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Digital Accessibility: Beyond Compliance

Making your website, email newsletters, and other digital marketing materials accessible to people with disabilities requires a non-trivial amount of work on both the technical front and in terms of design. More critically, doing it well requires a shift in thinking and a willingness to adjust your approach. 

That same open-mindedness comes in handy in making your accessible website welcoming in its use of language. For example, it’s generally considered better to refer to “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.”

As far as I know, there are very few criteria included in the WCAG guidelines that help guide our use of language. It’s considered a best practice to use the “lang” tag to identify for screen readers in what language the content is written — English, Spanish, Japanese, etc.

Beyond that, there are rules about providing means for site visitors to identify idiomatic words or abbreviations. But being more inclusive requires additional sensitivity. 

Don’t Define People by Their Disability

People with disabilities should not be defined only by their disability any more than anyone should be defined by their height or their hair color. As with everyone, they are the sum of a great many more parts. 

It is also preferable to avoid phrases that imply that a person with a disability is a victim. Again, the disability is only one part of who they are as a person. 

Avoid euphemism as well. “Differently abled” is only a little less clunky than “specially abled.” And both are pretty obnoxious. 

Remember That Language Evolves

And though people complain about political correctness run amok, there are formerly-acceptable phrases that are important to avoid at all costs. Most of these are pretty obvious: crazy, nuts, r——d, slow, etc. Others, though, are much newer, so we should strive to pay attention to changing vernacular. The biggest current example of this isn’t disability or accessibility related, but it is a sensitivity issue: the selection of pronouns by people based on their gender identity.

Consider Your Audience

Finally, keep in mind who you are expecting to reach. Some audiences may be quite familiar with foreign words that are commonly used in English, so the fact that a screen reader won’t pick up on phrase’s language won’t limit comprehension. For other audiences, you might consider making other word choices. 

Limit jargon and idiomatic phrases for international audiences. They can take a lot of explaining. And even though an explanation is likely only a web search away, it’s still disruptive to a site visitor. 

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. Including everyone with every possible disability or sensitivity can make crafting a message hard. That’s not what we’re recommending. But that difficultly shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the needs of segment of your audience that may be small but is in no way insignificant.

Andrew Schulkind

Since 1996, Andrew Schulkind has asked clients one simple question: what does digital marketing success look like, and how can marketing progress be measured? A veteran content marketer, web developer, and digital strategist, Andrew founded Andigo New Media to help firms find a more strategic and productive mix of tools that genuinely support online brand goals over time. With a passion for true collaboration and meaningful consensus, his work touches social media, search-engine optimization, and email marketing, among other components. He views is primary goal as encouraging engagement. Getting an audience involved in your story requires solid information architecture, a great user experience, and compelling content. A dash of common sense doesn’t hurt, either. Andrew has presented at Social Media Week NY and WordCampNYC, among other events, on content marketing and web-development topics. His technology writing appears on the Andigo blog, in a monthly column on, and for print and online publications like The New York Enterprise Report, Social Media Today, and GSG Worldwide’s publications LinkedIn & Business, Facebook & Business, and Tweeting & Business. Andrew graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Bucknell University. He engages in a range of community volunteer work and is an avid fly fisherman and cyclist. He also loves collecting meaningless trivia. (Did you know the Lone Ranger made his mask from the cloth of his brother's vest after his brother was killed by "the bad guys?")

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