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ACCESS ALL AREAS: ARE YOUR MESSAGES REALLY REACHING EVERYONE?

People’s communication needs can be very different, so accessibility within comms is important. This often means letting go of well-established practices and picking up new ones, which can take time and effort. But fail to do so, and you risk shutting people out.

WORDS: ISABEL OVERTON

29th September 2021

If someone told you your comms left them feeling confused or excluded, it would have failed its purpose and you’d vow not to do it that way again. But what if no one has explicitly told you this? And what if you can’t see the problem yourself?

Day after day, inaccessible comms is sent out internally, leaving certain members of the workforce feeling alienated and ignored. This could be for several reasons, such as language barriers or neurological, physical or learning disabilities. While many organisations have been doing this unconsciously, the impact is still the same.

“If employees can’t make sense of what is being presented to them, they may feel that the author didn’t have them in mind when creating it,” says Melanie Hinds. Melanie has years of IC experience and has taken time to improve the accessibility of comms and platforms.

“The result of this could be that they ignore the message,” continues Melanie. “If the message contains important information they need to know, it could have wider ramifications. They could also feel disconnected and disengaged from the organisation.”


Roadblock to success
“Accessible communication” is communication that is accessible to all users, enabling everyone to have a common understanding of the message being presented. In its simplest form, accessible comms should be clear, easy to understand and available to access in several ways.

Content designer Jason Theodorou works as an accessibility consultant for organisations. Over the years, he has found that workplace comms tends to be inaccessible because internal communicators are simply unaware of their audience’s needs.

“I often see the same mistakes happening across different organisations, due to a lack of awareness and access to accessibility training,” says Jason. “One common area where problems arise is all-staff events. The logistics of such big events can become overwhelming, but there are lots of simple things you can do to make them more accessible.

“Provide an option for subtitles or closed captions; distribute written or visual materials ahead of time; and make a recording available after the event. Doing this allows people to take in information at their own pace, and in a way that is easiest for them.”


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Comic sans is one of the best fonts for dyslexic users, as the shape makes letters easier to read. – Jason Theodorou

 

Another area in which Jason has found ICers fall down is infographics: “They’re often lovingly put together, but the use of fancy fonts can make it difficult for dyslexic users to read. As a result, something that was designed to be engaging ends up becoming the opposite.

“Infographics can also often lack colour contrast between text and background too, which is difficult for readers with partial vision.”

The issues around colour don’t just stop there; colour choice is a big barrier to accessible comms.

Melanie says: “Font colour and the use of background colour can greatly impact the readability of text. Online accessibility guides say to use white text minimally and, when using black text on a white background, an off-white background is better.

“Colour accessibility doesn’t just matter for text. It should be a consideration on any design. There are free professional checkers online, including web accessibility organisation WebAIM’s contrast checker. Use these for an efficient and quick way to check contrast combinations.”


Moving forward with language
The endless ways in which comms can be considered inaccessible can make addressing it feel overwhelming. There are plenty of simple things you can do with immediate effect to make your comms accessible, however, which should help ease you in.

Lisa Riemers, comms, content and digital workplace specialist, says: “Begin by committing to writing in plain language. Avoid jargon and spell out acronyms if they’re needed. This makes information easier to read and digest – including for those whose first language is not English.

“Lots of research has been done that shows even people that are technical specialists prefer reading things in plain English.”

 

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Lots of software has good accessibility checkers built in, which you can use to test your work. Be sure to back this up with a manual check, however.  – Melanie Hinds

 

You also need to be mindful of the language you use. Ambiguous phrases can be difficult for autistic people, who may take terms literally. There are also many common phrases and terms used today that people believe are acceptable but are, in fact, ableist and offensive. Phrases like “tone deaf” and “turning a blind eye” fall into this category and should be avoided at all costs.

You should also consider the context in which you’re using non-harmful words or terms in case it could be alienating colleagues.

Melanie says: “I’ve worked on a range of lifestyle and wellbeing corporate activities. In one such instance a May-time campaign slogan of ‘Walk this May’ was presented to me, and I queried how it was inclusive.

“Recognising it could feel alienating to some colleagues, I advised to change it to ‘Move this May’ and encouraged people across the organisation to tell us about the various ways they kept active. The result was a variety of stories showing a diverse workforce.

“It was a simple change, but one that may have made a big difference to some colleagues.”


Creating a clear path

The structure of content also needs careful thought.  “When it comes to where you present information, think HTML-first,” says Lisa. “Aim to put text directly on web pages or in the body of emails, rather than attachments. Well-structured, clearly laid out copy puts less of a cognitive load on people compared to downloading additional documents to get information.

“For documents and presentations, place content in a way that is logical for readers and use bullet points to break up content.

“Adobe Reader has a read-out-loud function. Use this to test how a screen reader – something many blind and visually impaired people use to read – will pick up information within a PDF. If you find the order is wrong, fix it. Or, if you’re able, ditch the PDF altogether – they’re not usually very accessible!”

Screen readers are also unable to pick up text when it’s used in an image. Instead of placing text in an image, make sure the information is available on the page. And where images are important, use alt text, which is written copy that appears in place of an image.

“There is an art to writing good alt text, and context is important,” says Lisa. “If there’s a picture of your CEO, who is recognisable to your audience as it’s on your intranet, it’d be a slightly different description than ‘close-up of a woman, standing outside an office’.

“If someone is using a screen reader, they will know an image is there, so there’s no need to start with ‘Image of’. You also shouldn’t give them information in the alt text that someone who is viewing the picture won’t have. Keep descriptions specific and succinct.”

Writing succinctly but specifically also applies to hyperlinks.

Jason advises: “Link text should be meaningful. Often screen reader users will choose to read out all links within a document as a list, therefore, writing ‘click here’ won’t mean anything when read aloud.

“It’s important users know where a link will take them when clicked, so describe the destination then add the hyperlink to the text.”


Channel audits
When it comes to accessibility, it’s not just your content that needs consideration. The channels you use will also have a big impact on how readily information is taken in, so review them accordingly.

When Lisa’s previous organisation wanted to tackle the accessibility of its intranet, it brought in an expert to conduct an audit.

“Vendors often claim that their tools are accessible – but it can depend on how those tools have been implemented or configured,” says Lisa. “We’d done focus groups with colleagues for our content in the past and received really insightful feedback.

“It may be that you need an external consultant, however, to provide certain expertise. An outside voice can give an impartial view and clear steps to take to improve.”

Jason adds: “In the past, people would create inaccessible intranets and then offer alternative formats. But accessibility is about creating a level playing field, so it is essential that your primary channels offer that.”

For videos, accessibility means including subtitles and having transcripts available where feasible.

“Covid-19 has increased the use of video for lots of organisations,” says Jason, “so it’s more important than ever that these channels are accessible. This includes choosing a video format you know people can access from home and avoiding flashing content.”

Creating one version of comms that is accessible for everyone is ideal, but when this isn’t possible, modified versions can help.

“Consider having a translation service to hand in case someone needs comms translated,” says Melanie. “This doesn’t have to be in-house, but it will pay off when you use it.

“And for heavy-set documents, you can provide simplified versions, which work better online and can prove more popular to read.”


The key to a happy place

Writing and sharing information in a way that is accessible to all brings organisations one step closer to providing an inclusive environment for employees. The benefits of this will be felt across the organisation, and lead to a happier and more productive workforce.

“When your comms is accessible, you’ve got some more assurance that you’re reaching as many people as possible and that your message will be understood and acted on,” says Melanie.

“You’re also supporting a more engaged workforce, as more people can see what’s happening in the business.”

There’s no doubt that accessible comms is ethically the right thing to do, but it can also be viewed as a legal obligation.

The Equality Act 2010 forbids disability discrimination, which includes a failure to make reasonable adjustments.

Lisa says: “Organisations need to be aware that there could be serious repercussions if they’re deemed to not be adequately addressing the needs of employees.

“The best way to avoid this is to be proactive and open with your workforce about working towards accessibility. Champion it for your organisation wherever possible and create buy-in from all areas.”


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Upload videos to YouTube and it will automatically generate a transcript you can download and use. Don’t just rely on AI, however; be sure to edit and sense check it before circulating. – Lisa Riemers

 

In 2020, Scotland’s nature agency NatureScot set up an accessibility programme, following changes in legislation that require public sector organisations to meet certain accessibility regulations. Run by the communications team, the programme began with a focus on NatureScot’s external activity, before turning its attention inwards.

Shelley Rennie, who until recently was leading the programme, says: “To support our external efforts, we implemented a training programme for colleagues to raise awareness around accessibility and embed it within the organisation. This included providing practical tips and advice for authors and communicators around making content more accessible. We also created an accessibility hub that has lots of useful information for people to draw on.

“Everyone who writes content is now more mindful of audience and reading level, and the content we’re generating reflects that.

“Embedding this way of working and thinking across the organisation has been possible because we’re taking our time to do it in simple steps. You have to advise and guide staff through processes like this – it can’t be done overnight.”


Lighten the load

Making sure comms is accessible isn’t the responsibility of just one team. Rather, different area experts will have their own strengths to add to the process.

“No one has a complete picture when it comes to accessibility, so it’s important to collaborate,” says Jason. “Colour, images and layout are huge barriers for users with access needs, so draw on your design team for support.  

“There are also lots of barriers that require technical support, like getting screen readers to work properly with certain software and making platforms more user friendly.

“Working with experts can help you to check, redesign and fix issues quicker and more effectively.”

The importance of working with members of your workforce who have specific access needs should also not be underestimated. As people with lived experience, they will be uniquely qualified to tell you what works and what doesn’t.

“If your organisation has a disability network, speak to them and listen to their experiences and preferences,” says Jason. “It might be easier than you think to make adjustments.

“You can also put a call out for an accessibility working group. This will draw in diverse voices and show the organisation is committed to accessibility and that it is viewed as a continuous thing.

“Finally, don’t be afraid to look outside of your organisation for help too. There’s so much value in working with expert organisations who have spent years researching accessibility and working with direct users.

“Acknowledge your limited understanding of accessibility and ask for help.”

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