government communications

Think about when government communications are disseminated to the community – such as the passing of a new by-law, an upcoming election or an emergency situation. Most of the time, this information is disseminated in a traditional print form or online text.

But what about those citizens who are blind or experience vision loss? How are these important messages communicated to them, and how can governments continue to improve their communications to make their messages accessible by all?

Accessible Government Communication Strategies

People who are blind or have vision loss deserve the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in government communications and activities. Providing an accessible environment doesn’t have to be complicated or break the bank, but it can have a huge impact on the dissemination of your communications and the range of people who engage with them.

According to Lui Greco, Manager of National Advocacy for the CNIB Foundation and Shane Laurnitus, Lead of Accessible Technology at the CNIB Foundation shared their combined insights as follows:

“Many government departments provide alternate format materials on request. Websites remain the most effective means by which to disseminate information, but only if those websites are designed to be accessible.”

If you’re assuming that governments are automatically creating or converting their websites to be compliant with accessibility, think again. Governments around the world still have strides to make when it comes to enabling people of all abilities to consume their content. In 2015, the Huffington Post reported that even after it was made law that all EU public sites must be accessible, 70% of the sites reviewed by The Business Disability Forum were given a ‘red’ assessment – defined as ‘significant potential commercial, PR or legal risk’ – because of their lack of accessibility.

Here are ways government communications can be made more accessible to those with vision loss depending on the nature of the particular communication that needs to be disseminated.

Communicating Updates on Laws to the Visually Impaired

Normally any updates on laws or new by-laws are sent out via mail. Usually it’s a one pager that contains all the information that you need to know and usually contains a link where you can go to find out more information or ask questions.

It may sound obvious, but it bears mentioning: Before a request for accessible information is made, you should ensure that any literature is available in additional formats that meet or exceed the accessibility requirement.

These additional formats could include an audio file that reads out the same information available on the paper document, an automated phone message for the visually impaired, or even the ability to place a telephone call to those residents who are visually impaired, informing them of the new laws and any pertinent information they may need to be made aware of.

Emergency Announcements

Statewide emergency announcements in the United States are usually televised, which means that those with visual impairments will be able to tune in and hear the announcement. However, this doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to fully absorb information in any included visual elements that are part of the announcement. To accommodate those with vision loss, consider enabling descriptive video and making audio files available online.

Here are some other, common roadblocks to getting emergency announcements out to those with vision impairment, which you need to be aware of when sending out communications.

Common mistakes when communicating emergency announcements out to the visually impaired

  • Websites with emergency information may not be accessible to screen readers used by people who are blind or have low vision (more on how to make info screen-reader friendly below)
  • Televised emergency information that does not contain descriptive video
  • Consistency in providing accessible information before, during and after emergency situations

How to Make Voting Accessible

To make voting accessible the thought process and planning needs to begin well before the votes are cast. It needs to start at the campaigning phase. Here are a few areas of voting where accessibility should be factored in for those who are vision impaired.

Structure Campaign Literature for Visually Impaired

Materials should be designed in a way that allows different formats (like audio) to be distributed. Audio files of literature are traditionally sent out on a per request basis but you can get ahead of the curve by having this information already created and informing staffers that this alternate format is available, should anyone seek it out.

Ensure Government Election Websites Are Accessible

Providing voters with campaign information, as well as where the nearest voting stations are over the internet is the fastest way to disseminate information. However, it is important to keep in mind that not every person uses the internet in the same way. In order to ensure that all citizens are equipped with the right information on the candidates, their platforms and the voting process, government and campaign websites need to implement principles of accessible web design.

Donna Danielewski, Director of the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) at WBGH works to consult companies on how their media and websites can become more accessible. NCAM has worked with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to ensure that all voters can register to vote online, and this assignment involved creating or updating government sites to include accessible web pages.

According to Donna, there are small changes companies can make to become more accessible and the budget doesn’t always have to be large. How involved the project may be could depend on the state of your website, however, it’s important to note that you can improve the accessibility of your site for no cost at all. “Updates to websites, such as adding descriptive headers go a long way for people who are trying to read your site through a screen reader, for example,” says Donna.

Accessible Education: Describing Complicated Imagery

An overlooked section of accessible government communications is standardized education. NCAM created the STEM accessibility guidelines on how complicated images should be described within textbooks – this is especially important to blind students who are studying subjects like biology or chemistry, where complicated images are par for the course.

NCAM has also worked with NWEA (a non profit that creates assessment solutions) to provide accessible testing. This has enabled students who are blind to write the tests at the same time as their peers.

You can watch education and accessibility in action here: https://www.nwea.org/accommodations-accessibility/

Budgeting for Accessible Information and Communications

Accessibility should be a budget line item when you begin your financial planning for the year. Provide enough funds to cover communications media like described video, real-time captioning and the creation or updating of your website for accessibility.

Donna says that sometimes even adding an accessibility statement on your website can go a long way. Letting people know that your organization cares about being accessible by putting a statement on your site that says you are working towards making changes for accessibility can really mean a lot.

For inspiration, you can look to other campaigns who have successfully made their information available to people of all levels and abilities.

An Example of an Accessible Government Campaign Done Well

On the UK Government’s website, they look at organizations that have done well at getting their messages out in an accessible way. Their Department of Health released an anti-smoking campaign that used a variety of media channels in order to get their message across to the widest range of people possible. Their research led them to release the following publicity vehicles (Note: the communications that use audio and are applicable to those with vision loss are highlighted below):

  • Several TV commercials (with subtitles for people with a hearing impairment)
  • A wide range of printed material including leaflets, outdoor posters, small posters and postcards targeted at different sectors of the population
  • Material on CD-ROM so that local groups could produce their own publicity using the national branding
  • An accessible website
  • Two telephone helplines
  • Braille, audio and large print versions of the main booklet
  • Three specially written and designed booklets for people with learning disabilities
  • An item about the anti-smoking campaign in the Central Office of Information audio magazine, which is called ‘Sound Advice’

Technologies Available to Help Government Communications to the Blind and those with Sight Loss

Relating government communications to those who are blind or experience some form of sight loss often requires the use of technology, specifically technology that appeals to the auditory senses.

“Smartphones provide people who are blind or partially sighted with a portable, all-in-one communications and accessibility solution,” say Lui and Shane. “Developers have released new apps designed to assist in many aspects of life. New accessible apps can be used to navigate with GPS, identify colors and faces, read printed text […] and do dozens of other day-to-day tasks that may have seemed challenging before.”

Smartphone Apps for the Visually Impaired

Here are a few other apps that the CNIB recommends:

  • Seeing AI is a popular free app that narrates the world around you. It allows users to point their smartphone camera at an object and receive a vocal announcement of what it is. The app uses image recognition and artificial intelligence to read printed text, recognize faces, objects and more.
  • Aira combines wearable smart glasses with an embedded video camera (paired with a smartphone) and a live certified agent who assists the user. The agents essentially see the world through the smart glasses worn by the customer and describe the view.
  • Be My Eyes is a free app that connects people with sighted volunteers and company representatives for visual assistance through a live video call.
  • KNFB Reader is a text-to-speech and text-to-Braille app. Users can import or take a photo of anything containing text and the app reads text out loud or displays it on a connected refreshable Braille display.

Despite how life-changing smartphones can be in helping the blind or visually impaired receive pertinent information, many people with sight loss still don’t own one that is advanced enough to help them in their daily lives. You can find out more about donating your old smartphone at phoneitforward.ca.

Screen Readers

An alternative to pricey smartphones, are screen readers. However, screen readers are only effective if documents and websites are structured to be accessible.

Dos for providing content that can be read by screen readers:

  • Describe images and provide transcripts for video
  • Follow a linear, logical layout
  • Structure content using HTML5
  • Build for keyboard use only
  • Write descriptive links and heading – for example, “Contact Us”

The Future of Accessible Government Communications

Creating government communications that are accessible for those with vision impairment is a noble goal that can be worked towards in order to build a more inclusive future. By ensuring that website communications and alternate formats to materials (specifically audio files) are available, governments can ensure that everyone is able to receive important updates, news about candidates and information on voting procedures.

Have you witnessed accessible government communications in your area? We’d love to hear about it. Let us know in the comments below.

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