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Why Digital Accessibility Matters for Nonprofits

What is digital accessibility and why is it important to nonprofit organizations and their communities? This post will explore the importance of accessibility in web and other digital communications as it relates to a nonprofit's ability to serve beneficiaries and to communicate with donors. We'll also go over some best practices and resources to get started with digital accessibility at your nonprofit.

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Digital Accessibility: What It Is and Why It Matters to All Nonprofits

Digital accessibility refers to computer-based and web-based information and activities. When digital content is inclusively designed, people with disabilities can get the same information and perform the same interactions as any other user. When accessible design principles are overlooked or ignored, people with disabilities are often locked out. The global pandemic widened the need for remote participation in jobs, school, social, civic, and commercial activities. Accessibility can be a lifeline for people with disabilities, and here's why it should matter to you.

A typical nonprofit organization is likely to have different messages and different ways to share those messages with various audiences. For example, who is your primary stakeholder? Most nonprofits would say it is the people who directly benefit from your mission or cause. You want to be sure that all clients understand your programs and services and can easily find and use them.

You also need clear, barrier-free communication with funders. These may be government agencies, charitable foundations, corporate funding entities, or other philanthropic institutions. It's important that funders get accurate, easy-to-process information about how your work is helping them meet their own societal or philanthropic goals. Foundations and corporate funders have accessibility responsibility as well.

Individual donors are often people who care about your cause due to a personal connection — your mission may have impact for a family member or friend. You don't want them to be confused or misled about your work. Rather you want an engaging, compelling, and accessible story to tell your potential donors and volunteers.

Welcoming People of All Abilities

Each of the stakeholder groups mentioned will include a significant number of people with disabilities. To meet your outreach goals, you must incorporate digital accessibility into your communications plan and its implementation. The business case for accessible design is based on research that shows that accessibility drives innovation, enhances your brand, extends market reach, and minimizes legal risk. And yet, according to research conducted in 2020 and analyzed in the most recent State of Accessibility Report (SOAR), more than 90 percent of the world's websites do not meet even the minimum requirements for accessibility established by the standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). We must change that.

There are more than 1 billion people with disabilities in the world — that's close to 15 percent of the world's population. Disability crosses all demographic categories, occurring among all income levels, racial and ethnic categories, and age and gender groups. Disabled people will be found among those that your organization serves as well as among the funders and individual donors that might support your work. Let's make sure they feel welcome and included on your website and in all your digital newsletters and other electronic communication.

The Basics of Digital Accessibility

The core principles of accessibility are often referred to by the acronym POUR. It means that digital content and interactions must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust for people of all abilities and using devices of their choice. Devices may include assistive technology, so accessible design principles include that consideration. Some basic things to look out for to see if you are meeting the POUR principles are these:

  • Describe graphic content. Is there a text alternative for graphic content like pictures, maps, diagrams, charts, word art, and such? This allows screen reading technology used by blind people to describe image content and purpose.
  • Enable keyboard interaction. Can interactive content be reached and operated from the keyboard? Interactive elements like sliders, tab interfaces, expandable or drop-down menus, and buttons that submit information will not be accessible to all assistive technologies if they are dependent on a mouse to complete the interaction.
  • Avoid moving or changing content. If content — such as a mega menu or content alert — changes or pops up, make sure the focus moves to the new content. Enable the user to easily stop or pause movements like banner rotation, flashes, or pop-ups. Avoid carousels.
  • Choose colors with strong contrast. Gray on slightly darker gray text may not be seen by people with low vision. Use good contrast between text and background.
  • Consider color blindness. Certain color combinations make content hard or impossible to read for some people — including one in eight men. Use redundant text or symbols to indicate status. Don't use color alone.
  • Provide accessible media. Caption videos and provide descriptions for visual content when needed. Follow the Accessible Media Guide from W3C.
  • Use clear and consistent language and structure. Using the semantic qualities of web languages is important for both accessibility and general usability. HTML code should identify the language of the content and provide structural labels for forms and page sections. An accessible interface will use consistent terms and navigation systems and use the simplest language possible for your subject matter.

These are basic techniques that can be integrated into your development cycle to become part of internal design, development, and QA processes.


Getting Started with Digital Accessibility

There is no better place to start than the W3C — the standards maker for the web. But please spare yourself a deep dive into the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines themselves. WCAG (as the standard is known) is part of the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). WCAG standards are meant for legal departments and policy wonks. The standards documents have proven deadly for designers, developers, and those who create content. Fortunately, WAI maintains the Accessibility Education and Outreach Working Group (full disclosure: I serve as co-chair). This group translates the standards into practical demos and tutorials that explain accessibility in ways that you can use immediately. Here are a few of my favorites.

Video Introduction to Web Accessibility and W3C Standards. The journey to digital disability inclusion often begins with questions about who needs accessibility and why. This four-minute video looks at a few kinds of barriers and how the W3C addresses them.

Accessibility Fundamentals. This collection of articles and videos explores the Accessibility Principles and related Components of Accessibility and introduces personas to help web professionals understand how people with disabilities use the web.

Planning and Managing Accessibility. A step-by-step guide to building an accessibility program. From initiation through planning, implementation, and sustainability, the guide links to tutorials and other supporting WAI documents that are freely available to customize for your own needs.

Connect to the Global Accessibility Community

The third Thursday in May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD). In 2021, it falls on May 20, and there are a number of activities planned around the world. The digital accessibility community is large and growing and very supportive of their shared mission of access for all. Consider these ways to learn more and connect.

John Slatin AccessU is an annual accessibility training series, held virtually in 2020 and again this year. Skills training is delivered across all roles involved in building and maintaining digital content. Knowbility welcomes nonprofit organizations with a 25 percent nonprofit discount for AccessU May 13 and May 18–20

Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) is an annual competition through which nonprofit organizations can apply to be assigned a team of tech volunteers to build an accessible website for your organization.

Global Accessibility Awareness Day has the purpose of getting everyone talking, thinking, and learning about digital access and inclusion, and the more than 1 billion people with disabilities around the world.

WAI Interest Group is a global mailing list that posts announcements of legal and technical advances and community resources from around the world.

Remember that accessibility is a journey, not a destination. As technology — and the way we use it — continues to change, awareness and commitment will go a long way to ensuring that no one is left behind.

About the Author

Sharron Rush is the co-founder and executive director of Knowbility, a nonprofit advocacy, consulting, and training company based in Austin, Texas. Knowbility has worked with hundreds of businesses, educational entities, and government and nonprofit organizations to train staff, implement effective accessibility strategies, and monitor long-term goals to reach millions of new users.

Additional Resources

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