Email has become one of the most common ways to communicate. It is a good and economical method of disseminating information to people where they want to receive it. Emails are used for private communication, confirming transactions, newsletters, reminders for appointments, marketing and invitations, to name just a few examples.
There are a number of different email clients you can use when creating, receiving and storing emails. An email client can be installed on your computer or accessed over the internet (web mail).
Emails can usually be written in different formats which can be selected in the email program. The different types of formats are:
In plain text formatting, your emails are written in the base font set in your preferences and you cannot create any other formatting, e.g. bullet points or bold. The receiver of the email can choose what font and font size they prefer their messages to be displayed in.
In rich text you can create bullet points, different fonts, font sizes, font colours, horizontal lines etc. that can visually enhance an email.
In HTML formatting you can include anything you would use in a webpage such as images, forms and animation.
Different email clients display emails differently and there is currently no standardisation. Some can display certain features of rich text formatting and HTML, some can display all of them – others none. Some strip the email of all the formatting and replace it with their own version. The situation currently is similar to the first internet browsers in the early days of the internet. Some could display some of the HTML tags and others could not, and they were displayed quite differently depending on which browser was being used. This is something to keep in mind when creating emails and email-based newsletters.
The only way to ensure that the information is received in the same way by all recipients is to write ‘plain text’ emails. This is also the recommended format for people using screen readers and other assistive technology. The font, font size, colour and contrast are set as preferences in the email client. Users then get emails displayed the way they want.
There is some argument for the use of HTML-based emails and newsletters because they can convey a lot of additional information with images and colourful graphic designs. However, if an email is produced in HTML it should follow the same accessibility guidelines that are valid for webpages. Unfortunately there is little and disparate support for CSS (cascading style sheets) which should format the content, in today’s email clients. You cannot be sure, therefore, that the HTML email reaches the recipient as it left you.
If you are producing a newsletter in HTML format, it would be an idea to offer a plain text version as well and let the user choose which one they would like to subscribe to, or send everyone a plain text newsletter with the HTML version as an attachment. The attached newsletter could then be opened by the user’s normal browser with their accessibility settings in tact.
There are no official standards for structuring a plain text newsletter to achieve good accessibility. However, there is an organisation called Headstar which promotes the Text Email Newsletter (TEN) Standard. This consists of guidelines designed to improve the readability of plain text email and newsletters by all readers, including people with visual impairments using special access technologies.
The Text Email Newsletter (TEN) Standard document gives examples of how you can structure your newsletter, provide a list of content and separate different sections to help the readability of the document in plain text. The document itself is structured as an example of good practice.
The Text Email Newsletter (TEN) Standard was developed by
E-Access Bulletin, a free email newsletter on access to technology by vision-impaired people, published by Headstar with support from RNIB.
I provided feedback on the WCAG 2 (as representative of Guild of Accessible Website Designers) have two decades of experience and worked with hundreds of organisations.
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