Email is one of the most important forms of communication. Email is fast, efficient, and creates a record of the communication. Like documents, accessible email communications ensures that they are usable by the widest range of users. Following the guides below will ensure your email is accessible to visually impaired users, including assistive technology such as screen readers.
If your email contains audio or video, you should provide captions or a transcript for deaf and hard of hearing users. See our page on captioning for practical tips.
Styles are formatting instructions automatically programmed into most MS Office applications including Outlook. You can follow the guidelines for Creating Accessible Word Documents (Windows or Mac). Use them to create:
- Titles (using the “Title” style)
- Headings (using one of nine “Heading” styles)
- Subtitles (using the “Subtitle” style)
- Bulleted Lists (using one of five different “List Bullet” styles)
- Numbered Lists (using one of five different “List Number” styles)
- Words in italics (using the “Emphasis” style)
- Words in bold (using the “Strong” style)
- Underlined words (using the “Subtle Reference” style)
Headings are a type of Style which makes it easier for various adaptive technologies to navigate a document. Many people do not create Headings correctly, either making font sizes bigger or in bold rather than using the formats already provided by Outlook. By using Headings, you are creating a real structure in your document which will be correctly read by assistive technology and will make the page more usable for everyone. While composing an email you can access the Style section under the FORMAT TEXT tab.
Font Style and Size
Just as with Word documents, sans serif fonts such as Arial, Helvetica or Verdana work best. Use 12 point or larger.
Use of Color
When using color, make sure that color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element. For example, if you’re using color to identify key words in a document, make sure that you also make them stand out in another way (e.g., by putting them in bold).
While Outlook gives the option of changing the color or even placing a picture behind text (e.g. stationary), it is recommended to keep the background white. Any shading in the background can make email difficult to read.
If a background color is included, ensure that the contrast with the accompanied text is appropriate.
You must provide high color contrast to the text in your document. A good example of high color contrast is black and white; while an example of poor color contrast is light yellow and white.
Any pictures, graphs, or text boxes within an email must be given alternative text. Alternative text should give an accurate description of what the item is, so that the user’s assistive technology may convey what information is demonstrated by the item. It is a best practice to avoid using text boxes as they may be inaccessible by screen readers.
To add alt text to an image:
- Insert the image by choosing the INSERT tab.
- Select the image and right click inside the image. A menu will appear.
- Select “Format Picture”. This open up the Format Picture panel. Additionally, in Outlook 2013 select the Layout & Properties button.
- From the category list, select Alt Text.
- In the Description box, type a brief description and select Close.
How to Create Good Alternate Text
- Consider the content and function of your image.
- If it adds meaningful content to your document, make sure that the information the image provides is in the alt text.
- Do not use “Image of…” or “Graphic of…” as alt text. That is evident to the person using the alt text.
- Do not repeat the information which is contained in the document itself into the alt text. If it’s already in the document, that should be enough.
To ensure the accessibility of non-text elements, the “wrapping style” should be set as “In line with text”:
- Select the image/text box and right click inside the image. A menu will appear.
- Select “Wrap Text” then “In line with text”.
Signatures in Outlook provide a way to add name and contact information to emails the same way every time without re-typing.
Steps for adding Signatures:
- Go to the INSERT tab, choose Signature then Signatures
- Select New
- Give the Signature a name, then select OK
- Type in your Signature information, then select OK
Some Outlook users like to use vCards, or electronic business cards, as their signatures. Screen readers cannot read the information on a vCard and therefore they are inaccessible.
All email attachments need to be accessible. Making other documents accessible is covered by the section on Creating PDF & Microsoft Office Documents. If for some reason you must send an inaccessible attachment, make sure that the body of your email includes all of the information that is included in the attachment.