Accessible Emails

The university is committed to fostering a learning and work environment in which everyone can access programs and services that the university provides. As a university, we depend on emails with wide distribution to notify staff, faculty, and students of upcoming events. These emails tend to include graphical elements, such as event flyers, that contain textual information. We must ensure that the messaging we send out can be read in multiple ways, including by assistive technologies such as screen reader software.

Currently, more than 4000 students and employees on campus have an accommodation due to a registered disability. Some of these individuals have visual impairments that do not allow them to see images or to read image-based text. In some cases, this is due to blindness or low-vision. In others, it is due to colorblindness or difficulties processing text in a visual format. If not constructed properly, the content of many of the emails we distribute will not be available to those who are blind, who require software to assist them to read, or to those who have configured their email clients not to download images.

Below are a few tips to help ensure that the emails you send out are accessible and inclusive. Be aware that following these tips not only supports the university's commitment to inclusivity and accessibility, it is also the law and campus policy.

Anatomy of An Accessible Email

Messages should not be sent that contain only images. The reason for this is that assistive technologies for those who are blind cannot parse the content of images. Even if they could, the structure of the information, conveyed by the visual layout and appearance of the image, could not be communicated. Including an external link that someone may click on to get the information is also not sufficient, because it requires those to waste time and do extra work when those who do not have disabilities can find everything they need in the message.

For an email to be inclusive of the widest possible audience of readers, three things must be present:

  1. The primary content of the message is actual text, not an image of text
  2. Images that convey information have alternative text descriptions
  3. Attached documents are accessible

Text Content

The most important aspect of an accessible and inclusive email is that image-based information is also present as actual text in the body of the email. For image that contain just a phrase or two, this is done via the alt text property of the image (see below), but that won't work for complex information, such as event flyers and images for use on electronic billboards. For these, you would need to include key information such as:

  • Event and speaker names
  • Description of events and speakers
  • Dates, times, and locations
  • Registration links or links for attending (if no registration required)
  • Affiliated unit and event sponsors
  • Anything else that someone would want to know from the flyer

The important thing is to consider the information that someone would need to know in order to identify the purpose of the image and get all the information they would want to know, such as how to register for and attend an event or to utilize a campus service.

If the flyer image is embedded in the email, the text you provide may come before or after the image. Placing it after the image can be desirable for marketing, as it allows for the attractive graphical component to be seen before the textual description, i.e. the image is above the fold.

Alternative Text Descriptions

As mentioned above, screen reader software cannot read and announce the content of an image. Because of this, images that are included in the body of an email must have an alternative description (or alt text). Without that alternative, images are simply announced as "image" or, equally unhelpfully, the name of the file and the word "image." As you can see, alt text is important.

Note: Alt text cannot be provided for image-based attachments to an email message. It is fine to include image attachments, just remeber to describe their content and purpose in the body of the email message.

Images Of A Phrase or Single Sentence

For images containing a phrase or single sentence, the alt text should be the same text as that contained in the image. Feel free to add punctuation for clarity, should the alt text be difficult to parse without visual layout.

Complex Images

Complex images are things such as flyers, infographics, and graphs. Basically, anything that contains more than a single sentence or phrase or could not be described in a concise sentence or two. For these images,  a full description as actual text in the email is require, but concise alt text is also needed. This alt text should do little more than identify the image for someone who cannot see it. The reason for this is that alt text is read in an all-or-nothing manner by assistive technologies. If the alt text is not concise, this makes it very difficult for someone to parse the information. Further, if a long textual description is also present in the page it is important that the alt text of image not get in the way of that information.

To use the example of an embedded event flyer, the alt text could be as simple as "event flyer." A screen reader would announce this as "event flyer image," allowing those who are blind to know what the image is and to move past it quickly to get to the text describing the content of the flyer.

For other types of images, such as graphs, consider how you would describe the key points of the image to someone on the telephone. Remember that the intent is to keep the description to one or two concise sentences, especially if there is a long text description accompanying the image.

How to Add Alt Text

To provide alt text for an image in Outlook, right-click on the image and select "Edit Alt Text..." For Email+, in Webtools, you will be prompted to add alt text when you embed an image.

Important: For Email+, be sure that the email template that is being used has alt text for all images. If not, contact whomever is responsible for maintaining the template in your unit and ask them to correct it.

Attached Documents

Where possible, documents, such as PDFs, that are attached to an email must be accessible. This can be difficult, if the original being attached was provided by a third-party outside of the university. You can ask the provider for an accessible version of the document to use instead of the inaccessible original. Explaining to them that the university is required by law to use and distribute accessible electronic documents is sometimes helpful.

In the event that the third-party does not remediate their document, it is still acceptable to use it as long as the key information that the document contains is reproduced in the email body.

Where To Go For Help

If you have questions about creating accessible emails or documents, contact your unit's IT Accessibility Liaison or the ADA IT Coordinator.