Separate Is Not Equal

three people sharing a computer screen

I’ve been noticing a trend toward creating two versions of documents – one labeled “accessible” and the other presumably non-accessible, but prettier. The accessible version is usually plain text and laid out in a linear format.

This is NOT considered best practice, for a number of reasons. “Accessibility – Separate but Equal is Never OK,” by Sheri Byrne-Haber, lays out the reasoning for websites, but the concepts are similar for documents. Some of the arguments against this practice:

  1. “Separate but equal” is not inclusive. It creates an “us” and “them” mentality, and the “them” in this case are people with disabilities. People with disabilities are often treated as second-class citizens. Don’t make them use a “less attractive” version of your documents.
  2. Two is more work than one. If you have to maintain two versions of all of your documents and keep them in sync, you have just added to your workload.
  3. If you call one version “accessible,” what do you call the other? Why would you want to draw attention to the fact that you are posting something that is not meant for everyone?

The WCAG 2.0 and Section 508 guidelines (section 1194.22 (k)) standards do allow a small bit of wiggle room. But both sets of standards look at “conforming alternate versions” as a last resort, to be used only when it is not possible to present the material in an accessible format.

Better by Design

I’ve run across some misconceptions about what makes a document accessible.

  • Color – Many of the accessible versions are black and white. While it is true that black and white have the highest possible contrast to each other, there are many, many color combinations that satisfy the minimum 4.5:1 ratio. If you find that your brand colors do not meet that ratio, it may be time for a refresh. As long as you don’t use color as the only way to convey meaning, feel free to add color to your documents!
  • Tables – I’ve had people say to me, “I know tables are not accessible.” – False! Tables can be perfectly accessible. Just be sure it is a true table and avoid using merged or split cells, if possible. A true table has at least one set of headings, either column or row.
  • Layout – You do not need to line everything up in linear fashion. Just be sure that if you are putting things in columns you use the column feature in your word processor.
  • Formatting – Yes, you can format your text! But do yourself a big favor and use the Styles pane to format your headings and text.

There are good resources online to help you create accessible documents. I recommend the University of Washington’s Accessible Technology as a good starting place.

Up for a Challenge?

I spend a lot of time remediating pdf documents. I have no control over how they were developed, but I am able to make almost all of them accessible. The cardinal rule of remediating is that you don’t change the physical look of the document. It can be done! Check out this example from Diamond of a colorful, interesting infographic that is fully accessible.

I have a challenge for you: The next time you feel a need to create an accessible alternative document, send it to me first. It could be that your fancy document needs only very small tweaks to be accessible for all. I’m here to help!

This article was contributed by Cindy Jouper, CPWA for the Accessibility Blog. Subscribe to her blog for monthly articles, tips, and professional development opportunities delivered to your inbox.