One of the many things I have appreciated about becoming an attorney is working with people who care deeply about the clients they serve and the work they do.
It is a great honor to watch attorneys meet with clients, listen, and do their best to make clients feel comfortable. That includes working with disabled clients, who are often dealing with substantial barriers, ableism, and disrespect.
However, even though lawyers are making strides in accommodating individual clients, our systemic practices sometimes reveal gaps in our knowledge about accessibility. For example, my involvement in the Elder Law and Special Needs Section arose out of a desire to see that State Bar of Wisconsin CLE programs have captions.
As a member of the disabled community myself, I have benefited from increased accessibility options and gained access to opportunities by asking about the feasibility of making resources more accessible.
The fact remains that everyone benefits when both the profession and our services are made more accessible, and in considering how to do so, we open possibilities for bettering ourselves and creating a larger client base. You will also be doing a service to many individuals who would not otherwise have access to your services.
The Different Forms of Accessibility (Accessibility Is Not One Size Fits All)
Accessibility means something different to everyone. Some obvious examples will come to mind: an individual who uses a wheelchair not being able to climb stairs, a visually impaired/blind person needing a document to be accessible on a screen reader, or deaf and hard-of-hearing people needing captions or transcripts of videos.
But accessibility goes well beyond these things, particularly in our profession. Here are a few tips:
Writing in plain language can be a great tool to make sure your work is accessible to those with cognitive disabilities. Andrew Pulrang, a noted disability rights activist and leader, put together a great
introduction to plain language on Forbes.com as an accessibility tool. It is a bit different from the plain language we are taught in law school, but it is no less important.
Making sure your Zoom calls, or other virtual meetings are accessible is deeply important as well. There are numerous accessibility consultants across the country and in Wisconsin who can help as you sort these things out.
There are many different forms of accessibility and certain documents that are accessible to one person may not be accessible to another. For example, some individuals with low-vision may require color-contrasted fonts and backgrounds to ensure they can read webpages and documents, but an individual who is colorblind may need a different accommodation. See accessibility.digital.gov for more information.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines have numerous examples of different ways to make content accessible.
Getting Started on Accessibility: Captions for Videos and Podcasts
After reviewing some of the information above, the thought of accessibility might be overwhelming, but there are many available resources to begin making your practice more accessible.
As an example, videos on YouTube or other platforms should have captions to make them accessible not just to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, but also to those who cannot access volume on their devices in their current spaces.
There are automated captions provided on most, if not all, YouTube videos but they are often very haphazard.
This video from McMaster University’s Libraries is a great demonstration. Fortunately, it is simple to
add captions to YouTube videos, both during and after the upload process.
Another example is podcasts. Creating a transcript for a podcast is a way to make podcasts and programs like them accessible. Type of accessibility is vitally important not just for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, but for people who prefer to read text for various reasons. As an added bonus, transcripts tend to raise your profile in search engines as a result of increased search engine optimization (SEO).
Bello Collective, a group devoted to audio storytelling and innovations, created
a helpful guide for transcribing audio. They also detail the myriad benefits of transcription that go well beyond traditional accessibility.
The American Bar Association (ABA) has also put together a toolkit for accessible events that covers topics from venues to website and app accessibility. As for Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms,
the ABA has helpful guidelines as well.
Making Text Documents Accessible
At first thought, accessibility for PDF format files and word documents seems like something that is automatic, but that only proves true for certain accessibility needs.
Non-Unicode styles, such as those with different line spacing or kerning can create issues when computer programs attempt to use OCR (optical character recognition) technology to transmit documents into more accessible formats. In many cases screen readers or text-to-speech software cannot process improperly coded documents.
See this blog from pubcom.com for examples and more information on fonts, typography, and accessibility.
In addition to text, any images in a document or file should have alternative text as well as an image description. The two are essentially the same, although alternative text (alt text, as it is more commonly known) is typically shorter and contains the most imperative information. The image description goes a bit further, using simple language to further describe any images in your documents or on websites.
While this might seem like it would only help visually impaired readers, it allows webpages to load faster without all content being lost and increases SEO (search engine optimization).
blog post from the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts is a great introduction to writing alt text and image descriptions.
These guidelines are important to follow for all images, even when you might not think to use them. For example, those using screen readers can see the alt text for my photo in my short biography on this page, with the photo description "Hamza Jaka, a Brown disabled man wearing a suit and tie, sits in his wheelchair and smiles," which accompanies my photo.
It is easy to assume that images do not need descriptions because we know what they contain, but helpful to remember that our readers and viewers do not have the same information we do.
This holds true for virtual meetings as well. Whenever you are going over a slide or page that has an image or figure on it, please describe the image or figure aloud. This ensures accessibility. As an added note, when you are on a virtual meeting, please be sure to provide a self-description in your introduction and state your name when you are speaking. This ensures that people who are unable to access Zoom or another platform in a conventional way can follow the conversation.
Not including image descriptions or alternative text for graphics can make reading documents with a screen reader more challenging. Fortunately, Microsoft Word has an accessibility checker, and
Microsoft provides several straightforward tutorials that you can use for other types of documents.
When scanning documents or converting to PDF, ensure that they are scanned at a minimum of 300 DPI, to ensure accessibility. Adobe also has excellent resources on accessibility.
It takes some work, but converting your work to more accessible formats can be done. Making these changes can also make your documents easier to read for judges and court officials. If court officials have an easier time reading your documents, they can spend more time focusing on the substance of the issues you raise. For example, searchable PDFs are key to accessibility, and are required by most courts.
Reasons to Create Accessible Content
Making accessible content is important for a number of reasons.
The most obvious reason is, of course, because you may have clients that need accessible content. But by adding accessibility your content can reach more people. It can, and often does, open up a whole new client base. Disabled people and our families are one of the largest consumer bases that are still untapped, and almost all of us need some form of legal counsel.
Our profession relies on attorneys to regulate themselves and stresses the importance of doing the right thing. Making content accessible is a critical way to fulfill our duties. And for those of us whose practice is in elder law, our services are continuing to grow as the population age 65 and older increases each year.
Conclusion: Making Accessible Content is Crucial Act
Making things accessible is a crucial step in making the legal profession more just and fair. I encourage all of you to consider making accessible content. The legal profession continues to be better, but there is still a lot we can do to improve accessibility of legal services.
Authors Note: The author encourages those reading this article to strongly consider hiring disabled individuals and supplying workplace accommodations. Our profession, including our licensing entities, often are not easy to navigate as disabled people. It can be challenging to apply for accommodations for bar exam, and having a disability may raise character and fitness issues in certain states. This is part of the reason that there are few attorneys who identify as having a disability. Our members have the opportunity to impact change in the legal profession in a systemic way by ensuring accessibility and opportunity for disabled employees.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s
Elder Law and Special Needs Blog. Visit the State Bar
sections or the
Elder Law and Special Needs Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.