Why Email Accessibility is the Best Place to Start Your Accessibility Journey

March 23, 2022

Digital accessibility isn't just websites

Email accessibility gets far less attention than it should. Just about anything you read about digital accessibility these days is almost certainly 100% focused on web accessibility compliance. In most ways, this makes a lot of sense. The recent rise in digital accessibility ADA lawsuits has mostly targeted websites (along with a few mobile apps).

While a heavy focus on the web is definitely understandable, email is a far more accessible entry point for learning about how to incorporate digital accessibility into your day-to-day efforts. The frequency with which companies send emails allows for more opportunities to practice accessibility techniques and quality control, which can make accessibility-focused thinking second nature. Businesses that rely on email marketing (i.e. just about all of them) should strongly consider beginning their digital ADA (and WCAG) compliance process with their email programs. (And those organizations that already have a digital accessibility program in place should make sure that their email marketing efforts are included.)

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What is email accessibility?

Digital accessibility is intended to ensure that all users, including those with disabilities, are able to access, perceive and interact with your content. It is important to recognize that the range of disabilities are wider than you might think, including everything from blindness and deafness to cognitive disabilities. This means that digital accessibility requires making content usable for assistive technologies like screen readers, navigable by keyboard, and highly readable for those using “standard” email clients and browsers.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been interpreted by the federal courts as applying to the web; while the federal government has not passed any laws or regulations that specify exactly what it means for the web to be accessible, the Web Consortium (W3C) has published Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that serve as a generally recognized standard for digital accessibility.

Why start with email accessibility?

Now that you know more about digital accessibility and how it applies to email, this is a great place to begin your accessibility journey. Emails tend to be a lower pressure, more self-contained and cost-effective canvas on which to experiment with accessibility, but everything that you learn can be extended to your larger digital offerings.

Email is lower stakes

Most ADA lawsuits and demand letters focus on websites, which means that your email accessibility work has less of a downside if it goes wrong. In part, this is because emails, by definition, have a relatively fixed audience (though they can be forwarded or shared on social media). Emails also tend to have a short shelf life; most recipients do not revisit emails that have already been opened. That means that whatever accessibility shortcomings your email has, the problems do not extend indefinitely in the way that they would for a website. Each email is a new opportunity and you can always apply lessons learned and try better next time.

Email reaches more engaged audiences

While the consequences of email accessibility violations are lower than the equivalent mistakes on the web, it is important to consider what kinds of customers and users receive your emails. Websites are published publicly and made available to anyone that is looking to learn more about your business or organization. Email is usually targeted at those users from your website that have declared their interest in your offerings by sharing their contact information or making a purchase from you. This should be an important consideration in how you think about email.

Keeping a customer is always easier than finding a new one and nurturing a lead can generate sales more quickly than sourcing new ones. There is a decent probability that a portion of your email list contains users with disabilities; you might as well start by serving these readers as well as you can.

Email accessibility remediation has a higher ROI

In the early years of the web, all websites used tables as means of building layouts. Web designers and builders have long since moved onto more sophisticated front-end coding strategies. However, due to the limitations of some email clients, emails are still largely built as tables. Making these tables legible to screen reader users requires a bit of work, but the simplicity of email layouts reduces the number of things that can go wrong.

Furthermore, most organizations have a limited set of email templates or modules that are reused for new emails. Very few companies custom code each email (or do so only under rare circumstances). When it comes to technical fixes (as distinguished from content such as images), there is a fixed amount of work that must be done. From there, the email code should largely be technically compliant on all future emails before a word is written!

Because each email is sent once (and cannot be edited after the fact), there is little ongoing maintenance work. While it is possible to introduce new issues in an email template, those changes do not affect emails that have already been sent. In contrast, it is always possible (and somewhat common) for coding changes on a website to affect legacy pages that have been around for a while.

How to make your emails accessible?

Hopefully, you’re convinced that email accessibility is worth tackling as your first step. What do you need to do in order to ensure that your emails are accessible and compliant with the WCAG?

Like web accessibility, email accessibility can be divided into two complementary categories: technical and content accessibility. Technical accessibility focuses on ensuring that your emails are coded to an accessible standard while content accessibility addresses the images, media, and copy that you include in a specific email. Typically, developers bear more responsibility for technical accessibility while editors and authors must take content accessibility into account. However, in many marketing email clients (like Mailchimp or Hubspot), email marketers often make direct HTML edits themselves that can impact technical accessibility requirements.

The full set of accessibility criteria is beyond the scope of this post, but here are some examples of accessibility-friendly design and implementation:

  • Ensure that layout tables are coded accessibly so that screen readers can understand that they do not contain data
  • Use headings in a logical way to organize your content
  • Make sure that all colors used in your email have sufficient contrast against the background color. You can test this yourself using WebAIM’s color contrast checker.
  • Avoid embedding text in images as the only way of conveying specific information
  • Add alternative text for all relevant images
  • Make sure that your email has a text-only version

Get started on email accessibility with Access Armada

We know that many organizations need help getting started on their accessibility journey. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on a web audit that you’ll then need to remediate against, let us get you started by making your email templates accessible and training you on how to make each email that you send fully compliant. This knowledge is transferable and applicable to your website as well and should give you a big head start in bringing your organization’s full digital efforts into compliance with the ADA and WCAG.

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