All aboard the community platform! If you want everyone in your organization to engage on your community, you need to make sure it’s accessible for everyone, including people with visual impairments or physical impairments that prevent them from using a mouse.
All websites should strive to achieve accessibility principles. So how do you make sure your website is as accessible as it can be? Really, there are three different parts to the puzzle, especially for social and community-centered online experiences: what a software platform offers, what administrators running your platform can do, and what your members and users can do.
Accessibility built into the platform
There are tricks and steps you can take, no matter the platform, to increase your site’s accessibility. But at the end of the day, some things are out of your control and dependent on the platform you use. It’s important to learn about a platform’s features before choosing. What should you look for?
- Keyboard navigation with skip links -- this sounds complicated, but it’s pretty basic. It’s a feature that allows you to use your keyboard to navigate through a web page. It has two purposes: help people who can’t use a mouse and connect to software that speaks the website to people who can’t see. As you tab through the website with the keyboard, the software says what’s on the page. Most websites have this. Test by pressing the tab key when you’re on a page; it will highlight the button selected. Just because this type of navigation is common doesn't mean you should assume a platform automatically has it.
- Allow posting through email -- often, this is sold as an engagement tactic; rather than requiring members to log into the community to engage, they can see discussions and reply via email. Even though all email isn’t inherently accessible, many people with specific needs find email providers or apps accessible for them. A platform that works through email essentially allows a person to take discussions from a community and interact with them in a preferred environment.
Accessibility administrators control
There are aspects of accessibility you can control regardless of platform. They range from basic tweaks to aesthetic choices to the slightly more technical, and will help ensure every member of your community can contribute.
- Don’t rely on color -- yes, color is important; the community needs to look good and stay branded. But color shouldn’t be the main tool you use to convey information - did you know one in 12 men, and one in 200 women, are color blind? If critical information is veiled in stylish color, people with visual impairments won’t be able to access that information. Color should be an added touch that makes a website pop, not the primary way you convey information.
- Pay attention to contrast -- even if everything is in black and white, contrast is very important for readability. Most people can read dark black font on a white page. How many people can read light grey on white? Or, if a person is color blind, it would be impossible for them to read light green on a grey background. It may seem over-kill, but is very important for the one in 30 people who have imperfect vision.
- Embed text in images (alt text) -- Adding an alt text allows assistive software to read a description for an image. That way a person who can’t see the image can still get information. For example, if your banner slide announcing your conference doesn’t have embedded, descriptive text, someone with a sight impairment won’t understand the banner’s information. If there is embedded alt text, as they use keyboard navigation, the computer will read the information out loud. This feature is critical for the one in 188 people who are totally blind.
Teaching your members to be aware
The final part of keeping your site accessible is making sure your members are on board. If you allow people to post documents to libraries or publish blog posts, they need to know about your accessibility requirements -- if their documents aren’t accessible, then they won’t be useful to everyone in the community.
- Create a member style guide -- this could be part of your member guidelines or related to your organization’s style guide. Include instructions for how to embed text in a photo and how to upload rich text PDFs that can be read by assistive software.
- Offer a quick accessibility training -- make it a habit to do a yearly webinar or discussion thread about maintaining an accessible community. If all members understand the requirements, you won’t have to continually remind or ask people to re-upload a document that isn’t accessible. It will also create a more welcoming environment to people who do have unique needs -- they’ll know you want them to feel included and be able to get the most out of the community.
What do accessible websites look like?
Some people may think accessibility will ruin the experience for some members or make the website look boring. That couldn’t be farther from the truth - accessibility standards won’t detract from members who don’t have special requirements or use assistive software. Plus, accessible websites often look cleaner, and are easier to navigate than non-accessible websites. Rather than seeing these requirements as stifling, see them as guidelines to help you build an attractive, navigable community that benefits everyone.
Accessibility is a spectrum
Even if you follow every rule, no website can be 100% accessible for everyone. Rather than thinking of it as an ultimate end-goal, think about it as a spectrum. Requirements change, new technologies come out, and you need to be able to adapt and change. It’s important to be aware of accessibility needs, listen and continue to educate your members. Diversity makes your community stronger and more valuable. The more people you can engage, the better.