Making Online Forums More Accessible

January 17, 2022

Web forums enable interactions with your visitors and can be powerful resources for delivering customer support. If your website has a forum, you’ll want to make sure it’s accessible for people with disabilities.

That can be a challenging task. Forums rely on user-created content, and some of that content will inevitably create accessibility barriers. For example, if a user posts a picture without providing alternative text, certain readers won’t be able to perceive that content — and unless you have active moderators, you may not be able to remediate the issue.

With that said, developers can take steps to make forums as accessible as possible. Below, we’ll discuss a few tactics.

Make sure your forum operates in a predictable way

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most widely cited international standards for digital accessibility. WCAG Guideline 2.4 states that creators should “provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.”

Forums can quickly become complex, and some users may encounter difficulties when trying to open posts, leave comments, or go back to the home page or a subforum page.

Each page within the forum should have consistent and easily identifiable navigation elements. For example, posts might include breadcrumb navigation or “Previous Post" or “Next Post" buttons displayed prominently.

Other tips for ensuring consistent navigation:

  • Limit the number of links per page. An excessive amount of links may make your page less operable for people who use screen readers or other assistive technologies.
  • Make links visually distinct. Some people cannot perceive color, so don’t rely on color alone to identify hyperlinks. Underline links or change their formatting, and don’t allow forum users to format hyperlink text in a way that hides the link’s functionality.
  • Use appropriate color contrast. Poor color contrast ratios can make text difficult to read. The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides a color contrast analysis tool for testing web pages and color-pairs for WCAG conformance.

Also, be sure to test your forum by browsing with a keyboard. Many people use a keyboard alone to browse the web, and since forums depend on user interaction, you’ll want to make sure that your users can navigate, write posts, and perform other actions without using a mouse.

Related: What Is Keyboard Accessibility?

Make sure your forum offers accessible login options

Many forums authenticate users to limit spam and to improve the quality of conversations. Wherever possible, use accessible authentication methods — avoid relying on cognitive function tests to verify human users.

Consider utilizing the Web Authentication (WebAuthn) API or third-party access delegation protocols like Open Authorization (OAuth). Avoid using captchas; instead, use captcha alternatives that are more accessible for people with vision, hearing, and neurocognitive conditions.

Related: How To Make Your Website's Authentication Process Accessible

Make it easy for users to create accessible posts

As we mentioned earlier, forums rely on user-created content. While you can’t control everything your readers publish, you can provide them with resources to help guide their conversations.

Encourage users to input link text, alternative text, transcriptions, and captions — and provide them with simple controls for doing so. Explain why those elements are important to empower users to make better decisions.

Related: Alternative Text: What and Why

Prioritize digital accessibility when planning your website

Accessibility isn’t a one-time project. In order to broaden your website’s reach — and offer an equivalent experience to every visitor — you’ll need to consider how every feature could impact real-world users.

That’s especially important if you’re adding a forum via a third-party plugin. Review each option carefully, looking for accessibility features. Choose a theme with appropriate color contrast and a simple, legible font. After adding the forum, provide users with a way to submit accessibility feedback (for instance, by prominently linking your website’s accessibility statement and contact information).

Most importantly, review the WCAG principles and look for opportunities to improve. You can (and should) try to create more-accessible forums, and by making a few improvements, you can enhance the on-page experience for everyone.

For more web accessibility guidance, download our free Definitive Website Accessibility Checklist.

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