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Ditch the Fancy Vocabulary for Accessible Language

May 4, 2019

When building a website, many designers and developers adhere to the principle of keeping everything as simple as possible, only as complex as it needs to be. This is usually a good practice for web design itself — but what about the text on your web pages?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 6.6 million people in the U.S. have a cognitive disability that affects their memory, concentration, or decision-making. Making the language of your website more accessible is a valuable step in improving the experience for people with disabilities.

Here's how using accessible language can help all users of your website.

What is accessible language?

Accessible language is language that accommodates people of all ages and abilities, including those with cognitive disabilities, people with low literacy skills, and speakers of English as a foreign language.

When language is too complicated or obscure, it may cause users to have difficulties understanding the text, or to feel excluded from fully participating in the website. Accessible language, on the other hand, seeks to make your website as inclusive as possible.

Some qualities of accessible language include:

  • Preferring active voice (“The dog bit me”) to passive voice (“I was bitten by the dog”).
  • Eliminating filler phrases such as “I think that” or “Be sure to.”
  • Writing out the full names of acronyms, usually at least the first time they appear.
  • Using examples and analogies to explain or support complicated ideas.
  • Avoiding the use of jargon and slang words that are used only by a particular subgroup, or explaining their definition when they appear.

However, accessible language does not mean that you need to over-simplify the text so much that you can’t sufficiently explain a concept. Indeed, some topics such as medicine, science, and law may require advanced ideas and terminology. The goal is not to fail to explain an idea at all out of fear of not knowing how to explain it to everyone, and striking the right balance can be tricky, but aiming for inclusivity is a good guiding principle.

The Simple English Wikipedia is an interesting project to check out, and is mainly written using accessible language. This is a simplified version of Wikipedia intended for users such as children, adults with learning disabilities, and learners of English as a foreign language.

For example, compare and contrast the first lines of the “Disability” page on the Wikipedia pages in English and Simple English.

  • English“According to many definitions, a disability is an impairment that may be cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, sensory, or some combination of these.”
  • Simple English: “A disability is a condition that a person has which limits them in some way.”

Why use accessible language?

Your website’s users may have cognitive issues such as traumatic brain injuries, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and assorted learning disabilities. People with these disorders may experience mild or severe challenges when reading text.

Reading difficulties aren’t limited to those who have been officially diagnosed with a cognitive disability. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, up to 10 percent of people have difficulty reading, including those with above-average intelligence.

Using accessible language makes it easier for you to convey your ideas and for your audience to understand them. However, the use of accessible language doesn’t just promote inclusivity — it’s also smart business sense.

When more people can understand the concepts and context present in your website, you’ll reach a wider audience. Topics, materials, and products that are more easily comprehensible are more likely to engage users and convert them into paying customers.

Plain, clear language can even improve your search engine optimization (SEO), helping your website rank higher on Google. When you make it easier for users to obtain the information they need, they’re more likely to stick around your website instead of leaving right away.

WCAG and accessible language

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the leading standard for website accessibility for people with vision, hearing, motor, and cognitive disabilities. The WCAG recommendations are separated into three levels — A, AA, and AAA. Complying with A and AA standards is common, while AAA recommendations are still important to be aware of and keep in mind.

The objectives relating to accessible language are under WCAG guideline 3.1, also known as the “Readable” guideline. Below is a description of each of the six objectives:

  • Language of Page (Level A): The language used by each page on your website can be automatically determined by software such as assistive technologies. This is usually accomplished with the HTML lang attribute.
  • Language of Parts (Level AA): In the event that a page uses multiple languages, the language of each passage or phrase can be automatically determined by software such as assistive technologies. For example, a page may be primarily written in English, but include a quotation in French. Again, this is usually accomplished with the HTML lang attribute.
  • Unusual Words (Level AAA): Your website’s text may contain idioms, jargon, and other words whose meaning is not readily apparent to all users. In this case, these unusual words must be identified through a glossary or mouseover text that provides their definition.
  • Abbreviations (Level AAA): Similarly, any potentially unfamiliar abbreviation should be identified within the text itself or via a provided glossary or dictionary.
  • Reading Level (Level AAA): Some text may require more than a lower secondary education reading level (middle school in the U.S.). In this case, the website either provides a simpler version of the text, or supplemental content such as summaries and illustrations that help to explain the text.
  • Pronunciation (Level AAA): Heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently) are common in English. Consider the difference between lead (manage) and lead (the metallic element), or between bass (the instrument) and bass (the fish). The use of words with multiple pronunciations should include information that describes the correct pronunciation. This is to help assistive technologies such as screen readers correctly pronounce all words in a text.

The Language of Page and Language of Parts criteria belong to Levels A and AA of WCAG, respectively. However, note that the last four of these criteria are Level AAA of WCAG, i.e. the highest level of compliance.

In most cases, these four recommendations are not strictly necessary to be considered “WCAG-compliant.” However, accommodating these guidelines will go a long way toward incorporating accessible language into your website.

Accessible language is important — and we're here to help

Accessible language is an important part of making your website more usable for people with disabilities. To learn more about website accessibility, check out the Bureau of Internet Accessibility Blog for the latest news and updates, or get in touch for a free consultation.

Prefer to start with a self-serve approach? Get a free and confidential website accessibility scan.

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