Toolkit: Everyday accessibility: How your organization can be more ADA compliant

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost one out of every five Americans has a disability. Awareness around reaching people with disabilities, and the fact that more grant funding is tied to an organization's compliance with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), makes understanding and implementing ADA compliance extremely important.

While most agree that pursuing increased access is the right choice, planning for accessibility can feel overwhelming to small staffs with limited resources. However, having an inclusive model doesn't always mean expensive site rehabilitations, and making changes to extend your accessibility needn't be for ADA compliance alone. Accommodating people with disabilities is not only the law, it's good for your organization.

Most of the changes that increase accessibility for people with disabilities are also good design, which benefits everyone. A good example for this is the curb cuts in the sidewalk. While the law requires curb cuts to accommodate people who use wheelchairs, each day far more people using strollers and rolling carts benefit from their placement than do those who use wheelchairs.

There are many different ways that your organization can upgrade accessibility for people for disabilities. Below are five ways that your organization can place "curb cuts" that boost your organization's accessibility to people with disabilities, while simultaneously improving your overall accessibility.

Mind your digital doorstep

As more and more people access information through the web, having an accessible site is crucial to being inclusive. But nonprofits don't need high-priced Silicon Valley consultants to be compliant with best practices. There are a dozens of guides available online for how to make your webpage more accessible. Without getting too technical, the biggest thing organizations can do is make sure to use text that is clear and intelligible, both in its content and visual presentation. That means no busy backgrounds and no flashing text.

Also, make sure that every graphic has as an alternative text. This is the text that appears when you hover the cursor over an image. This is also the text that helps improve a search engine's chances of returning your organization's content when someone conducts an image search.

Finally, writing in plain language also helps make content accessible to more audiences. The Hemingway App allows you to check the grade level of a block of text. Aiming for a fourth or fifth grade level is best.

Don't forget to think about physical space

Nonprofits often run on a shoestring budgets, and oftentimes space is also limited. But tight quarters leave hallways and spaces cluttered and difficult to navigate. By taking some time to clean up the office, staff aren't just freeing up mental capacity, their efforts can also help increase accessibility, and improve safe exit in case of an emergency.

In fact, studies show that when businesses and organizations follow ADA guidelines for the setup of their physical space by having wide doorways, ramps, and appropriately spaced furniture and displays, the same physical footprint is able to serve a larger number of people. Even if your organization can't redesign, clearing the boxes and bric-a-brac out of waiting rooms and hallways can go a long way towards increasing your access. For those that can move beyond housekeeping, many funding opportunities are available for rehabbing spaces to be ADA compliant.

Forget the fine print

Small organizations can't possibly anticipate and accommodate every disability when creating publications ( e.g. large print, Braille, audio presentations of the materials.) However, one way to help become more accessible is to always have a text file of your publications available, so that people with disabilities can use their own assistive technology to understand the materials.

Additionally, using people-first language in your publications signals your willingness to invite people to come to your organization's programs with a range of different abilities and different needs, and demonstrates commitment to finding ways to meet those needs.

Finally, letting people know that you're amenable to creating print materials that they can access allows those who may need these items to start the conversation. These needs can then be factored into long-range plans. Showing that an audience exists for alternatively-formatted materials creates a compelling narrative for fundraising to meet that need.

Closed captioning is ready-made

Many organizations use televisions and other media in waiting rooms, for training sessions, during sponsored movie nights, or as part of other events. Turning on closed captioning is an easy way to increase accessibility for people with hearing impairments. This simple gesture shows a desire to accommodate people with hearing loss, but can also help many other people in your audience understand the presentation or program.

If your organization produces media placed online, insist that includes captioning. Remember: the same captioning that allows a person with a hearing disability to view your media also allows others to view your video during a boring meeting or in transit.

Attitude is everything

A change in attitude, while not always easy, pays dividends. Remember, it's "reasonable accommodations" that form the guiding principle behind the Americans with Disabilities Act. A positive and enthusiastic conversation with your constituents about how you can best accommodate them will go a long way towards increasing your organization's accessibility, while at same time augmenting its effectiveness and widening the community of people that is serves.

Additionally, engaging with those who may approach your mission from a different perspective adds valuable insight and avenues for growth. Making yourself available to dialogue around accessibility makes for time well spent.

Kevin J. Cohen, M.S., S.L.P. is an assistive technology specialist.

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