Digital accessibility isn’t just for developers. Writers have a major role to play — and when you think about all of your readers when crafting your content, you write much more effectively.
- Nearly 13 percent of U.S. adults have cognitive disabilities. Complex writing may leave this audience behind.
- Almost 5 percent of U.S. adults have vision disabilities. These readers may struggle with small or colored fonts.
- Anywhere between 5 and 17 percent of school-aged children have dyslexia. Long blocks of text can be difficult to follow for these readers.
These are just a few examples of how your writing style can affect diverse readers. In fact, every reader brings a unique set of abilities and preferences to your text. So how do you write accessible content for all?
Luckily, a few simple tips can make writing more accessible across populations. Next time you sit down to write, remember these five rules:
1. Keep your writing simple and to the point
Plain language is best. Avoid rare words when common ones will do, and keep sentences short. Don’t use jargon unless you have to — and if you do, consider linking rare terms to a glossary.
This approach will keep your writing around a middle-school reading level. According to Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG) success criteria (SC) 3.1.5, “Reading Level,” that’s a good goal.
Most readers value clear, concise writing. When you write simply, your audience will retain more of your message.
2. Break up content with images, bullet points, and subheadings
Many readers don’t read so much as they scan. You can make your content more scannable by avoiding long, unbroken blocks of text. There are a few ways to do this:
- Use bulleted lists (like this one)
- Use numbered lists
- Include images
- Separate sections with headings
This last point is important. In web content, you create headings using HTML tags. These heading tags are organized into a hierarchy: H1, H2, etc. It’s important to use these levels in order. Otherwise, people who scan the page with a screen reader can get thrown off.
3. Write concise alternative text for images
As we just mentioned, images can help make your content more scannable. They can also provide lots of information. People who use screen readers might miss out on that information, however — unless you include alternative text.
Alternative text (or alt text) is an HTML element that describes an image. Assistive technology often uses alt text to explain a picture. Readers who don’t use assistive technology benefit from alt text, too. It shows up when an image file fails to load, for example.
Brief, descriptive alt text is most helpful. Write too much, and you can annoy people using screen readers. Write too little, and you might miss essential information. Like all writing, it’s best to keep alt text short and to the point.
4. Pay special attention to link text
The clickable words in a hyperlink are called “anchor text.” It’s important to get your anchor text right. You have to consider the experiences of people who use assistive technology.
Someone using a screen reader may scan content by listening through the links on your page. If you don’t use descriptive anchor text, that user won’t get any information about what’s on the page — or where the links lead.
Don’t just link to the words “click here.” That doesn’t provide enough information. Instead, write anchor text that describes the link destination in as few words as possible. When in doubt, link to the name of the destination page, like this: Quick Guide to Accessible Hyperlinks.
5. Be careful with fonts and text colors
Accessible writing isn’t just about word choice. The appearance of text can be a barrier, too. Most undecorated fonts are readable enough at 12 to 14 points. (Your site should let users enlarge text, too, per WCAG SC 1.4.4 “Resize Text.”)
Text color is another potential accessibility barrier. Readers don’t all perceive color in the same way, after all. Don’t use color for emphasis, and be sure the text contrasts brightly with the background. (That’s a contrast ratio of 4.5:1, according to WCAG SC 1.4.3 “Contrast [Minimum]”.)
These rules will help you write for a broader audience. They’ll remove a few accessibility barriers. They can even help you meet your SEO goals. Ultimately, they’ll make your writing easier to read. In other words, accessible writing is good writing.
Learn more about accessible web content by exploring our accessibility Compliance Roadmap, or get a free WCAG conformance report for your website.