We often hear about designing accessible websites, but how many of us understand what it is like to put those designs into practice? offers several ways to experience accessibility issues first hand.

The website challenges you to put yourself in the position of people with cognitive, auditory, motor or visual conditions. For example:

  • Mute your speakers, then watch a video.
  • Sit on your dominant hand, then try to get your work done.
  • Borrow someone’s glasses for a few minutes and try to type.
  • Wear heavy winter gloves while using your keyboard.
  • Use your keyboard—no mouse or trackpad!—to navigate a website. (Tip: Use Windows Mouse Keys.)

Want to go one step further? Some prompts include extensions you can add to a browser to simulate dyslexia , low vision and other conditions.

Empathy Prompts is hosted on GitHub, a software development platform. The project is meant to help digital designers take into account how everyone—not just people like them—interact with digital offerings. The website was launched in May to celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day.


Accessible Utility Designs

Learn about website accessibility solutions in these blog posts:


We Can Help

Need help updating your website? We’d love to help. Here are common questions (and answers!) about how we help utilities design websites with accessibility (and your budget) in mind.

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Where should you put your message: online or in print?

Both, says Ruralite Services CEO Michael Shepard. He joined the utility communications cooperative in 2016 after a career in newspapers and magazine publishing.

“One of the things we struggle with as communicators is the transition to digital and online messaging while still understanding what works in print,” says Michael. “Do not look at digital as a complete transition from print. It is more complicated than that.”

Consider each message your utility wants to share. Some work best in print, while other messages should also be shared on social media or a website.


Science of Print

“Print remains extremely valuable as a place to tell stories,” says Michael. “Print is great for a message people aren’t necessarily looking for—a message you’re bringing to them. Make it as compelling as possible; tell a fascinating story readers were not expecting to learn.”

Science backs up the power of print. A 2015 study by the Canadian neuromarketing firm TrueImpact used eye-tracking, brain wave measurement and questionnaires to compare the impact of print messages with email and online messaging.

The report found direct mail—materials you hold in your hands—are easier to understand than digital messages.

“Direct mail requires 21 percent less cognitive effort to process than digital media, suggesting it is both easier to understand and more memorable,” the report states. “When asked to cite the brand (company name) of an advertisement they had just seen, recall was 70 percent higher among participants who were exposed to a direct mail piece than a digital ad.”


Questions Drive Digital Content

Websites and social media are ideal for question-driven messages. Outage updates, high-bill questions, immediate safety concerns—these are questions consumers seek answers to online.

“Folks are turning increasingly to digital sources (and away from radio and TV) for instant information,” says Michael.

Digital platforms (website, social media, videos) help utilities provide succinct information to consumers quickly.

More than half of the average website’s traffic comes from mobile devices. Utilities need to make sure their websites use responsive design for easy mobile-device viewing. Content should be geared toward answering the common questions driving consumers to the website.


Social Steps

Print helps readers discover stories. Websites answer questions. How does social media fit into a communicator’s toolbox?

“You can use social media to get out a serious message about something but in a more lighthearted way,” says Michael.

Social media can be used to help followers discover stories about their community, much as you see in print. It can also be a key communication channel during an outage. Share pictures of damage, restoration efforts and expected time to restore power.


Remember Reach

Keep digital messages simple. A 2015 study by Chartbeat, a media analytics partner,  found 55 percent of website visitors spend less than 15 seconds actively reading a web page.

Think social media results are better? Think again. A 2012 PNM Resources survey of utility social media accounts found the best of the best—utility accounts with high engagement—attract only about 12 percent of a utility’s customer base.

Compare digital reach to Ruralite magazine’s last reader profile study. Fifty-eight percent of readers surveyed in 2013 read the magazine for 30 minutes or more. And when asked how many of the last four issues these people had read, 76.4 percent reported they had read all four issues. Since an average of 1.9 people read each issue, that means 477,286 out of 624,720 potential household readers open and read every issue of Ruralite magazine.

“The reality is that—at least for our industry—digital has an extremely modest impact. There is very little website, app and social media traffic, especially when you compare it to how many utility consumers read the print version of their statewide publication or utility newsletter,” says Ruralite Managing Editor Curtis Condon. “Digital and print are not equal in terms of their effectiveness or value.”

Michael agrees, encouraging utility communicators to use many—not just one or two—communication avenues to get the word out.

“Do not look at is as, ‘This goes here now,’” says Michael. “You may need to include five or six elements across different platforms to have a full communications plan.”

Print vs Digital: Which is Right for Your Message? from Ruralite Services on Vimeo.


This is a story from the Winter 2017 issue of OnLine, our quarterly newsletter. Get more great ideas here.

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0831_Accessibility_BlogImage2Nearly one in five Americans has a disability, including some of your consumers. Are you doing your best to make sure everyone—no matter their abilities—can get information from your website?

Screen-reading software helps people with visual disabilities understand text and pictures, but what happens when the software searches for links and reads off a list of, “Click here or click here or click here…” instead of telling the consumer what each link leads to?

Website visitors with motor disabilities can use special keyboards or software to control a computer with nothing more than eye movement. Imagine how frustrating it would be to try to click on a slideshow image only to have the slideshow advance to the next image before you are done.

Websites must be able to work with specialized software. Use these seven design tips to help everyone use your website:

  1. Simple, Clear Navigation
    Place a few buttons with the most common tasks in a prominent place, with words under each button clearly explaining the action. For example: Manage Account, Make a Payment, Report an Outage, Before You Dig, Latest News.
  1. Rich-text Documents (vs. PDFs)
    PDFs present a problem for vision-impaired readers. Since most PDFs are one big image, screen-reading software cannot read them. Consumers using text-enlargement programs are also out of luck. Publish documents in HTML or another rich-text format in addition to a PDF.
  1. Unique Link Language
    Instead of saying “Click here” for a link, explain where a link goes. Screen-reading software can be used to scan for links. Make sure your hyperlink text is clear, unique and descriptive. Example: Instead of, “Click here to learn more about us,” use, “To learn more about us, read our history page.”
  1. Avoid Text Overlays
    Remove graphics with text overlays. Instead, place blocks of text below images.
  1. Slideshow Advance Option
    Do you use a slideshow with marketing messages? Instead of automatically scrolling messages, design slideshows to advance only when an arrow is clicked…. Or better yet, do not use slideshows at all.
  1. Image Tags
    When you upload an image to your website, add a caption and alternate text. The text should explain what the image conveys. Include any text from the picture. Keep in mind this is an ongoing process. Train everyone who maintains the website on image tagging.
  1. Headline Order
    Most website content editors let you pick a type style. Be careful with headlines. Only use Headline 1 for page titles. Although Headline 3 might look better visually than Headline 2, never skip a level in body copy. Screen readers assume content is missing.

Want to spread the word about these tips? Share this post or download our accessibility brochure.

Keep in mind these pointers are the tip of the iceberg. To learn more about accessible design challenges and solutions, visit our website support page, read our archived blog posts or email us. You can also stop by Ruralite’s table at the Northwest Communications and Energy Innovations Conference in Missoula, Montana to learn how to develop a responsive, accessible and reliable website.

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You want to create a positive experience with consumers, both in person and online. How can you ensure your website works well for everyone? Make sure members with vision, hearing and mobility challenges can access and understand your online content.

Utility websites should consider following the Americans with Disabilities Act website accessibility guidelines by 2018. Wonder what an ADA-friendly website looks like? Here’s a great example.

Inside Peninsula Light’s Website Redesign


Peninsula Light Company in Gig Harbor, Washington, enlisted Ruralite Services to redesign their website,, in April.

The new responsive design is mobile friendly, a great perk for PenLight members looking at the site on smart phones or tablets. But the biggest change was an eye toward ADA guidelines.

The old website design featured a rotating slideshow with text-heavy graphics, two navigation sections (a line at the top and a list of quick links on the left side) and a drop-down menu for services.

These design choices made viewing the site difficult for members with vision and cognitive challenges. Videos are not used on the site, but if they were closed captioning would have been an issue, too.

The new design made four big changes:

  1. Avoid text overlays. To make sure anyone could easily understand content, PenLight removed graphics with heavy text overlays. Instead, program promotions (paperless billing, Project Help, Ambassador Program) use images with blocks of text underneath.
  1. Add a slider advance option. A slider with program marketing messages changed from automatically rotating messages to only advancing when an arrow is clicked.
  1. Streamline navigation. Five buttons with the most common actions take center stage, with words under the button icons clearing explaining the content (Manage Account, One-Time Payment, Prepay Program, Power Outages, and Save Money and Energy).
  1. Tag images. Images were tagged with meaningful alternative text.

“We’re very pleased with the outcome,” says Jonathan White, PenLight’s director of marketing and member services. “We have gotten great comments from our staff and members. The end result was beyond my expectations.”


How Can Your Site Improve?

Some elements of a website, such as slideshows and PDFs, can be fixed once and require no further action. Other aspects, such as image tags, must be regularly maintained.

  • Pause-enabled Slideshows: Slideshows must have a pause function. Imagine how frustrating it might be to have a screen reader tell a consumer what one slide says, only to get interrupted when the next slide appears.
  • Rich-Text Documents: PDFs present a problem for vision-impaired readers. Since most PDFs are one big image, screen-reading software cannot read them. Consumers who use text enlargement programs are also out of luck. We recommend publishing documents in HTML or another rich-text format in addition to the PDF format.
  • Image Tags: When you upload an image to your website, you can add a caption and alternate text. No matter how you describe an image, put something in the alternate text box. Otherwise screen readers read out the location of the image file instead. Wonder how many of your website’s images need alt text? Use WAVE, a very basic website accessibility evaluation tool. Plug in your website address to see what alternate text pops up for your images. But this tool is not foolproof—far from it. Users often assume everything they see is a cause for concern, but often flags can be false positives. There are also issues WAVE often does not pick up that can be cause for alarm. Human eye review is the best approach. The WAVE tool is just a starting point.

When you look beyond simple structural changes, website accessibility is more art form than science.

Consider image tags. Every time an image is added to a website, it must be tagged with a description of what the image shows. How do you make those tags meaningful? Do you describe the colors of a sunset by a soaring mountain or simply say the image depicts a mountain with the sun setting nearby?

Website managers who take the time to tag all images with alternate text are 80 percent of the way to website accessibility. But this is an ongoing effort, much like cutting your grass. Websites are dynamic, and must be maintained.

Whoever creates content for your website plays a big role. Train everyone involved with the website to keep accessibility in mind.

To make sure your website follows accessibility guidelines or to learn about training, contact Charlie Stanley, Ruralite’s website solutions manager, at


Want More Tips?

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The Americans with Disabilities Act compliance has come to the forefront of the industry after utilities across the nation received letters from a law firm demanding their websites be ADA compliant. Pittsburgh-based Carlson Lynch is threatening penalties if the utilities do not agree to their ADA website compliance plan, which they say would get them up to standards at a high cost.

All websites must be ADA compliant by 2018 according to the Department of Justice’s website. What constitutes compliance for your website is an evolving area of law and dependent on your individual situation.

So let’s go through a few steps to better understand what this means for your utility.

What is website accessibility?

The Internet has revolutionized the way many people with disabilities receive information.

Screen reading software is one of the key tools used by people who are blind to access written text, pictures and video on webpages. Most content today is published online in a format that can be read by screen reading software. This type of software will read electronic text out loud so website visitors who are blind can receive information independently.

Similarly, website visitors with motor disabilities who are unable to turn pages in a packet or book can use special keyboards or software that can control a computer with nothing more than eye movement, and adapt a computer or mobile device.

Then there are the deaf and hearing disabled website visitors. They may be able to read the screen on their own, but they are likely unable to hear audio on a web page or within a video.

The Internet and websites can be used to truly change the way people with disabilities receive information if the website is able to respond correctly to the specialized software.

What is ADA website compliance?

The growth of the Internet and digital information systems expanded the scope of ADA website consideration.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was established to protect against discrimination based on disability. Section 508 is the ADA section addressing this area. Click here to explore the Section 508 Guidelines. Section 508 is the law which applies to all Federal Agencies and organizations who do business with Federal Agencies.

On the other hand, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Website Accessibility Initiative guidelines list what websites can do to increase access for all users. These guidelines are a set of recommendations with the goal to make web-based content more accessible.

What about legal enforcement for ADA compliance?

Programs receiving federal funds may not discriminate against those with disabilities; this includes all government agencies, federally-funded projects and schools.

So where do utilities come in?

If you are a municipal owned utility, and your municipality has received any type of federal grant or federal dollars then that can be seen as a federal benefit that would require compliance.

If your utility receives power from an organization such as the Bonneville Power Administration, could that also require your compliance? So far, we are not entirely sure, as this seems to be a gray area since it is a business transaction between your organization and a government agency. Whether that transaction is classified as a benefit or assistance can be up for debate.

How about if the federal government has an office in a utility’s territory, and does business with the utility? This is another gray area.

As the law continues to develop, utilities will learn more about where they stand with compliance and what measures they need to take. As with any legal area, you should consult with your system attorney.

What are some strategies to reduce your risk?

There are, however, some general strategies that a business can follow to reduce its risk immediately and over time. This includes making a good faith effort to get websites and other digital media compliant with both ADA Section 508 Standards and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

In addition, those members of your staff who contribute to your website’s content should be trained on the dos and don’ts.

Get More Information.

 If you are a utility organization that has a website with Ruralite Services, or another organization, and you are interested in learning more about having a website that follows accessibility guidelines and standards, or you are interested in receiving additional training, contact Charlie Stanley, Website Solutions Manager, at or call him at the Website Support Hotline, 503-427-1414.

Sources used to gather information for this article include:

Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities;

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative 

US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division

Mondaq article, “ADA Website Cases Filed in Federal Court in Pittsburgh, With More likely to Follow” by J. Colin Knisely

Martindale Article, “ADA Website Cases Filed in Federal Court in Pittsburgh, with More Likely to Follow” by J. Colin Knisely

NetReach: Section 508/WCAG

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Web Writing SpiderWhen weaving a story for print, you have time to develop characters and a sense of place. But as readers get in the habit of online reading, attention spans dwindle off (and on!) the page.

Use these web writing tips to help your stories stick.

1. End First
Don’t draw out a story. Try starting a story with the conclusion. Let readers decide if they want to read more.

2. Why Should the Reader Care?
Forget your personal attachment to the story. Always write with the reader in mind. Why should she care? Does he really want to know the story? Cull details weighing a story down to share the heart of the story.

3. Avoid Text Clumps
Your eyes need space when reading. Break out lengthy paragraphs to give readers a chance to breathe. Stick to one point per paragraph. Have a list? Use bullet points or numbers.

4. Be Active to Reach Readers
Use active voice in your articles to help readers connect and feel something for your content.

What web-writing tactics work for you? We’d love to hear your comments!

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