By Wendy Schneider-Levinson
Accessibility is more than a legal “checkbox” that has to be ticked off while creating a website and it doesn’t serve just one small group of disabled people. Most of what we do to make content accessible helps to make it more usable for all web visitors and more easily findable by search engines.
Busy? Want to save time?
When you start drafting new content, you can save time and re-work by writing with accessibility in mind from the beginning instead of remediating after the coding is done. Use the following tips as a guide to help you get started:
Structure your content in chunks
Structure your content with descriptive heads, subheads, and lists. Break up large blocks of text into smaller chunks with informative subheads. This enables a visually impaired person who uses screen reading software to tab through the web page or document and “skim” the basic points, listening further if they are interested in more detail.
Format your content with inline styles
If you are writing content using Microsoft Word, use the inline styles to format normal text, headings (H1 – H6), lists, etc. To do this, highlight the text and choose the style from the ribbon at the top of the page. This is especially helpful if you plan to convert the document into an accessible pdf later.
Make link text descriptive
When you insert links to web pages or documents, make sure the link text describes what the reader will find on the other end (not “read more,” “click here,” or just the URL). Also, if you include a link to a file that will be downloaded, such as a .pdf, label it as a download and put the program and file size inside the link, so readers will know what to expect if they click on it. Examples:
“Dr. Mitchell Gail received the Karl Peace Award from the American Statistical Association. Learn about Dr. Gail’s award and his contributions to the field of statistics.”
Always describe images and figures
Always provide “alternative text” – words that describe the information conveyed by the image or figure (not a duplicate of the caption). There’s no need to begin with “image” or “figure” – the screen reading software will already announce it as such. Try to keep it succinct. If you need more words to describe it, label it “long description” in your document, and the web developer will include it using another method.
- If an image only serves as “eye candy” to make a page more attractive to sighted readers, you don’t have to provide alt text, but please note it somewhere on the content so the web developer knows to insert code that will signal screen reading software to skip over the image entirely.
- If you are able to include the image’s information in the page text itself, alt text would be redundant. Just be sure to follow the guidance in 1. above.
Don’t use color as the sole differentiator in a graphic
When producing a graphic, such as a chart or diagram, be sure that it doesn’t rely on color alone to convey information. Lines on a chart can be different colors, but vary the style of the lines (dashed, solid, thick, thin, bold) so that color-blind individuals can still differentiate between them.
Label cells in data tables
If you want to include a data table, be sure to designate the header cells (row and/or column) and write a short summary of what the table conveys. There are more details for this in the Resources section at the end of this article.
Back up charts with the underlying data
If you create a chart from an Excel spreadsheet, try to give the web developer either a copy of the spreadsheet itself or a link to it if it already appears online.
Videos – always captioned, content always seen and heard
All videos must be captioned. Not only does this aid hearing-impaired people, but it helps speakers of other languages and anyone trying to watch a video in a noisy environment. Two important points to keep in mind:
- If you decide to use an automated caption generator offered by YouTube or other sources, always proofread and correct the captions. If your video contains technical terminology or the speaker has an accent, plan on having to correct a lot—or start with your own correct transcript that you then upload and sync with the video.
- If you are producing the video and there is content or action that will appear on screen that’s important to the story line, build some descriptive words into your script to make sure they are spoken as well. Also, if there is a lot of non-voiced action, include audio descriptions so everyone knows what’s going on.
Making your content accessible makes it more valuable to the larger audience. Want to learn further? Check out these resources:
- WebAIM – a great source for the how-to’s of web accessibility
- How to Caption Videos
- Stories of Web Users
- How a Screen Reader User Accesses the Web: A Smashing Video
Wendy Schneider-Levinson is the web content manager for the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, National Cancer Institute, NIH. With extensive experience working in both the private sector and government, she specializes in making web content understandable and accessible to all.