If your brand communicates with customers via email, you should take steps to make sure your emails are accessible for everyone — and you may have a legal obligation to do so.
Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits businesses from discriminating on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation. According to the Department of Justice, websites and mobile apps qualify as “places of public accommodation.” By extension, emails may also fall under the Title III of the ADA, especially when emails include exclusive discounts, pre-sale opportunities, or other perks that aren’t available elsewhere.
Below, we’ll look at the ADA’s requirements for digital content and provide basic guidance for improving email accessibility.
What ADA requirements apply to emails?
The ADA requires accessibility, but it doesn’t include any technical guidance for writing emails (or for designing websites, for that matter).
The most widely accepted standards for digital accessibility are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The Department of Justice has cited WCAG 2.1 Level AA conformance in public statements and structured settlements as evidence of ADA compliance.
In other words, if your emails conform with the Level AA requirements of the latest version of WCAG, you’re in good shape. Many WCAG success criteria are directly applicable to email content, and reviewing the guidelines can be helpful when designing your campaigns.
Several of the most relevant WCAG standards for emails include:
WCAG Success Criterion (SC) 2.4.4, “Link Purpose (In Context)”
This standard requires descriptive text for hyperlinks. “Click here" isn’t descriptive, while “click here to read about our product" is much more useful.
People who use assistive technologies may scan through your email for interactive elements, so give them clear information to help them decide whether to interact with hyperlinks.
Related: Quick Guide to Accessible Hyperlinks
WCAG SC 1.4.1, “Use of Color"
This standard requires that “color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.”
Here’s how this standard affects real-life users: You send a marketing email that offers a great deal on a new product. The text of the email instructs readers to “click the red button" to purchase the product with a discount — but if the reader can’t perceive color, they can’t determine which link to click.
You can still use color to create engaging visuals. However, by not relying on color alone, you can provide a better experience for readers (including people who read emails without loading images).
WCAG SC 1.4.3, “Contrast (Minimum)”
This standard requires that the visual presentation of text and images of text maintains a color contrast ratio of at least 4.5.1, with several exceptions.
Color contrast ratio is a numerical value assigned to the difference in light between the foreground (including text) and the background of your content. If your emails don’t have enough contrast between text and the background, some people might have trouble perceiving the content — particularly if they have color vision deficiency or low vision.
Fortunately, this is usually a simple fix. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides a free color contrast validation tool to help designers meet WCAG requirements.
WCAG SC 2.4.6, “Headings and Labels”
This standard requires headings and labels that describe the topic or purpose of content.
If you’re designing HTML emails, you’re probably using semantic HTML elements — especially subheading tags such as <h2> and <h3>. These tags can affect the way that assistive technologies work. For instance, a person using a screen reader might scan through the subheadings before reading the rest of the content. If the subheadings are unclear or if they’re not presented in a logical order, the reader might become confused.
Email accessibility helps your campaign reach more people
Most digital accessibility lawsuits focus on websites and mobile content. You’re less likely to face litigation for sending out inaccessible emails — but you may lose customers and alienate a significant portion of your audience.
Remember, regardless of your industry or target audience, some of your readers live with disabilities. If your campaigns aren’t optimized for those potential customers, you’re missing an opportunity.