How to Write for Web Accessibility

Last Edited January 25, 2018 by Garenne Bigby in Accessibility Testing

writing for web accessibility

The international standard for producing web content that is more accessible to those individuals with disabilities is known as the WCAG, or Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Here, you will find some basic tips for getting started writing web content that is more accessible to those who have disabilities and nail the WCAG requirements.

Unique Page Titles and Information

Each web page should have a short heading that designates the content on the page and will distinguish it from the other pages on the site. Many times, the page title will be the same as the primary heading on the page. The most relevant and unique information should be put first, like the name of the page put before the name of the organization or brand. If the page happens to occur in a multi-step process, it would be good practice to include the current step in the page title.

When this is done successfully, users will be able to find content and orient themselves within the website thanks to the descriptive title. The title will identify the current positioning in the website without the users' need to read or interpret the content on the page. When a title is provided within a sitemap or search results list, a user is able to quickly identify the content that they need. A user agent will make the title of the page easily identifiable by the user so that they can determine the page. As an example, a user agent could show the page title in the window title bar, or as the actual name of the tab that contains the page. In the event that the page is a web application or document, its name would be sufficient in describing what the purpose of the page is. Do know that it is not required to use the name of the web application or document—you can use a different word or phrase to describe the topic or purpose of the page.

There are many benefits to be had when successful with these guidelines. It will prove beneficial to all users as it allows for quick and easy identification of information contained in a site and determination if it is relevant to the needs of the user or not. Those with visual disabilities will reap the benefits of being able to differentiate the content when there are more than one web page open. Those with cognitive disabilities, reading disabilities, and limited short-term memory will benefit from being able to easily identify a piece of content through its title. Those with severe mobility impairments will also benefit because they will be able to navigate between the web pages using audio.

Headings Should Convey Meaning and Structure

Short headings should be used to group related paragraphs and content together while clearly describing the sections. A good heading will provide an outline of the content.

This is required so that users can understand what they should expect from the information contained within a web page and how that information will be organized. Clear and descriptive headings allow the user to find information easily, thus they will be able to understand the relationships between parts of the content more easily. The headings do not need to be lengthy, one word or character will even suffice sometimes, as long as it provides a suitable cue to find and then navigate the content.

Some benefits of this particular strategy are that these descriptive headings will help those who have disabilities that slow their reading down, and will help those who have a limited short-term memory. The section titles make it likely for the individual to foresee what each section will contain. Those who experience difficulty with using their hands or have pain when doing so, will be able to reduce the number of strokes needed to reach the content that they need. Also, those who utilize screen readers will be able to see the headings and labels first, and will know their meaning when seen out of normal context. Those with low vision will be able to see the headings first and determine if the content is relevant to their inquiry.

More specifically, long documents should be organized into sections with headings that introduce them. They should indicate the organization of the content while facilitating the navigation of the content. There might also be other elements on the page that will help with the overall presentation of the site, but do not actually identify the section headings.

Meaningful Link Text

Link text should be written so that it describes the content of where the link leads. You should avoid using link text that is ambiguous, like “click here” or “read more”. You should relay information that is relevant from the link target, like the type of document and its size.

These guidelines intend on helping users to understand what the purpose of the link is so that they will be able to decide if they want to follow the link or not. When it is possible, you should be providing link text that will identify what the purpose of the link actually is, with no more context needed. Those with disabilities use assistive technology that provides users with a list of the links on the web page—this is the reason that link text needs to be as meaningful as possible so that they can confidently choose the link(s) that they need. It will also help those who tab through links, as well as those who need to choose links without jumping through hoops to understand what their content is. The text should describe the purpose of the link, in short.

Complying with these guidelines will allow those with motion impairment to skip through links that they do not need, as they avoid keystrokes to visit the content referenced so that they may then return to the current content. Also, those with cognitive limitations will avoid becoming disoriented with more than one means of navigation through the content that they may or may not be interested in. lastly, those who are visually disabled will have the power to determine the purpose of a link just by looking at its context.

Meaningful Text Alternatives on Images

For each image, you should write alternative text that gives the function of the image or more information about it. For images that are used for aesthetics only, there is no need to provide alternative text.

The purpose of text alternatives is to ensure that information conveyed through non-text content is accessible through the use of an alternative. This is the primary way of making information accessible because it may be supplied through other sensory modalities like visual, audio, or tactile—just depending on the needs of the user. Providing these alternatives to text will allow the information to be furnished in many ways, by many user agents.

When this is done successfully, it will help in many different ways. Those who have a hard time perceiving visual content will be able to hear the content when it is read out loud with assistive technology, presented visually, or converted to braille. Those who are deaf or hard of hearing will be able to read the text provided. Text alternatives also help those who have a hard time understanding the meaning of drawings, graphs, or photographs. Text alternatives are also helpful to those who are deaf—blind and require braille to read text. Overall, text alternatives influence the ability to search for content that is not text and re-purpose the content in a multitude of ways.

Multimedia Captions and Transcripts

For audio content like a podcast, you should provide a transcript. For content that is audio and visual like a training video, captions should be provided. Within the captions and transcripts, you should be providing the spoken information and any sounds that are vital for understanding the content. For video transcripts, you should include a description of the visual content that is important to the content as a whole.

When used properly, this will allow those who are hard of hearing or deaf to watch synchronic media presentations. Captions give the portion of the content that is available through an audio track. Captions will not only consist of dialogue, it will also identify the speaker and include non-speech information that is given through sound—including but not limited to meaningful sound effects. It should be known that at this time there may be some struggles in creating captions for material that is time sensitive which results in the author choosing between waiting to release information until the captions are available, or publishing content that is not accessible for those with hearing disabilities for as long as it takes until the captions are available. As time progresses, the technology and tools available to build captions are progressing, and shortening delay like the one described above. Captions are not necessary when the synchronic media itself is an alternate presentation of content that is given through text on the web page.

The main benefit of this criteria is that people who are deaf or hard of hearing will have access to the auditory information or content within the synchronic media through the captions that are provided.

In addition to captions and transcripts, there should also be an audio description of the video. This will provide the audio portion of the content with the information that is needed when the actual video is not available. When existing pauses in the dialogue are presented, the audio description of the video will provide needed information about what is happening within the video like on screen text, characters, and their actions. A different way to address this issue would be to give all of the information for the synchronic media in text form. If there is interaction included as a part of this media (like “click here to email”), there will need to be hyperlinks provided for the user to take the appropriate action.

Clear Instructions

Make sure that any instructions, error messages, and guidance are easily understood. Aim to avoid any technical language that is unnecessary, but describe any requirements for user input, like the format for a date.

When clear instructions are given successfully, the author of the content should be putting labels and instructions in the proper places to identify the controls of a form so that the user can recognize what input data is expected of them.

These instructions will need to be able to be spoken by a screen reader, read with the assistance of a screen magnifier, and should be navigational with a keyboard in order to be accessible to all users.

Clear and Concise Content

Content should be put together with simple language and clear formatting that is appropriate for the context at hand. Some ways to do this are to make sure that sentences and paragraphs are short and clear, unnecessary complex language should be avoided and you might consider providing a glossary for the technical terms that cannot be omitted. Also, acronyms should be expanded upon first use while illustrations, images, audio, videos, and symbols can be used to aid in clarifying meaning.

It is very important that content be accessible to users that may have a hard time understanding complex language. Accommodations include making the text more readable. This includes not using unusual words that a common person would not understand—and if they must be used, consider adding a glossary to allow the user to seek the definition. Also, aim to include the expanded form of any abbreviations. This helps those who have a hard time decoding words, have a limited memory, use screen magnifiers, and those who have a hard time using context to help their understanding of content. Abbreviations may lead to confusion for some, as they do not look like normal words, and will mean different things depending on their context. Some abbreviations will also spell commonly used words, but are used in a different way.

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite: http://garennebigby.com
Founder @dynomapper
Garenne Bigby is freelance Chicago developer and founder of DYNO Mapper with over 10 years experience in both agency and freelance roles in design, development, user experience, SEO, and information architecture.

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