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8 ways to be inclusive, digitally

A refreshable Braille terminal attached to a laptop - Wikimedia

In this article:

Introduction

As an organisation, you should be mindful of how people of determination – disabled people – interact with your business online, either as your consumers or employees.

This includes your website, your intranet, your emails and your social media channels.

Indeed, UK disability charity Scope’s social model of disability refers to ‘disabled people’ rather than ‘people with disabilities’ because it says that “people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference”.

Those barriers can be physical (e.g. accessible toilets in buildings), caused by others’ attitudes, or digital. You want your digital communications to be as inclusive as they can.

It’s worth remembering that many features we take for granted today were built for accessibility and special needs. For instance:

  • SMS messaging was designed for deaf users.
  • Predictive text was designed for users with motor problems to easily type their message.
  • Closed captioning was created for the hard of hearing but is useful to read in a crowded airport, or to teach children how to read.
  • Remote controls, audiobooks and even email were originally designed to benefit the disabled.

Today, 60 percent of people without disabilities use an accessibility feature.

Digital trust

In a 2022 survey around digital trust, taking the views of 1,300 business leaders and 3,000 consumers into account, consultancy McKinsey found that ‘digital trust leaders’ outperformed their peers in business growth and loss prevention.

It also found that almost half of consumers would consider switching brand if they did not have digital trust in a company – and the figure rose even higher for millennial or Generation Z consumers.

While the survey focused on data protection, artificial intelligence policies and effective cybersecurity, the same can be said for inclusive digital communication – a foundational element in how a company does business.

The UAE and people of determination

The UAE refers to disabled people as ‘people of determination’ in recognition of their achievements in different fields. Its national policy to empower them was set in 2017.

In 2016, 15,782 people were officially registered as being people of determination in the UAE, according to the Ministry of Community Development. Some 62 percent were Emirati.

This aligns with the ‘We Are The UAE 2031’ vision’s goal of a ‘forward society’. It says a forward society will achieve “the prosperity of society by enhancing the capabilities of the citizens to maximise their effective contribution in all sectors”. Note the use of “the citizens” – meaning all citizens.

Microsoft’s persona spectrum

The UAE’s definition of a person of determination as meaning either a temporary or permanent disability also fits Microsoft’s definition.

Microsoft uses what it calls the ‘persona spectrum’ to describe a range of disabilities: it says a device designed for a person who has one arm could also be used by a person with a temporary wrist injury or a new parent holding an infant.

From the Microsoft Inclusive Design manual, infographic explaining the Microsoft persona spectrum: permanent, temporary and situational examples of touch, see, hear and speak
Microsoft’s Persona spectrum gives permanent, temporary and situational examples of ‘touch’, ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘speak issues, from the Microsoft Inclusive Design manual

It points out that in the US, 26,000 people a year suffer from loss of upper extremities – but another eight million have a situational disability and 13 million a temporary disability to their upper extremity. That encompasses more than six percent of the entire US population.

So designing online communications to be inclusive can affect a large percentage of users, meaning it can “solve for one, extend to many”.

Exclusion, Microsoft says, happens when we solve problems using our own biases. Those exclusions can instead be used as opportunities to create new, inclusive ideas.

[Related: How design thinking uses empathy to prioritise consumer needs | How to design-think your career]

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The W3 Web Content Accessibility Guidelines say that for content to be accessible, it must be:

  • Perceivable: It cannot be “invisible to all of their senses”.
  • Operable: It cannot require interaction that a user cannot perform.
  • Understandable: Content or the operation of user interface cannot be beyond their understanding.
  • Robust: Content must be interpreted reliably by user agents, including assistive technologies.

8 ways to make your digital content more inclusive

So hopefully you’re sold on why it’s important to create digital content that is accessible and inclusive? But how do you do it?

  1. What font do you use? Sans serif fonts, such as Arial and Comic Sans, can make letters appear less crowded and a font size of 12-14 point or more is preferable.
  2. Don’t use colour alone to highlight or emphasise. Red-green colour vision deficiency (colour blindness) affects around one in 12 men and one in 200 women. Others can have issues with blue-yellow colour blindness. You can use a colourblind accessibility simulator to see how your website is seen.
  3. Short sentences help everyone – they use less cognitive load or working memory. While 11-word sentences are easy to ready, 29 words in a sentence becomes very difficult. (That sentence was 15 words long.)
  4. Structure your content and use headings to help people scan a page, so they can decide to read it or not. Screen readers – used by visually impaired users – can read out headings on their own, so people can decide whether to listen to a whole page.
  5. Explain specialist terms and write out acronyms in full at first mention.
  6. Do you really need to use an image? If you do, you need ‘alt text’ – alternative text – too. Alt text describes the appearance or function of an image on a page. It is read aloud by screen readers. It also displays in place of an image if it fails to load, and is indexed by search engines to better understand the content of your page. Even social media platforms such as Instagram now expect users to write alt text.
  7. Links – when you put in a hyperlink, it must tell people (especially those using screen readers) where they are going. ‘Click here’ is a big no-no. All it does is tell the user that there is a link, not what content is behind that link. The text that is hyperlinked should explain the information the user will see when they click that link and ideally the site it is on too. Screen readers can read all links on a page out on their own.
  8. If you create online videos, audio files or podcasts, you need to consider closed captions for videos and transcripts for both video and audio as alternatives for screen readers and other accessibility tools. They are also useful for non-native speakers of that language. Today many users keep captions on all the time as they multitask. Search engines also like transcripts, as they cannot crawl or index videos.

If you make your content usable, you make it accessible. That means you’re optimising it for search engines – affecting how well you appear in search engines (Google and others).

So as well as being the right thing to do, there’s also a very good commercial reason to be digitally inclusive.

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