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Five Ways Social Distancing Signage Is Not Accessible – And How to Fix Them

June 5, 2020
Source: Greater Greater Washington

[Note: This article includes pictures and graphic images as examples that have been removed from this post. See the News Source link below to view them. The written captions are included below.]

[Caption:] Social distancing signage at a bustop in Baltimore by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Signage during our current age of social distancing is critical in informing us when to wear a mask, how close to convene, and where to go. Many signs, however, are not very good at effectively communicating their message to their audience - especially if that audience happens to have a disability.

Here are a few examples of signs that are not making the cut, and some ways to make them better.

Signs of the times

Most people, like myself, have spent a lot of time thinking about washing their hands and face masks in this pandemic. I have also been, however, obsessed with signs. As different notices have popped up in the supermarket reminding people to wear masks, wash their hands, and stay six feet apart, and as we are told everywhere to be careful, I find myself tracking which signs are good, and which signs are not. Most, sadly, are not very good at communicating what they want their audience to do.

I spent several years making sure communication laws were enforced in New York government, so that information on health and safety regulations for businesses and workers were usable by all. I learned very quickly what makes good informational communications that are perceivable and readable.

In February, I wrote about accessible transit signage, and since then, I have noticed many of the sins of transit signage also show up in social distancing signage in various public places, such as parks, transit, and businesses.

A font on one is unreadable, as is the color combination for another. The language is more ornate than one of my papers for graduate school. One has only text, the other only has an image of a person in a mask. For such an important, communal effort, these could be far better.

As we go out – whether or not we want to – we will need to be aware of new rules, new practices, and new ideas. People with disabilities should not be left out. Here are some examples of inaccessible social distancing signage inaccessible, and how they can be easily fixed.

[Caption:] Arlington County’s communications use simple, direct language to tell residents what to do. Image by Arlington County Department of Health.

Signs are not direct, or the language is too hard to read

Now is not a time for euphemisms or being indirect. Yet I often see signs at businesses and institutions that use long, complicated language in which the requirement is not clear. Sometimes, the requirement is ornately written – “it is mandatory under the order of…”

As an autistic person, I often have to read indirect directions twice to understand what they mean. This experience is shared by many other neuro-diverse people and other people with disabilities – not to mention people who are not disabled who do not speak English well. If a sign is not understood, then the directions may not be followed.

It’s better if signs simply state what they mean. For example, “you need a face covering to ride this bus.” Anything more complicated is liable to be misunderstood or missed. Any signs with essential information above a sixth-grade reading level may be harder for people to understand. (This piece, ironically, does not meet that standard.) The sign above from Arlington County is direct and to the point.

[Caption:] This sign at the Safeway in Hyattsville, MD effectively uses images and words to convey its message. Image by the author.

Directions are only in words or images, not both.

Some people have trouble with written directions or cannot fully process them. Likewise, some people find text easier to follow than images. Signs often only have one or the other, which means some people may not be able to understand what they need to do. It’s ideal to add pictures whenever possible. So, if masks are required, a few pictures of people wearing masks is helpful. A diagram to show that one needs to stand a certain distance apart is helpful for people, too. A good example of this is in some of the signage at Safeway supermarkets (pictured above), which have clear text and an image of how far people should stand apart – two carts!

[Caption:] The "Please Practice Social Distancing" on this sign in University Park, MD is in a serif font that many people cannot read. Image by the author.

Fonts are not readable

Signs are often in serif fonts like Times New Roman, which are difficult for people with dyslexia and other vision disabilities to read. Other signs are in “handwriting-like” fonts like Comic Sans which, though more readable for some people with dyslexia, are difficult for people with vision disabilities and some other people with dyslexia to read. Other signs switch fonts several times, which can be difficult for many people with disabilities to follow. On some signs, text is so small that people with vision disabilities simply cannot read it.

As is the case with other communications, signs are most accessible with sans-serif, straight-line fonts. Some of these fonts include Arial, Bahnschrift, Calibri, Grotesk, Helvetica, and Trebuchet MS. The fonts used by WMATA and the CDC in their COVID information are also examples of good fonts. For printed text, I recommend using a font size above 24 – though it is well above what the ADA requires for large print, it ensures adequate readability.

[Caption:] Besides being arranged in such a way that many people will have trouble reading, this Walmart floor decal also has no raised surfacing that blind or low-vision people can detect through their shoes or canes. Image by Walmart.

Colors are not readable

I often see signage that only distinguishes things with green and red text – which is impossible for people who are colorblind to parse. Similarly, text is often in a shade that does not contrast very sharply with the background color, which is hard for people with a variety of disabilities to read.

Ideally, color is not be the only distinguishing factor, but are paired with images, stars, or other indicators. Furthermore, text colors should contrast with the background colors by at least 4.5:1 - meaning that the darker shade absorbs 4.5 times more light than the lighter shade. Designers have found many wonderful color combinations that are particularly effective – for example, the black text on a gold background used by Baltimore City, or the dark blue text on a white background many airlines use. When in doubt, white and black always works – as Metro has done.

[Caption:] The contrast between the text and background colors in this sign from Prince George’s Economic Development Corportation is not enough to be readable by many people. Image by Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation.

Only one mode is used

Of course, good signs are not helpful if you cannot see. Yet many businesses and places only have visual cues to tell people what to do, which leaves blind and low-vision people out. Some people need other notifications, such as hearing something, feeling something on the floor or in Braille, or some other type of sensor. Meanwhile, many announcements in larger businesses and transit stations are made only by loudspeaker – which, of course, is not particularly helpful for Deaf people and people with auditory processing disabilities.

When possible, use more than one mode. A store, for example, could use raised tape to mark directions on its aisles. Transit agencies could have transcripts of recorded announcements posted on its buses, or scrolling on a display, as WMATA does. One example that works very well is announcements about service changes on Metro, which are both by loudspeaker and transcribed on the train time screens.

Going forward

As we go forward, let us not forget that we are all in this together – and for that to happen, everyone needs to have the tools to proceed. Those tools must be delivered in ways that people can understand and use. Having accessible signage is one part of that, be it on a street, in a store, on a bus, or for a park.

Link: Go to website for News Source

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