Is your website a gated community?

Sometimes a career in communications seems like dentistry.

By that I mean that the work required for good communicating is feels like pulling teeth.

Such was the case with a school district that hired me to coach its teachers through a process of creating a “teacher page” on the district’s website. The district’s own communications staff had been hammering away at this with meager success. Only a third of teachers had built their pages, and those updating them regularly were outnumbered the varsity basketball team’s starting lineup.

Coaxing compliance was excruciating for reasons I’m sure will ring true with you. Most minutes in a teacher’s day are consumed by teaching, and there’s fierce competition from other duties for the minutes that aren’t. Teachers considered their teacher pages “busy work” and my attempts to help them intrusive. Besides, teachers were already providing parents with the “what’s coming up” information on other platforms, including electronic newsletters, Wiki pages, and social media. Teacher web pages were a bother.

So, if teachers didn’t care about teacher pages, why would the district hire an experienced writing guru like me to coach them into getting with the program?

“Website? We don’t need no stinkin’ website!”

Government regulations require public school websites to be encoded to make them electronically translatable into another language. 5451897212_2b5f6e10c6

Good luck finding a classroom Wiki with that option for a parent or grandparent who doesn’t read English.

And forget about relying on social media to carry your message to parents with certain physical/visual limitations. A September 2011 study rated Twitter a big fat zero in terms of accessibility. (That’s not surprising, really, because the 140-character limit forces inventive spelling and extensive abbreviation.)

“It’s often the legal requirements that push people in the way they should go,” said Sara Memmott, emerging technologies librarian at Eastern Michigan University. “The purpose of communicating is getting the word out, so you want to make your content available in ways that are accessible to everybody.”

Relief is spelled D-I-G-I-T-A-L

Some communities are more wired than others, but I think it’s safe to say that technology is now the way most parents of school-aged children prefer to access school communication, resources, and services.

The shift toward electronic access to information will only explode as people who grew up with smartphones become parents.

Business on a laptopThat’s why schools are under pressure to make their frontline communications tool – their website – accessible.

Language isn’t the only barrier. Creators of web-posted content also need to make that information accessible to people who need screen readers and other assistive technologies to surf the web.

True Accessibility – You can nail it!

A few features that boost a website’s accessibility to users include:

  • Electronic translation capability for non-English speakers.
  • Audio description option synchronized with images, charts or other non-text images for the visually impaired.
  • Captioning for the hearing impaired.

[pullquote]Providing text equivalents to audio information is a popular feature among people who are accessing information in environments that aren’t ideal for sound, like train stations and bus terminals. Doing this won’t earn you a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, but it’s a big deal.[/pullquote]

The Association for Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies offers a checklist that lots of organizations use to determine whether their websites meet accessibility standards for people with physical limitations. Here’s the checklist.

Not quite like a hot knife through butter – but close enough

Fortunately, there are easy-to-use, no- or low-cost tools for improving accessibility of content on the web, according to Memmott and colleague Bill Marino. Accessibility_Intro

They are the authors of a resource guide, published in connection with their presentation  “Loud For All: Working Toward An Accessible Web Presence” at the Michigan Library Association’s 2012 conference.

The guide is written for librarians (notorious sticklers about open and equal access to information), but is just as useful to good communicators anywhere.

It has links that help you learn how to create accessible documents using Microsoft Office, and for captioning online media like screencasts and videos.

Memmott and Marino (EWU’s online learning librarian) also include a list of best practices for creating accessible websites and for working with third-party vendors to ensure that supplied PDF files are accessible. (You game?)


Memmott and Marino say a good first step to boosting your website’s accessibility is captioning existing YouTube content.

Closed captions can be turned on and off by viewers. These captions are searchable text files. Open captions are always apparent and their appearance typically degrades over time. Search engines can’t find this text.

YouTube offers one-step machine transcription called Auto-captions, which requires no additional software. (Or, you can use CaptionTube or Magpie.) You’ll need to proofread carefully because machine transcription doesn’t include capitalization or punctuation and sometimes substitutes similar sounding words.

It’s possible to edit in YouTube, but many people find it easier to download the transcript, edit in a text file, then re-upload. (YouTube automatically attempts to line up the video with the transcript!)

For captioning new content during production, remember these guidelines:

  • No more than two lines at a time
  • No more than 32 characters per line
  • Plan two seconds for each display
  • Divide captions at logical points
  • Pause at the end of each sentence

Creating accessible documents

Microsoft’s Office 2010 for Windows introduced features that enable users to create accessible presentations and documents. (I hate that they didn’t incorporate them into Office 2011 for Mac, the software I use.)

windowslivewriterhowtomakeaworddocumenttalk-13dc4microsoft-daisy-braille12There’s an “Accessibility Checker” for Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents, and STAMP (Subtitling Text Add-in for Microsoft PowerPoint), which allows you to import open captions for media embedded in PowerPoint presentations.

Starting with Word 2003, Microsoft has also offered the “Save As Daisy” add-in, which allows documents to be saved in Daisy XML, which easily converts to the Daisy Digital Talking Book format.

Dazzling, but still mediocre

Technology hasn’t been invented that reliably translates, transcribes, or talks like a real person.

(I recently instructed my iPhone virtual secretary, to call my daughter, Whitney. Siri’s out-in-left-field reply: I’m really sorry about this, Kym, but I have no maps of Georgia.)

Save yourself a migraine and avoid using colloquialisms, abbreviations, emoto-cons, shortened URLs, and foreign words and characters in communications that may be translated or transcribed. That drives the technology haywire.

There’s currently no way to caption videos uploaded directly to Facebook, or to provide alternate text for images. So, if Facebook is the only place your district posts scores on game day, know you might be shutting out some fans and alumni from accessing that information.

This seems like a lot for school communicators to think about. But Memmott and Marino have constructed a great map toward better web accessibility. The Siri service on my iPhone may never get this right. But any of us with a hand in our district’s website development should try.

Accessibility matters.

How important is your school district’s website to its communications plan? Are accessibility concerns on your radar? What features illicit positive feedback from your community? Tell us on the Message Board.