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Web Accessibility Tips: Using Abbreviations and Acronyms

Mar 3, 2023

Great content works better for everyone — including individuals with disabilities. 

In previous articles, we’ve provided tips for avoiding jargon and writing clear, well-organized content. Today, we’re addressing a much small (but potentially simpler) issue: acronyms and abbreviations.

How do abbreviations affect digital accessibility?

Abbreviations can simplify your content, making it easier to read. For example, if you’re writing a lengthy article about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you might reasonably decide to use the abbreviation “CDC" to improve readability.

However, if you don’t provide the expanded form of your abbreviations at least once, some users may be confused. If someone accesses your page with a screen reader (software that converts text to audio), they may hear “CDC" pronounced phonetically—which might sound like a jumble of consonants.  

Many screen readers will recognize the capitalization scheme and the context, then read the letters independently, but that’s not always the case. This can be especially confusing when an acronym is similar to a common word. For example, “attention deficit disorder" is ADD; a screen reader user may hear the word “add,” which could be confusing.

Abbreviations can also be disruptive for people who use screen magnifiers, people with memory disabilities, and people with certain neurocognitive differences. 

Related: A Quick Style Guide for Writing Disability-Focused Content

What does WCAG say about abbreviations?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) addresses abbreviations in WCAG 2.1 Success Criterion 3.1.4, “Abbreviations.” Here’s the full text:

A mechanism for identifying the expanded form or meaning of abbreviations is available.

This is a Level AAA criterion, and if your goal is Level AA conformance, you don’t need to follow this guideline (read more about the differences between WCAG levels). 

However, accessibility isn’t a checklist, and if you can easily improve your users' experiences, you should certainly take that step. Providing context for your acronyms can help users engage with your content.

Related: WCAG Level AAA Success Criteria Are Strict, But They're Still Worth Your Attention

Quick Tips for Accessible Abbreviations and Acronyms

When your content includes abbreviations, it’s a good idea to use the full text of the abbreviation on its first occurrence. Put the abbreviation in parentheses next to the full text. 

For example:

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BOIA)

If the abbreviation is well-known — or if the meaning of the abbreviation doesn’t impact the rest of the sentence — you might reverse this order:

WAI-ARIA (Web Accessibility Initiative - Accessible Rich Internet Applications)

In some cases, explaining the meaning of an abbreviation is unnecessary. For example, if you’re writing a guide to creating accessible PDFs, you might reasonably assume that most readers will know what the “PDF" file extension means — or that they won’t care if you explain that it means “Portable Document Format.”

Use your best judgment, but be consistent. If you have a team of content writers, review your style guide; make sure that it includes clear rules for abbreviations. 

A few other important tips to keep in mind:

  • When writing image alternative text (also called alt text), put spaces between each character to improve screen reader output. For example: <alt=”B O I A">. 
  • The HTML abbr element can be used to define abbreviations and expand acronyms. However, support for this element is inconsistent. Read more about the HTML abbr element.
  • If your website uses abbreviations regularly, consider providing a glossary to help users understand your content.

If you occasionally forget to “break out" your acronyms with definitions, don’t worry — in most cases, this is a minor accessibility issue, and it’s easy to fix. As long as you’re making an effort, you’re on the right track.

Finally, before updating your content style guide, make sure that the rest of your website is accessible. Get started by downloading our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset. For guidance with a specific website or mobile app, send us a message to connect with an expert.

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