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  • Alicia Elliott

Intro to Accessibility

How visual communicators can become more inclusive

6.2 million Canadians and 61 million Americans have a disability, and the resulting economic, social, and quality of life costs are substantial. According to the 2017 Survey on Disability, only 59% of Canadians with disabilities aged 25–64 are employed and earn less than 80% of Canadians without disabilities. Based on the W3C Web Accessibility guidelines (WGAG), Canada and the United States have enacted laws to optimize online content to be easily perceived, understood, and navigated. The goal is for people with disabilities to be not excluded from using products, services and educational material.


Why is this important? Besides being mandated by law, well thought out accessible and inclusive design practices in educational visual content ensure that ALL end users are considered. A diverse group of people have equitable access to educational visual content online.

Conditions that affect online accessibility

It is virtually impossible to design for 100% accessibility. Still, we must take all conditions into account and make our art as accessible as possible.



  • Hypersensitive to light

  • Colour blindness, ranging from those who cannot see colour at all to those who cannot discern between certain hues

  • People who rely on their sight to read or see images but have severely diminished vision

  • People who are legally blind or who have eyesight reduced to the point that they can't read images or text visually


  • Hypersensitive to sound

  • People with severely diminished hearing but still rely on it for communicating

  • People who cannot hear at all

  • People who cannot see or hear at all


  • People who are unable to use a mouse to navigate

  • People who have limited fine motor control and response time


  • Distractibility and difficulty focusing on a task

  • Learning disabilities such as dyslexia

  • People with problems understanding complex logic, abstract concepts

  • People with issues memorizing or recalling information


Assistive technologies

Based on their individual needs, people use various ways to navigate the web. Speech, sounds and music that they can hear, vibrations that they can feel, and text, video and images they can see are different ways to perceive web content. Assistive technologies are software and hardware, such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, and voice recognition, making navigating the web more accessible. Adaptive strategies such as captions on, reducing mouse speed and increasing text size can be used in conjunction with assistive technologies by the user.

Learning how these assistive technologies work for different disabilities is the key to helping you create more accessible content.

How does inclusive design affect image content for digital education?

Life science and educational visuals are not decorative but informative images. The purpose of educational images is to simplify and help the user visualize complex concepts to understand the content more clearly. Accessible and inclusive design affects how we need to think differently about traditional conventions for relaying information visually. Here are just some of the new techniques we need to utilize. Proper use of colour contrast, avoiding coloured text, increased font style and size, and colour blind friendly palettes. For example, we consistently use colour to help visualize data and traditional pedagogical colours to organize and categorize information; this may be problematic for viewers with colour blindness.

Graph on left, Normal Vision using Red and Green to define graph line colours. Graph on right, Viewers with Deuteranopia colour blindness will not be able to distinguish between the two line colours (Green deficiency). The colours also fail contrast tests for people with low vision disabilities
Example of problematic palette choice in graphs for people with red/green colour blindness

It's essential to have well-trained individuals to create application-flexible images that meet print prepress requirements and digital accessibility standards. Still, some things affect the digital accessibility of images that may be out of the artist's jurisdiction. Complex images need to have appropriate alternative text to describe the content for a screen reader as concisely as possible. Images should be responsive and should consider layout options for different screen sizes and orientations. Making your educational art accessible takes some pre-planning and analysis of any visual assets and design before production starts. Clear and documented standards for vendors and end user testing are a must.

Life science visual content creation is challenging, and adding inclusive design creates a whole new layer of thinking that can make your mind spin. Accessibility is nuanced for educational visuals, and it's critical to have people who understand the content create the visual image and use the appropriate accessibility tools to ensure that it communicates the correct information. We need to implement the traditional practices for visual communication and inclusive design and accessibility to enhance and reach more people for more equitable access to education.

Where to learn more about how you can be more accessible and inclusive with your visual content

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) - the guidelines that have helped form best practices for online content across North America

WebAIM - this site has endless resources and information for helping you create accessible content

Funkify Simulators- Web extension that simulates a variety of disabilities and details how those afflicted navigate the web


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