Let's say you're preparing a meal for a group of friends. Dan is allergic to peanuts, Maria is vegan, Joanna is gluten-free and Kevin is lactose intolerant. You might offer substitutions, alterations or extra dishes so everyone can eat.
As a military communicator, your intended audience, likewise, has a variety of needs and expectations. You may be familiar with guidelines for distributing the right information to the right audience, but it's equally important to ensure you reach everyone in that audience. You play an important role in ensuring that those who are supposed to receive the messages you create can perceive, navigate and understand them. This commitment to equal access drives the seven principles of universal design, which provide guidelines for accessible design. It is not only good practice to design materials with the broadest possible accessibility in mind; it is required by federal law. Understanding and implementing the seven principles of universal design will help you create media that seamlessly abides by Section 508.
It's the Law
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that when Federal agencies develop, procure, maintain or use EIT (electronic and information technology), individuals with disabilities have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access and use by those who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency (U. S. Access Board, n.d.). To comply with this law as a military communicator, the information that you are in charge of communicating needs to be equally accessible by all members of your target audience. Refer to the U.S. Access Board for more information about Section 508 and ICT Accessibility.
Section 508 has been in place for decades, but as the internet continues to push the frontier of communication mediums, its application has expanded. Your digital work, both internal—and external—facing, needs to follow Section 508. You can refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, which the DoD is required to follow, for specific questions. How do you go about putting Section 508 and its guidelines into practice? Use the seven principles of universal design.
What is Universal Design?
Universal design refers to a movement and ethos regarding composition that ensures materials can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability (National Disability Authority, 2020). By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all users throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples' needs. Simply put, universal design is good design (NDA).
The seven principles of universal design are intentionally broad in order to apply to a wide variety of situations. Think of them as guidelines stemming from a mindset that can shape the way you approach content as a whole. This approach ensures that the complete user experience is captured at every stage of the implementation process (Section508.gov, n.d.).
Explore the National Disability Association's definitions of each principle and consider the tips for implementing and abiding by the principles.
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The 7 Principles of Universal Design
Implementing Universal Design
Though universal design principles are a vital resource, digital content requires some specificity that a general set of principles can't always provide. In addition to the tips explored above, when starting to create digital content, begin with an outline to organize your main points (Digitalgov, 2019). Ask yourself: What are you trying to get across, and how will the intended audience get this information?
Universal design is the best practice not only for creating 508-compliant products that are accessible to all, but also for changing how you think about design. From the ground up, incorporating the spirit of universal design into your creative process will make your content stronger, more efficient and better aligned with command goals. After all, content that reaches your intended audience to the greatest possible extent is content that achieves commander intent to the fullest.
Digitalgov. (2019, August 13). An introduction to universal design for content creators.
National Disability Authority. (2020). The 7 principles.
National Disability Authority. (2020). What is universal design.
Section508.gov. (n.d.). Universal design: What is it?
U.S. Access Board. (n.d.). Information and communication technology: Revised 508 standards and 255 guidelines.