Website Accessibility: Content Is King

Puns, jargon, colloquialisms, mots dans autres langues, “Click here” and unlabelled graphics—call them red flags.

They all indicate inaccessibility in website content, meaning that people with disabilities who use devices such as screen readers to access websites, can’t. Or at least, it’s much harder for them.

Even before the Province of Ontario released new regulationsfor websites under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act last June, those on the cutting edge of web design and development were talking about how to make websites accessible. The federal government added to the push with a recent ruling that all PDF documents must be accessible as well.

But most of the discussion has centred on how to design and code web pages for accessibility. Much less has been said about how to make the content—all those words that comprise the information people are looking for—accessible as well. Changes in design and coding don’t amount to much if the content doesn’t match.

Accessible content must be written in a way that makes it easy for devices such as screen readers to process. This ensures all users, regardless of ability, can access and understand the key messages that the website owner—we call them “clients”—wishes to get across. Ideally, all website content should be edited to render it as accessible as possible. Here are some of our accessible-content tips:

  • Plain, clear language is essential—it’s helpful to all audiences, but especially those requiring accessibility. All content should be written in a straightforward, easy-to-read style without lengthy lists, sub-clauses and other complex sentence constructions. Avoid using figurative phrases or colloquialisms such as “spill the beans” because some people with disabilities understand things literally.
  • Good web writing guidelines apply doubly to accessible content. People read websites and other electronic documents differently than they read printed material: they scan pages, looking for relevant words; they read slower; and they tend to favour a more informal writing style. Accessible content requires a web-oriented writing style even more so to accommodate devices such as screen readers. Accessible websites have written content with the following characteristics:
    • The most important information is positioned at the top.
    • Sentences and paragraphs are concise.
    • Bullets, numbers and lists are used to summarize information.
    • Descriptive headings and subheadings are used often to help people find content quickly. These should explain clearly what is in the content that follows, without attempts at irony, puns, double entendres or figurative language.
    • Content is written or edited specifically for a website, rather than being lifted from reports or other printed documents.
  • Every photo, graphic, graph, chart or illustration should be labelled with a descriptive caption. If the image is too general for a specific caption (if it’s a generic photo of a student, for example), you should write “Image of student reading next to a pile of books,” highlight it and add a note for the programmer to tag the photo with the caption. The screen reader will then read out “Image of student reading next to a pile of books.” If there is no caption, the disabled website user gets no information.
  • All links should be clearly labelled, so users of screen readers know where they are headed. The labels could say, for example, “2009-2010 Annual Report to the Community.” The screen reader will say: “Link – 2009-2010 Annual Report to the Community.” There is no need to put “Click here for the 2009-2010 Annual Report to the Community.” Never use “Click here” by itself or include only a thumbnail image of a report, because the user then has no idea where the link is going.
  • Words or phrases in other languages should be marked and flagged for the programmer, who can use code to tell the screen reader that those words are in another language. That way the screen reader will use the correct pronunciation/accent when reading the word or phrase. To illustrate, imagine how the word “resume” would be read by a screen reader: as a French word it would mean “resumé” as in “CV,” but as an English word it would mean “start again.”

So when you’re thinking about making your website or PDF accessible, think beyond the coding: Content is King! By Kathryn Young, Manager of Editorial Services