Skip to main content

Email Messages

Email is a vital communication tool for VA employees. To ensure that all VA employees have access to the information contained within an email, we must ensure that emails are compliant with federal law. Below are easy steps we can take to create accessible emails.

Note: Since email messages using the plain text format do not allow for images or other design features, some of these tips may not apply in all circumstances.

Step 1: Write your email

The body of email messages should clearly and concisely state the purpose of the message. Use plain language appropriate for the intended audience.

Know Your Audience

One of the most popular plain language myths is that you have to "dumb down" your content so that everyone everywhere can read it. That's not true. The first rule of plain language is: write for your audience. Use language your audience knows and feels comfortable with. Take your audience's current level of knowledge into account. Don't write for an 8th grade class if your audience is composed of doctoral candidates, small business owners, working parents or immigrants. Only write for 8th graders if your audience is, in fact, an 8th grade class.

However, just because you are writing for other Office of Information and Technology staff members, do not assume they know what you are talking about or are familiar with jargon you may use daily. At a minimum, spell out all acronyms and abbreviations  on the first instance.

Things to Avoid

  • Small fonts (emails should be 12 points or higher)
  • Images in the signature block.
  • Abbreviations (acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviated names)
    • Abbreviations are shortened forms of words or phrases such approx. or Feb.
    • Initialisms are abbreviations that use the first letter of each word to form the abbreviation such as VHA, VBA, NCA, EHRM, or OIT.
    • Acronyms are similar to initialisms, but the letter are used to form an abbreviation that is spoken as a word such as NASA, VACO, LASER. Some acronyms can be used because that is their most common and understood usage such as NASA or VistA.
  • Technical jargon (know your audience)
  • Slashes in place of "and" or "or" (e.g., "red and/or blue" should be "red or blue, or both")
  • Passive voice
  • Run on sentences and long paragraphs
  • Meaningless filler phrases
    • Thinking outside the box
    • Value added
    • Best practice
    • For all intents and purposes
    • Touch base
    • Integrating quality solutions
    • Promoting an informed and inclusive multicultural society

VA Style

  • “Veteran” is always capitalized!
  • Don't use ampersands "&" unless they are part of a corporate name e.g., AT&T. VA initialisms should not use an ampersand - there is no “&” in “OIT.”
  • Do not use the word “the” before VA.
  • “Health care” is two words unless part of a brand or name that chooses otherwise.

OIT Style

The Office of Information and Technology follows AP style, with some notable exceptions:

  • Use Oxford or serial comma.
  • Only capitalize “federal” when using as part of a proper name or when used with “government.”
  • Do not abbreviate “million” or “billion” as “M”or ”B”.
  • When writing time, a.m. and p.m. are always punctuated and lowercase.
  • There is no “&” in “OIT.”

Step 2: Use the Accessibility Checker

Microsoft products have a built-in accessibility checker under the “Review” tab in the navigation ribbon. Turn this tool on at outset of creating your email and frequently check for and resolve errors.

The Accessibility Checker tool helps create accessible emails by identifying potential issues for people with disabilities in reading content or using the document. Regardless of the recipient, all failures must be remediated before sending the email. If you generate a great deal of email, you may want to add the "Check Accessibility" button to the main authoring ribbon or quick tools section.

Outlook message interface
  1. Go to the Review tab (keyboard Alt+v).

  2. Click on the Check Accessibility button (keyboard a or Alt+a).

The online version of Outlook also allows you to check accessibility.

screenshot of Outlook online
  1. In the main toolbar, click more actions (visually represented with three dots)

  2. At the bottom of the options, click Check for accessibility issues.

Step 3: Ensure text and images provide sufficient contrast

An important aspect of color for both low vision and colorblind users is sufficient contrast between foreground (text or graphics) and the background.

OIT digital content must meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 criteria. All OIT documents and websites will meet a minimum AA rating, and AAA wherever possible. The colors chosen in the OIT design guide have been selected to ensure that the base colors meet the minimum contrast requirements, but if you need to extend the color palette, several online tools are available to help determine if the colors meet the minimum criteria.

Never use color as the only method of emphasis. If your audience has a certain color blindness, they may not be able to see the color you chose. Make sure to also bold text, or use text or symbol in addition to color in images to make sure your meaning is clear to all.

Additional Tools

Step 4: Add alt text to images

Images are a wonderful way to draw attention, or to build on a story, or to provide visual reinforcement to a concept you are trying to explain. However, if your audience has a vision impairment that prevents them from seeing the image clearly or at all, you need to provide alternative text, or alt text.

Alt Text

To minimize the frustration and to increase understanding, images that are intended to convey meaning must have a textual equivalent. Fortunately, documents created in email can take advantage of an alternative text attribute — commonly referred to as alt text. Alt text is intended to provide the textual equivalent of the image which then allows screen readers to convey the meaning to the user.

General Guidance for Alt Text

  • All images must have alt text or be marked as decorative.
  • Images intended to convey meaning must have a textual equivalent available.
  • Avoid text on images and do not use images that are just text.
  • Don't use abbreviations.
  • Describe the image, such as, “Group of people at an airport.”
  • Alt text should consider the context in which the photo is being used and be as meaningful as possible.
  • Keep the alt text clear, meaningful and concise (due to screen reader behavior and general useability, the text should be limited to less than 250 characters). If longer text is required to convey the message, use captions or the surrounding text, and then in the alt attribute use very basic text.
  • End alt text with a period. This signals the screen reader to pause before proceeding.
  • If the image is just decorative and conveys no real meaning, use the "Mark as decorative" checkbox. Minimize the use of decorative images - they can be a distraction and they increase the file size.
  • If the image is a hyperlink without any text, it must have alt text. If the link includes the image and text, then the empty alt can be used to avoid redundancy.
  • Do not use "a picture of," "an image of," "a photo of," "the so-and-so icon."
  • For Word, place any alt text in the Description field, not the Title field of the Format Picture dialog.
  • Manually check that all alt text is entered correctly, Microsoft auto-generates alt text for images, but it should not be used unless it has been verified to be correct.

Other Resources

Step 5: Provide meaningful links

Links should tell people what action to take, where to go next, or what information to expect when they select the link. Create link text that’s as specific as possible. For example, instead of linking text like “Click here” (which may not make sense for folks using screen readers), consider instead something like “Download the full report.” Descriptive links provide all users more information about an action they may undertake.

  • Create link text that’s as specific as possible. For example, instead of using Click here (which may not make sense for folks using screen readers), consider instead something like “Download the full report.” Descriptive links provide all users more information about an action they may undertake.
  • Use natural and descriptive language. Make sure the voice and tone of your link text match those of the rest of the content to create a more consistent experience. Site visitors using screen readers and those reading page copy won’t be jarred from their experience if all text reflects the same voice and tone guidelines.
  • Hyperlink the most relevant word or phrase.
  • Avoid “Click here,” “Learn more,” “See more,” “Read more,” and other generic phrases.
  • Include information about what a link leads to; this is especially important for mobile device users. If you’re linking to a PDF, say so.
    • Don’t punctuate links. Exception: When the link text is a question.
    • If the link text comes at the end of a sentence, don’t hyperlink the ending punctuation.
    • Don’t make links open in a new window. Exception: Downloadable documents can force a new window or tab, but the label should indicate this behavior.
  • Do: If you have additional questions, contact us immediately.
  • Don’t: Click here for additional information.
  • Do: You should review the list of PIV office locations to find the nearest one to you.
  • Don’t: Click here to see a list of PIV office locations.

WCAG 2.0 references

Step 6: Use proper text formatting and styles

When creating emails, use approved VA and OIT fonts, do not use background images or stationery, and use heading levels to break up sections of text.

In general, use recommended standard fonts: Segoe UI, Times New Roman, Georgia, Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, or Helvetica. Use 12pt or larger.

Paragraph text must be left justified. Center justification can be used for short titles and short introductory text. Full justification may not be used.

Emails should be black text on a white background to ensure the appropriate color contrast. If alternative colors are used, color contrast must comply with Section 508 requirements.

If your email has sections, use appropriate heading levels. A document should only have one H1 heading for the title of the document. All other headers should be sub-headers (Heading 2, Heading 3, etc.). Documents should avoid having more than four heading levels.

Do not use the return or enter key to create space between paragraphs. Use the paragraph spacing features in Outlook. Note: Line and paragraph spacing are not available in the online version of Outlook®.

Step 7: Create accessible tables

Tables should be used for data and not layout. Tables can be very difficult for screen readers to understand unless there is a clear relationship between header and data cells. It is best to use simple tables with one row of column headers and no nested rows, columns, or merged cells. Avoid blank rows, columns, or cells. Avoid using tables for layout or formatting purposes, such as formatting a numbered list.

Step 8: Simplify your signature block

A signature block that does not contain images or hyperlinks is accessible.

If you place an image in your signature block (such as the OIT signature logo), use alt text to convey the meaning of the image (alt="Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Information and Technology").

Images with hyperlinks are acceptable as long as the alt text associate with the image describes the meaning or intent of the image so that the reader knows what to expect if the link is activated (e.g., Facebook logo linked to the VA's Facebook page: alt="Visit the VA Facebook page").

Step 9: Verify email attachments are accessible

Emails which include attachments must contain accessible attachments or include in the body of the email the information contained in the attachment.

For instance, when a memo needs to be distributed, the current method is to attach the memo to the email with a note making reference to the attachment. (e.g., open attached memo). The majority of Memos are sent out as scanned (.tif or .pdf) image files. Screen readers cannot read scanned image files

To ensure accessibility with attachments, use one of the methods described below:

  • Attach non-conformant document (e.g., .scanned .tif or .pdf file) and insert the text of the memo in the body of the email message to match the .tif or .pdf file. Include a description of the attachment at the bottom of the email (e.g.: Attachment — Veterans Day Scanned Memo).
  • In addition to a scanned document, provide an additional attachment which is 508 compliant. Include a description of the attachments at the bottom of the email (e.g.: Attachment 1 - Accessible Veterans Day Memo, Attachment 2 — Scanned Veterans Day Memo).
  • Image files processed through an OCR program (if user has OCR software) can be made accessible using Adobe® Acrobat DC® to add necessary “alternative text” (alt tags) to remaining images, such as signatures and logos. As these types of files are accessible, it is not necessary to include a description of the attachment.
  • Include a link in the email to an HTML format of document. (e.g., “Having trouble accessing this email? View accessible version.”). HTML document can be created from existing .doc or .docx format and re-saved as webpage. Document will need to be uploaded to a webpage that is available to all intended users.

Disclaimer

This website includes links to other websites outside our control and jurisdiction. VA is not responsible for the privacy practices or the content of non-VA Web sites. We encourage you to review the privacy policy or terms and conditions of those sites to fully understand what information is collected and how it is used.

Statement of Endorsement

Reference herein to any specific commercial products, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government, and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes.

Page last updated on May 17, 2021

Digital Accessibility Guide

An official website of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Looking for U.S. government information and services?
Visit USA.gov

We’re here anytime, day or night - 24/7