Accessibility tends to be a major topic in regards to science communication (sci-comm). However, most of the time, people only refer to making the content accessible to the general public, neglecting to take into account those with disabilities. Considering the audience is essential, but your considerations need to extend beyond using plain language and no jargon. It's also necessary to commit to the idea that science should be accessed and understood by everyone. This is not a new issue; however, it has become more apparent due to the increase in sci-comm demand during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In this piece, I will go through the formats that are commonly used for sci-comm and highlight the most important accessibility points. I will also assess different social media platforms that can be used if applicable to the format. Hopefully, the information shared here can be incorporated into your own work to make your sci-comm accessible to all.
Videos are a popular method of virtual sci-comm as they make information more interactive. This may be obvious, but adding captions or closed captions to your videos and/or providing a text transcript is a great help to the hearing impaired and those with learning disabilities. What's the difference between closed captions and captions? Closed captions include subtitles and a description of anything you hear in the video. Captions refer just to the subtitles, which assume that the audience does not have hearing impairments.
A simple method to achieve this is to use YouTube, which automatically generates captioning of the video that you can edit to correct mistakes and add descriptions as needed. You can even add commonly used words (i.e.) chemicals, reactions, names, etc., to your channel settings to minimize errors. The video with captions can then be shared to other platforms.
Another video sharing platform, Vimeo, requires closed captions to be uploaded as a separate file (e.g.) SRT file, in the settings. Facebook and LinkedIn have similar formats to this.
There are also closed captions or caption apps like Caption This, InShot, and Clipomatic. However, the reviews of these apps are mixed, so do your own research. Another option is to add captions manually using online or downloadable media tools such as Subtitle-Horse or Camtasia Studio.
2. Live Streams
Live streams can be used across several different social media platforms, and similar to videos, they need closed captioning. If enabled, YouTube provides automatic captions for live streams. Again, if you add your commonly used words to the settings, then it can be reasonably accurate. Zoom has an option for someone to type subtitles as the conversation is happening, but can also facilitate a third-party caption service if the conversation will be too fast for someone to type.
Facebook Live can facilitate close captioning, but only with the use of a third-party caption service or an external automatic caption generator. Similarly, Twitter can also facilitate an outside automatic caption generator for live streaming.
While researching for this piece, I discovered that you can now live-stream from LinkedIn! However, there is no option to provide captions. Similarly, Instagram does not have any facility for live closed captioning.
3. Blogging and Presentations
Blogging via a website is another popular sci-comm method. The layout is essential here. It is recommended to avoid multiple columns on a webpage, as screen readers can get confused. Screen readers are an assistive technology for the visually impaired that converts content (text, alt text, transcriptions) into speech or braille. If you are using a blogging platform, it's important to use the 'Heading' options when formatting. Screen readers do not understand that people just make the font one size bigger or tab in once to mean a new section.
For the rest of this section, the points apply to presentations and blogging as the issues can be similar. Poor color contrast between backgrounds and text can be a huge problem. Be extremely cautious about using background images, especially busy photos. Using color contrast tools to assess your webpage can help you avoid this issue (e.g.) Webaim Contrast Checker, and ACART's Contrast checker. You can also create color palettes for general use on coolors.co.
Fonts are also a critical choice for accessibility. There is a font that has been designed for dyslexics called Open Dyslexic that you can download. Although research has found that there is no significant difference between this font and some Sans Serif fonts in terms of readability for dyslexics, so it's not essential. The Sans Serif fonts recommended are Comic Sans, Open Sans, Arial, Verdana, Tahoma, Century Gothic, and Calibri.
The British Dyslexia Association recommends font size 12-14 and 1.5 line spacing for optimum readability of websites. I have never seen an official guide for presentations, but my own rule of thumb is at least font size 20 and 1.5 line spacing.
Finally, if using images, graphics, graphs, or related, always provide a caption or description for them. It is also necessary to describe all visuals when giving a verbal presentation, something many people forget.
4. Graphics, Infographic, and Posters
Many people like to make their own graphics, posters, or infographics to get their message across; they are great but unfortunately are not very accessible. All graphics need to follow many of the same rules for webpages and presentations in regards to color contrast, fonts and spacing, and captions to maximize readability.
It was pointed out to me recently that screen readers cannot interact with infographics posted on social media or a webpage. This absolutely makes sense as they are graphics, but this is easily overlooked. Please always provide a detailed transcript of all information and graphics on an infographic to make them fully accessible.
5. Social Media Posts
Your content, itself, is now accessible, but what do you need to know about posting on social media in an accessible manner? What do you need to change to expand your reach and maximize your impact?
As I have already mentioned, it's essential to provide a description for any visual material. This can be done on Twitter and Facebook by clicking 'edit' on the uploaded image and filling in the 'alt text'. Facebook autogenerates descriptions if this is not filled in, but twitter does not. Instagram also autogenerates descriptions that you can edit by pressing 'Advanced Settings' before you post. However, autogenerated graphic descriptions are not recommended as they tend to be basic. It is also much easier to understand if you include the format the image is in (i.e.) [Gif], [Photo], [Graphic]. This is also relevant for links and hyperlinks. If you are using links, specify where they will lead (e.g.) [Website], [video], etc..
Finally, Hashtags – yes, hashtags. You need to capitalise the first letter of every word in a hashtag, or else a screen reader will read it out letter by letter. Imagine how annoying that can be! It's something straightforward that makes a big difference. Just post #ScienceForAll instead of #scienceforall.
In general, try to be considerate and include the general public with disabilities in your sci-comm. Also, this piece is not exhaustive, there are many other ways to make your sci-comm accessible. Accessibility should be built into the design, not an afterthought or a last-minute addition. You don’t have to be perfect from the get-go, you will improve with time. The most important thing is to try and take feedback.