CODA shines a light on the importance of email accessibility

Last night’s Academy Awards made history. And I’m not talking about the “slap heard ‘round the world.” I’m talking about CODA, a coming-of-age story about a high school senior and child of deaf adults, which capped off its successful award season with an historic win of the evening’s most coveted prize—Oscar for Best Picture. CODA is the first movie starring a predominantly deaf ensemble in leading roles to win Best Picture, Troy Kotsur is the first deaf male actor to win Best Supporting Actor and writer-director Siân Heder took home her first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. “This is dedicated to the deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community,” Kotsur said through an American Sign Language interpreter. "This is our moment."

CODA is raising awareness of deaf culture and has sparked some overdue conversations on the importance of representation and inclusivity. When accepting the SAG award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture in February, CODA actress Marlee Matlin said, "We—deaf actors—have come a long way… This validates the fact that we, deaf actors, can work just like anybody else. We look forward to more opportunities for deaf actors, deaf culture."

With about 15% of the global population—more than 1 billion people worldwide—currently experiencing a disability (ranging from visual or hearing deficiencies to neurological impairments like ADHD and dyslexia), awareness and accessibility are critical. To learn more about Epsilon's approach to email accessibility and inclusivity, I spoke with creative expert and SVP of Epsilon PeopleCloud Messaging, Lauren Gannon, and QA Manager, Mike Dugo.

Why are email accessibility standards so important? 

"As digital marketers, we have an obligation to serve these consumers with positive experiences," said Gannon. "It's the right thing to do, and it makes sense from legal and business standpoints." 

First of all, email accessibility is the law. In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that everyone access and read your emails, including people with disabilities who use assistive technology, such as screen readers, magnifiers, joysticks and eye-tracking devices. Another way to think about this is that you must build in an alternate, accessible route that leads different end-users to the right information. 

Email accessibility standards also make good business sense. Gannon explains, "If you're not currently making your emails accessible, you could be excluding a sizable percentage of your audience. "You could be missing out on a tremendous opportunity to tap into $6 trillion in spending power, including people with permanent and temporary disabilities (like concussion, limited mobility, and so on). And by making your emails accessible, you're demonstrating that you care enough to consider all your potential customers and their specific needs—and that you're not excluding anyone, which, she emphasizes, "…can create a positive halo effect for your business." 

What does this mean for email marketers? 

According to Forrester, about $10-16 billion in design spending between the U.S. and Canada alone will shift towards tech companies prioritizing accessibility. And although roughly 84% of companies are implementing accessibility efforts, only 36% "have a top-down commitment to developing accessible digital products." 

From creative to coding to QA, email accessibility is a team effort. "Incorporating accessibility into email from the start is imperative in assuring the largest number of customers possible can absorb the content," says Mike Dugo. "Ideally, considerations need to be made throughout the entire process and by all teams." 

Although not optimal, existing emails can be improved during a production cycle. Can't do an entire overhaul? Dugo explains, "The best practices we've outlined can help both new and existing email programs provide a better experience for this audience." 

Follow these 10 simple tips for making your emails accessible: 

1. Keep it clean and simple.  

Everyone benefits from simplicity, but overly complicated emails (verbose copy, run-on sentences, large walls of text and a busy design) can be prohibitive for many disabilities. Keep copy and design brief and clean so that the neurodivergent know exactly how to do what they need to do and so that screen readers can follow the line directly to the point.  

2. Incorporate responsive design. 

Responsive design is important for all users as it ensures that emails render according to the device, but it also helps ensure that content will scale, be displayed optimally and read properly on multiple devices, including screen readers. 

3. Mind the font size.  

You want people to be able to read your email, and with almost 350 million people living with some degree of visual impairment, font size is vital. Fourteen pixels is a minimum for fonts, but light fonts should be at least 16 pixels. Be sure to zoom in to 200% without losing readability or clarity. Further, line heights must be four pixels greater than your font size to keep paragraphs readably spaced. 

4. Contrast colors. 

Approximately 300 million people worldwide are color blind. Make sure your background and type contrasts and use patterns and textures. The recommended color contrast for normal text is 4.5:1, and for larger text (18px bold, or 23px non-bold), 3:1. Links should be created as buttons, underlined, bolded or identified in ways other than simply by color. 

5. Bulletproof buttons. 

Build CTAs with code instead of an image to ensure they don't get lost. Make text links meaningful and specific and give subscribers a reason to click (like "get more holiday entertaining tips" vs. "click here" or "read more"). Also, don't link subheads as this can confuse assistive technologies.  

6. Add captions to videos.  

More than 430 million people globally suffer from hearing loss. So, if you're embedding video or linking to it in your emails, add captions, so the hearing impaired can receive your message. Avoid flickering and strobe animations and large images with bright flashes in GIFs or videos, as these could trigger seizures. GIFs should be limited to flashing or blinking within a 3x per second threshold. It can also be helpful to add descriptive transcripts, which describe the actual content (including images and actions) of the video. The transcript provides all-important visual information that can be read using a screen reader instead of the person with the disability needing to watch or listen to the video. 

7. Use live text & alt text. 

Screen readers read what you tell them to, so take a purposeful approach. Live text ensures that screen readers read the text separately from the image. Without live text, any attributes in the image need to be accounted for in alt text. Some screen readers will truncate alt text at 150 characters. By separating text from the image, you're ensuring that assistive tech will read the text AND accurately describe the image. As a bonus, the live text is readable to all when images are turned off. 

8. Set the HTML language attribute. 

Set eReaders up for success by adding lang= "" with the appropriate language after the opening head tag to ensure screen readers pronounce words correctly. For example, lang=" en" for English or lang=" fr" for French. Similarly, the content type (i.e., UTF-8) should also be declared to interpret characters correctly. 

9. Emphasize content importance to screen readers.  

Use role= "presentation" on all tables where content needs to be read to tell screen readers it's a presentation table vs. a data table. This command makes it easier for these devices to go through the content, skip unimportant content and read only the alt text. 

For images that graphically represent concepts and information, the alt text should be at least a short description conveying the essential information presented by the image. When an image's only purpose is to add visual decoration to the page, provide a null (alt="") text alternative. This command informs a screen reader to bypass reading the text altogether. Finally, the alt text for an image used as a link or as a button should describe the functionality of the link or button rather than the visual image itself.  

10. Use Semantic code. 

Using tags like <h1> and <p> is basic practice, yet it’s also often overlooked. These tags help screen readers differentiate between sections of content and better navigate your email, allowing for an improved reading experience. However, these tags may sometimes cause rendering issues or inconsistencies if not done correctly and may not look pixel-perfect to the design. 

Email accessibility encompasses best-practice tactics that benefit all subscribers, not just those with accessibility issues. It makes emails easier for everyone to read and digest—including those with accessibility issues—and enables you to extend your reach to a larger percentage of people who would otherwise not be able to access or interact with your emails.  

To learn more about incorporating accessibility practices into your email strategy, download our guide, "Achieving accessibility in email marketing."