Email is a silly, silly beast. Web based design doesn’t work as expected, tables rule the day, and modern CSS is almost unheard of. Add to this the fact that every email client renders email differently, I dare you to try and make an email look exactly the same in Gmail and Outlook. But while you are busy making sure your email has the proper visual appeal and your copy is snappy and on point, it’s important to ask whether or not your email design is accessible to all of your constituents.

Blindness and vision impairment are a bigger issue than you probably think. Over 20 million U.S. Americans have trouble seeing, even with corrective measures. By not keeping these people in mind when crafting emails, your organization may be unknowingly excluding a large number of people from your communications. Not only is this a bad idea from a messaging perspective, it also is a bad ethical position.

So what can be done to help craft emails which are inclusive and accessible to the largest number of your constituents? These five tips should help you get started.

This post deals solely with making emails accessible to individuals with vision impairment. Future posts will discuss other types of accessibility.

1. Include a text version of your email
The biggest, and simplest, thing which can be done to make your emails accessible is to include a text version of your email. Emails are sent and received with two different data types, called MIMES, which include an HTML version and a text version of your email. When an email is sent with only an HTML version, it makes it significantly more difficult for individuals who rely on the text MIME to understand or even read your message.

Another benefit of including a text version of your email is that, beyond the ethical argument of making your email more accessible, it also helps with spam filters. Sending an email with only an HTML MIME type is a red flag for most spam filters. Take advantage of the tools your email provider, including thedatabank, come with to generate a text version of your email.

2. Use ALT tags in your images
ALT tags are used to provide a text alternative to images in your email. Using an ALT tag allows the image to be understood by screen readers. It also makes the context of an image apparent to individuals who, due to low-bandwidth, do not download images when opening email.

3. Pay attention to colors
While nothing makes an email pop like the judicious use of color, be mindful of when and how you are using it. Bold black copy on a red background may make exactly the impact you are striving for, but is extraordinarily difficult to read for someone afflicted with protanopia.

Use colors with high contrast and test your email design for accessibility. A good way to test your design is to install Color Oracle on your computer, or use Vischeck to test the web preview of an email .

4. Make your links meaningful
Generic language in your links can make it difficult for your recipients who rely on screen readers to understand the context of the link. This especially happens when the link is in a location which does not follow the hierarchy of your email.

Using a link with the text “Read more about [our project]”, provides far more context than just saying “Read more”.

5. Test with a screenreader
While all of these tips above will help make your email more accessible to those living with vision impairment, there is no substitute for testing and optimizing for screen readers. Understanding how popular screen readers like JAWS or Window-Eyes make sense of your content is an invaluable lesson which can’t be taught in a blog post.

Designing emails with screen readers in mind also ensures a good image to text ratio. While a graphic can be used to enhance your message, it should never be used as the sole source of content. Additionally, emails with too many images and not enough text is another common spam trigger.

Make inclusivity your goal

By keeping these simple steps in mind when crafting your emails, you are helping to ensure that your emails are being designed with inclusion and accessibility in mind. While I can’t give you bullet proof techniques that guarantee your email will always look the same no matter the program used to read it, these steps will help ensure that the content of your email is focused on being accessible to those with vision impairments. This is both a good marketing technique, and it’s just plain the right thing to do.