Thursday, July 31, 2008

are you missing 20% of your audience?

If your communications vehicles don't match current best practices for accessibility for people with disabilities, you might be missing 20 percent or more of your audience, says VSA arts, which conducted an informative workshop on the topic for Washington Women in Public Relations. VSA arts knows the need to review your practices firsthand: The group began as "Very Special Arts" in the 1970s, and, as the years passed, standards changed. "Special" is no longer used when referring to people with disabilities. The initials today stand for other principles that reflect the organization's mission to create a society where people with disabilities learn through, participate in, and enjoy the arts.

The good news: Many of the changes bring us back to sound writing and graphic standards that work for everyone in your audience, including the 1 in 5 people self-identifying as disabled in census data. VSA arts shared these tips and resources with the don't get caught news & info blog so you can check your own practices:

  • Build current awareness. We love the Disability Awareness Guide VSA arts offers in a free download as a starting point for understanding the issues and translating them into good language and practices. There's a short overview of specific disabilities, with audience data and guidance on how to improve access and positive interactions with people with disabilities.
  • Find out more about your disability audiences. VSA arts often holds conferences or workshops for educators, artists and the public, as well as performances, art exhibits and other events. Their registration forms ask participants to self-identify access needs, so that they can plan for access on-site: When theatrical events take place, buildings may be considered accessible for audience members, but don't work well for performers who use wheelchairs and need backstage access, for example. Asking your audience to identify its needs will speak volumes about your corporation, nonprofit or educational institution, and help you plan a more successful event or campaign.
  • Use "people first" language that talks to, not about, the people you're writing about. Avoid hyperbole, depicting disabilities as suffering or victimhood or heroism. Someone isn't "wheelchair bound," but "uses a wheelchair," for example. People-first writing tips are included in the disability guide download noted above, as well as in the "Sticks and Stones..." paper from the Research and Training Center on Independent Living, and its Guidelines for Reporting and Writing About People with Disabilities. It's important to note that the Associated Press stylebook has already incorporated many of these changes--have you?
  • Graphic design for web pages and print vehicles should use the free downloads of accessibility symbols from the Graphic Artists Guild (in this post, we used symbols for sign language interpretation, access for people who are blind or low vision, and audio description availability). Check out the guide to creating accessible PDF documents (including a "read out loud" option) to be sure you're formatting and tagging your documents in ways that enable access, and ask vendors like American Printing House for the Blind about Braille transcription services. Consider raised printing as well as Braille in your print publications--VSA arts uses the technique show people with low vision or blindness can experience print reproductions of visual art, for example.
  • Work over your website by knowing the new standards for text email newsletters, federal standards for Web and information technology, and evaluate your own site with free accessibility evaluators like The Wave and A-Prompt, or the paid evaluator previously known as Bobby.
VSA arts can offer your company or organization a similar training workshop on writing about people with disabilities, people-first language and accessible communications, for a fee. You'll get the current standards, practical tips and advice from their experienced people-first writing and graphic design team, suitable for print, web and other applications. For more information, contact VSA arts Vice President for Public Awareness Rachel Maleh at 202-628-2800 or RMaleh[at]

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