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The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed just 31 years ago, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. This landmark civil rights legislation set a precedent for accessibility standards across the nation for the previously underserved and oft disregarded disabled community.

In specific terms, it enacted anti-discrimination laws against the disabled, added accessible features to public transportation systems, widened access to government resources and programs, and mandated that universities implement ramps and other accommodations to campuses across the nation; to name a few.

In broader terms, it was the first step toward acknowledging the work of disability rights activists and validating the causes they’d long been advocating for.

Still, many disabled students today say that these laws are not enough to ensure a safe and sustainable learning experience. Beyond this harsh reality, the ADA could never have accounted for the imminent tech boom that would proliferate come the following decade.

The rise of the internet would soon mean a whole new onslaught of barriers for a wide variety of disabled folks, surpassing those with physical disabilities, that the federal government was considerably unequipped to handle.

The notoriously slow-to-the-punch higher ed sector was no exception to this rule. That said, their admissions departments have become the gatekeepers of the college experience for disabled students in a digital-first world.

Enter 2021 HESM Marketer of the Year recipient and Social Media Manager at St. Petersburg College Alexa Heinrich. I spoke with her to gain some insight into how higher ed marketing teams can adapt to the changing needs of the disabled community through their digital media presence.

Playing catch-up

Heinrich’s focus is social media marketing efforts. It’s an area she believes has been neglected thus far due to the fast-paced evolution of communication methods and converse progress of built-in accessibility features across channels.

“We’re still catching up there in higher education when it comes to marketing to disabled students,” she says, “For everything else, I feel like most colleges and universities do a pretty solid job. It’s when it comes to the digital realm that they’re still trying to improve.”

Human rights lawyer, speaker, and author Haben Girma’s “Brief Disability Accessibility Guide” mentions, “Organizations investing in accessibility tap into the market of more than a billion disabled people around the world while also improving the experience for nondisabled people.”

The pandemic and the reliance on virtual streaming services presented an opportunity for organizations, including higher ed institutions, to explore new pathways of communication. In turn, it exposed the need for digital accommodations that were previously unavailable.

Zoom did not offer live captioning back in March of 2020 when it became an essential tool for hosting meetings and events. “When the pandemic started, there was so much pushback from institutions, especially higher education, who were saying, ‘Hey, we want to use you for our classrooms, but we can’t do that if you don’t have captioning,’” says Heinrich.

Thankfully, a few weeks into their streaming sessions, the St. Petersburg IT department was able to activate the feature and teach Heinrich’s team to use it, which minimized this particular stressor.

From humble beginnings

So what is the story behind Heinrich’s passion for both higher ed marketing and accessibility in social media, and where did the two first converge?

“It was an accident,” Heinrich exclaims. Before her current job, she worked for City Colleges of Chicago, one of the largest community college systems in the nation and the largest in the state of Illinois.

She was a content specialist, so her primary function in that position was social media as well as handling some of the digital assets on their website. One day when she was uploading static images to the homepage, the digital strategist on her team asked if she was adding alt text.

Having a graphic design background and no web development knowledge, she’d never heard of this concept before.

“It was like someone had opened this door in my brain,” she remarks. She started doing research into accessibility and how it impacts social media—different ways to make her content more accessible.

“I very clearly remember going home that night, doing all of this research, realizing that I wasn’t doing anything to make my content accessible, and crying because I wondered how many students I’d been an obstacle for.”

“So that’s kind of how I got started on it, and once I learned about it I just never stopped wanting to learn more and to tell my peers about it. Because we’re higher education and I think it’s absolutely vital that we’re making our content as accessible as possible.”

Now Heinrich says she speaks about it “nonstop.” She also trains other digital teams, brands, and higher education institutions about digital accessibility specifically for social media.

While some institutions have web pages devoted to basic social media content accessibility, it’s uncertain whether or not they’re updated regularly. Princeton has its own, as a point of reference. Still, there is no central resource dedicated to accessibility best practices for social media.

The guidelines that be

There are, however, sets of guidelines for general digital media accessibility. Refer back to Girma’s guide for positive disability storytelling practices and content creation.

In terms of public perception, the ADA adapted physical spaces on university campuses. Wheelchair ramps, wide-enough doorways, and handicap spaces first come to mind.

“The ADA, because it is 31 years old, really predates this large digital space that we have, and it predates social media. So it’s harder to know if you’re in compliance with the ADA when it comes to digital spaces,” Heinrich says.

Things get more complicated when external websites enter the discourse. This is where the W3C and its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG for short) come into play.

“It’s kind of the closest thing that we have for a universal set of standards when it comes to digital accessibility. But again, that’s also mostly for websites and web pages, and a lot of it does apply to social media, but social media lives outside of that world. It’s not web development; it’s content creation,” she comments.

To differentiate, WCAG is not a part of the ADA but more of a broad commitment to digital accessibility. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a set of rules sanctioned by the US government mandating that information and communications technology (ICT) is accessible to the disabled.

Section 508 covers public institutions and federal agencies. In a nutshell, this means that alongside the ADA and WCAG, it’s the only series of accessibility regulations that schools must comply with.

All about alt text

Thankfully, people like Heinrich have become a resource in taking it upon themselves to educate the masses about the best practices that have yet to be properly collated in a singular space.

First and foremost, we have to talk about alt text.

If you’re unsure what alt text is, don’t worry. “It’s a short physical summary of an image, basically just describing the content of the image. And there is no such thing as a decorative image on social media. If you upload an image, there’s a reason behind it, especially if you’re a marketer. So, you reach more people if you have accessible images because they’ll actually be able to access your content,” she says.

It also positively influences your website’s search engine optimization, if that’s any extra incentive. “It’s pretty logical to me as a marketer, because my whole purpose in life when you dilute it down is that I want to reach as many people as possible, so making my content accessible just makes sense.”

Soon Heinrich progressed to proficiency in alt-text-writing. Later in her career when her teammate asked her to write alt text, she was a bit shocked to find that they were on two different wavelengths. “She was just told, you know, ‘person on a computer’ [as a description]. I said, ‘Oh, you were taught the web developer way.’”

Alt text originally served to tell you what image was there if a page didn’t load. Though still the case, this was before it was viewed as an accessibility feature. As such, it requires some care and consideration, and a more descriptive flair than just a few words about the image in question.

Best practices for social media

Of course, I wanted to learn what other best practices Heinrich recommends to create the most accessible content. Her top tips for social media marketing are as follows:

1. Caption your videos. Most people are aware of this one due to its high visibility. Not only is it an accessibility best practice, but “85% of internet users watch videos with the sound off,” she explains.

2. Put your hashtags in “camel case,” sometimes referred to as “PascalCase.” The idea is simply to capitalize each first letter of every word in a compound hashtag. This method tells an assistive device that these are three separate words, and not just one long word.

#makecontentaccessible would then become #MakeContentAccessible. While this may seem less aesthetically pleasing, it’s an easy way to prompt a text reader to turn the words into a sentence in lieu of an auditory-processing mess.

3. Emoji use is important. “Marketers usually boo you for it, but you should be smart about the emojis you use,” Heinrich notes. Emojis all have meta descriptions attached to them just to make them unique on the back end.

“If you’re throwing a bunch of emojis into the middle of written content, then when someone uses a screen reader or a text-to-speech program they’re going to hear your written content broken up by the descriptions of those emojis.”

This could be confusing or even inappropriate, depending on the browser or platform that a user is on. She suggests emojipedia.org for digital marketers because it breaks down those descriptions for you.

“Emoji bullet points are big right now for example, and they don’t work very well for this reason. So I always tell people, if you’re going to use emojis then use them kind of sparingly and put them at the very end of your written content,” she adds.

4. Next up, fonts. Going to external websites to generate different fonts presents an abject issue. Not all assistive devices can identify these copy-and-pasted characters, unfortunately. “They’ll either skip over the characters or turn them into completely indistinguishable noises that are super disruptive to the reading process.”

5. Another huge offender is none other than ASCII art. “It’s one of my least favorite things,” she says, “We’ve all seen ASCII art, which is when people make illustrations out of characters, numbers, and punctuation. A screen reader cannot always process this, and it reads the characters as they were originally intended. It doesn’t see a bunny holding a sign. So I always tell people, try not to do ASCII art because it doesn’t make sense to a screen reader at all.”

6. Lastly, flyers are made for print. They’re not accessible because most social media platforms only allow users to upload JPEG, PNG, or GIF image files. The text on images gets flattened and turned into an object, so a screen reader can’t read it anymore.

She tells marketers to treat their graphics like a billboard: “You have seven seconds to engage a user, catch their attention, and have them absorb your information. You should have minimal text—minimal information that they need to take in.”

“We need to rethink these things, as well as how we educate leadership and content stakeholders about marketing best practices, but beyond that, accessibility best practices,” Heinrich summarizes.

Twitter recently updated their layout it to make it more accessible, but there were people with photosensitivity, light sensitivity, etc., who reported that these changes actually made the user experience worse for them. Autistic users were saying that the high contrast is really hard for them to process. The platform was met with backlash, from which amounted the conclusion that we can’t do one-size-fits-all in terms of accessibility.

“It’s a broad spectrum. We need options,” she states. Customization doesn’t just enhance the user experience for the fun of it but unlocks platforms for the widest range of users with specific needs. Basing these decisions on majority data will only result in obstacles for a large demographic, and the same goes for your marketing strategy.

Heinrich always encourages marketers and everyday social media users to operate with others in mind. “When you create content, you want to think outside of your own lived experience. Think about how other people could be engaging with your content or not engaging with your content based on their own physical or cognitive abilities.”

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