the user to change the font size to meet his/her specific needs (there is no perfect solution for all low vision users).
  • Make sure the colors contrast well enough for WCAG 2 AA, but allow the user to change the colors to meet his/her specific needs (there is no perfect solution for all low vision users).
  • In general, make textual content text; the details should not be embedded in an image where they cannot be adjusted.
  • Do not permanently set the styles (using inline styles) for fonts and colors where the user cannot change them to his/her specific needs.
Other impairments with similar problems and solutions include diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, retinitis pigmentosa, and light sensitivity. If you'd like to see examples of how low vision users view content, check out WebAIM's page on Visual Disabilities. It also includes assistive technology that they can use. See also their examples on types of colorblindness to see how it affects the images and content you may design.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Your Questions Answered: Accessible Emails [Part Two]

As I mentioned in Your Questions Answered: Accessible Emails [Part One], I've received numerous questions about making your content accessible in emails. Members of Student Life brought up many that I've heard from multiple departments across our campus, so I'm bringing you more of the common questions I am hearing, along with new ones as they come up.

Question #1: I put alternative text on the image of the flyer, so my email should be accessible, right?

Imagine you are in a wheelchair, and there two entrances into the building. One is in the front, nicely decorated with beautiful architecture, plants, and even benches for students, faculty, and staff to chat between classes or during breaks. It is very friendly, welcoming, and has a great view of the campus, but there are two things going against it for you in your wheelchair: no easy door to open and no ramps. You'd have to use the stairs, and if you do that, you will need someone to assist you up.

The second entrance is in the back of the building where very few people go. There is a long, winding sidewalk that goes all the way around the building to the back entrance, but by the time you get there, you notice there is the dumpster nearby. Not the greatest smell in the world. Looking around at the back entrance, you also notice that it has been highly neglected: mold growing everywhere, no benches, no pretty flowers and plants nearby. No one is here chatting up a storm with a colleague. There is only the quiet and the smells. It looks scary and unsafe. On a good note, after all the trouble of rolling up to this second entrance, you find there is indeed a ramp that you can use to enter the building. Plus, the door has a newly installed automatic door opener. But with all these observations, you can definitely tell that this accessible entrance was done as an afterthought and not a part of the planning process in the first place.

How do you feel going through the second entrance? You know the building is in "compliance" with accessibility standards, but from a universal design point of view, are you being treated fairly? Not if you are forced to go a longer distance on a winding sidewalk to the back of the building. Do you feel safe? Not if you are going around to the back where few sane people would ever enter.

The virtual world of email is no different from the physical in this respect. You can create an accessible email in that you can comply with the standards that remove the barrier, however, you are still treating people with disabilities unfairly.

What happens when you put all the alternative text that could possibly be needed to cover all the actual text that is embedded in the image of the flyer?
  1. A blind user must listen to the alternative text through a screen reader in its entirety every single time they want to find the information they need from the flyer. There is no pausing, no skipping around, and no ability to copy and paste the information that is heard to another application on the device.
  2. A visually impaired user can use a screen reader as well, but they also have to deal with the small text on the image. It is hard to zoom in on this content and read it legibly, despite what an able user may still be able to perceive even in a text's blurry state at that larger size. Again, there is no ability to copy and paste the content somewhere else, such as a calendar if it is an event.
  3. An able user can also use a screen reader or zoom in on the text, but they still may have difficulty visually understanding the content. Even with good vision, the text may be hard to read, depending on how the blurry the text in the image might be. And despite having fantastic color acuity, an able user can still have trouble reading the text due to poorly contrasting colors. Once more, there is no ability to copy and paste the content somewhere else, such as a calendar if it is an event. It must all be done manually.
No matter who they are, no matter their ability, I have heard many people describe their biggest complaint about embedded flyers in emails as the inability to copy and paste the content into their calendars. Manually typing it in is cumbersome. It is annoying. It wastes time. It is frustrating. It is discouraging. Everybody has that problem, not just people with disabilities.

Feel like you had to go the long way around to the back of the building?

Question #2: Outlook is installed on all the computers on campus, right? So everyone uses Outlook to view their emails?

No. We have become a very personal device-oriented society. Everyone has their own preference. Even ten to twenty years ago, all of us computer nerds were arguing it out over Mac versus PC. Now, we have different sizes of Mac's and PC's, not to mention Androids, Blackberries, Kindles, and the list goes on.

Each one has its own operating system, and each operating system is compatible with a different set of email clients. But the list doesn't end there. There is a multitude of email clients, such as, Yahoo! Mail, GMail, and AOL Mail, available via a multitude of web browsers, and these web-based email clients function differently from the ones installed straight on devices.

Right now for every one person reading an email on their desktop computer via Outlook, there are nearly three viewing it on their Apple iPhone, getting a very different experience because, at minimum, the screen size is much smaller on the iPhone. Here are some of the realities we have to face in a multi-device, multi-client world:
  • Content wraps at different points depending on the screen size, despite attempting to format it with line breaks and smaller font sizes.
  • Not all fonts are installed on all devices or email clients, so the more creative font family styles you installed specifically on your computer will be changed to other font family styles often controlled by the email clients.
  • Not all colors are made available on all email clients or devices, so they default to what is available which may change the meaning of the message you are attempting to present, if not impair a user from reading it due to an unintended color contrasting problem.
  • Web-based email clients often remove your images by default to prevent spam or other security-related issues from infecting their users' email. Users must specifically "trust" you in order to receive those images. If your email is the first time they've received anything from you, they must judge you on this very important first impression.
  • Mobile device email clients often cannot or will not load your images, whether or not you have a strong internet signal.
You cannot create any message and expect it to look exactly the same on everything people may view it on, period.

Question #3: But I've seen some companies post amazing looking emails. Some are even "responsive," as you call it. Why aren't your training materials showing us how to make our emails look that way?

When I first started to approach email accessibility, given your concerns were similar to those about  general web accessibility, I tried to find a software program that everyone on campus already had (free), that everyone found easy enough to use, and that everyone would find easy enough to turn their print media (word processor document) into accessible electronic media (email).

I had two out of three (sort of).

And I swear I was trying to be patient with the software, but if I'm losing my temper with it, I certainly don't want to pass it on to the rest of you as the requirement or email client standard.

Even with a technical background, responsive is a huge leap forward with a major learning curve. Web Services is still coming to terms with it. If we are trying to use it correctly and dealing with a lot of trials that take a while to solve, that isn't productive for anyone else on campus, especially considering the technical skills required to achieve this higher and more accessible standard.

Services that could provide responsive emails (though accessible would still require the user to understand and follow the standards) will cost money, require extensive training, and still take a lot of time to create. Since our resources are thinly spread out, it is far more reasonable to ask everyone to do the basics which I provide in all my training materials. While they are "basic," I've seen some amazing examples of creativity, particularly with what the staff at Career Services has been posting (towards the end of this presentation).

I hope these answers help you all. Let me know if you have other questions. I still have many in mind, but I'll answer the ones most commonly asked first. If you'd like me to speak to your department, please contact me to schedule an appointment, and I'll happily work with your area about any questions you may have.


Resources for our Web Contributors

We recently posted a new how-to guide for web content authoring on our website. This publication includes tips for how to write to online audiences, tone of voice, suggested imagery, layout, how to order content, and more.

We do still have our technical guide with suggestions on how to handle accessibility for the web, create links, best file types, table usage, and more.

Our web content specialist offers weekly Cascade Server training sessions to all of our users. To get more information about these sessions and RSVP, contact Morgan Hammond,

If you need help with performing routine updates to your website, our staff can assist. Request web updates via our online form and someone in our office will make those updates for you.

We are of course still in the process of preparing for the big responsive conversion of Tarleton's website. At this time only the homepage is converted and published, and we are currently working on building content for our new searchable degree repository. After we complete work on these degree pages, we will move forward with converting the academic departments to the new format, and then the administrative departments. This is a long and intensive process that will be well worth the work to get there. We do appreciate any help faculty and staff can provide in getting us the necessary up-to-date content for these pages and websites.

Lastly, did you know that we have Cascade Server How-To Videos available on our training website? These videos step you through how to perform different functions in Cascade Server, such as logging in, creating links, publishing pages, and more.

If you ever have any questions, don't hesitate to call our office to speak to one of our reps. Our main line is 254-968-1819. You can also email our entire office by sending to We always have multiple staff on hand to help answer your questions about web updates, Cascade Server, or any other related topic.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Your Questions Answered: Accessible Emails [Part One]

Early this year, I was invited to talk about accessible emails with the leadership of the Division of Student Life as well as the staff and students who commonly send out email blasts to our diverse audiences. They send out a lot - and I mean a LOT - of emails because they have so many exciting and important events throughout the year. They have a goal of improving their event attendance which will improve our university's student retention rates as well as develop well-rounded students ready to face the "real world." My aim was to assist them in achieving those goals better by improving their communication methods, specifically with email.

Like all things, no matter how much work or preparation you do, you will always miss some information that your audience needs (professors are nodding their heads as they read this). I had adjusted my Lessons @ Lunch: Accessible Emails presentation to include examples of types of inaccessible emails that came from the offices of Student Life, but I received numerous questions during my presentation that it could not immediately answer. I've made vast changes to the Accessible Email presentation on the Web Accessibility website in response to all the valuable feedback, and I'd like to talk about some of those points here in a little more detail.

And for those looking for the quick escape from this article: I have the good accessible email examples you've repeatedly asked me for in the Accessible Email presentation thanks to the amazing staff at Career Services. Many, many kudos to Alana Hefner and Hillary King for the progress they've been making to become more accessible!

Question #1: We want to engage our students, and we know that graphics are engaging for our students. How do we continue to do that while keeping our emails accessible (legally speaking)?

This question has multiple parts. First, true. Graphics are engaging. I look through my social media, and I'm often drawn to the graphics. I'm right there with you, but from the legal standpoint of accessibility, you obviously cannot engage a blind student with an amazing graphic. You are losing a portion of your audience. You are also losing the purpose of the email itself.

Take a step back for a moment, though: what is engaging? The colors? The layout? Or is it the content? No matter how well designed that graphic is, unless it has information students want to use, they aren't going to attend your event. Make this your mantra: Content is King!

Second, when it comes to first engagement, you need to start at the beginning. When most of us open up our inbox to check our mail, the first things we see are: sender, subject, and date sent. That's it. No pretty graphics. No detailed event description. Just three small bits of information, all of which are important, but which one is going to have the greatest influence on someone to select the email for further viewing?

The answer: the subject line. You must have an interesting or engaging subject line. It isn't like the old days of "if you build it, they will come." No one selects and reads every single email in their inbox. They scan their email, organize it, delete the ones they don't find interesting (don't trust or looks suspicious, doesn't pertain to them, making their inbox too full they can't receive "important" emails, etc.). You don't know their preferences and organizational methods like they do. You have to start thinking like your audience and ask yourself, What would make them interested in reading my email for more information?

Third, there is no hard and fast rule that you absolutely cannot use graphics. Just keep in mind not everyone can view those graphics, including able users who may be using web-based email or have security settings that block images as well as able users who are using mobile devices in low internet signal areas that cannot load those images due to size issues, etc. Which brings me to the next question...

Question #2: Are we doing this just for people with disabilities?

From a legal standpoint, we are definitely making changes to our communications in order for people with disabilities to have better access to our email messages, but look at that last paragraph from Question #1 again. In order to help able users view their emails, we must use alternative text on our images, so when they don't load up visually, we have something to go by that represents the content we would be otherwise missing. That's right, methods to help people with disabilities benefit everyone!

As I mention often, we all suffer time to time from temporary disabilities. Go to a bar to watch a game on one of the many fancy widescreen TVs, and what can you hear? The chattering of your bar mates, not the game. You are temporarily deafened by the atmosphere you are in as you try to perceive what is going on at that sporting event. What do we provide deaf people with, so they can enjoy the same game on the TV? The answer: closed captioning. And do you use it at the bar? Yes! It is for everyone, not just the disabled. It makes life easy, just like automatic doors and wheelchair ramps (versus stairs) and elevators (versus those same cruel, my-legs-are-killing-me stairs).

A lot of great inventions have come out of improvements we've made for people with disabilities. They need it. You love it. We all benefit from it.

Question #3: Back to why we want to use this exact poster in our email: it is our brand or theme for this event. Plus, the artist put a lot of heart and soul into this. Are you telling us we can't use what the artist made?

I'm going to make a couple references to my own art training. As anyone who knows me well knows, I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I appreciate art in all its forms. I think most people know me for my photography these days (just a hobby, mind you), but I used to do graphic design back in the day and before even that, I took a number of art classes. Yes, I went the route of computer scientist, and even more sacrilegious to my own heart and soul, I added mathematics. So far from what I understood as art, I tried to make amends by continuing to take a few design classes here and there in college. And lucky me, fast-forwarding to now, my job allows me to be artistic in web design. But my art background was tempered by a couple things:

First, when it comes to art, there are two kinds: (1) decorative and (2) functional. A good example of how I draw the line between the two is when I made ceramic pieces in my art classes. A functional piece of art is used for more than show. In the case of a wheel-thrown pot, you can eat out of it or store food in it. Yummy!

Well, maybe.

Towards the end of the construction of the pot or bowl, you have to decide how it is going to look. If you use a glaze that is labeled not dinnerware safe, then your artwork is no longer functional; it is strictly decorative. Lead and cadmium are in some gorgeous color glazes, but they are extremely toxic. It makes me cry sometimes when I realize I want to use a certain glaze on a pot, but that pot can't have any food in it because I'd poison someone accidentally. Perhaps kill them. Scary. Sacrifices must be made in the design for it to be functional.

When it comes to posters I walk by on campus, I sometimes cringe due to some of that same design training. Posters are supposed to be functional art as well. If you can't read the content due to poor color contrast or illegibly created text, you are no longer dealing with functional art. It loses its primary purpose which is to tell the person viewing it the who, what, when, where, why and/or how of an event. Remember my mantra? Content is King! It supersedes all!

Second, when it comes to marketing, with non-profits like our educational institution or with for-profit commercial ventures, you must abide by the standards of the entity you are working for. That's branding, messaging, and whomever happens to be the marketing director at that time.

I had an amazing marketing director at my first marketing job, George Alexander (if you are reading this, I hope you are smiling). I thought when he'd hired me that he did so because I was just an absolutely amazing artist. I mean, he complimented all my work. Everyone did. They just loved my artistic talent (they thought my services were better suited at a commercial entity in Houston - one of my favorite compliments). But every single time I'd design a poster or flyer or brochure or whatever, he'd look it over, pause, and then tell me to change something.

Every. Single. Time.

Nothing I did was perfect no matter how hard I tried. Nothing was sacred. We'd have some discussions about why I'd choose one design element over another (like outer glows - you knew I'd mention them), but when it came to the final product, the marketing director got the final say. I'd show him different options, and he'd pick what he felt promoted the message the best.

I learned something very valuable that many people don't get these days:

This is not my work; this is my university's product. This isn't me. This is the university. There is no ego in this kind of design work. No one knows I did it. I don't put my signature on it like an artist does with a painting. I am representing an entity. I can certainly add it to my portfolio as a project I worked on, but when it comes to marketing to an audience, it's about the content, or the message, not the artist. Content is King! It supersedes all!

Including artists who must adjust their artwork to suit the needs of the entity they are promoting.

As always, please feel free to contact me about any other questions my presentations or articles do not explain. This is merely a "Part One" in a long discussion about accessibility in the communications channel we call email. It's a fairly new discussion not just for our university but for our global community. Many, many top commercial companies send out inaccessible emails. These poor examples flood our inboxes as the benchmark of email communication. Our understanding is based on the fact that our software primarily focuses on print materials. For example, while Microsoft Word will point out errors in your spelling or grammar, there is no paper clip that pops up automatically when you insert an image that says, "I see you are including an image in this document. Would you like to add alternative text?"

We have a lot of growing pains to get through because our technology culture is heavily focused on print media and not properly on communication itself. Because everyone has the technology, we are flailing around with our own ideas of how to communicate without support of agreed standards/regulations/guidelines or proper training on how to appropriately and strategically communicate through all our communication channels. I hope you will continue to give me feedback, so I can improve our training materials and answer more questions on this very important subject!