Creating accessible content

Digital content (documents, websites, videos, audio, etc.) is accessible if it is created in way that people experiencing an impairment or disability—whether permanent, temporary or situational—can use it. When content is accessible it works with assistive technologies like screen readers, personal voice assistants (e.c. Siri, Alexa, etc.), speech to text, screen magnifiers, braille displays, keyboards, switches, etc. When you design materials with accessibility in mind, they work better for everyone—which means that people will feel included, because they are.

Five Principles

This section outlines five easy strategies that will help you prevent the most common barriers to access. Once you understand the basics, jump into the tutorials for how-tos in specific software.

Structured Content—Headings, subheadings, paragraphs and lists

We all browse content to see if the article or material is what we really want. We browse using headings, links, lists, etc. Some people use visual cues to guide them through documents and others use auditory clues that rely on content being appropriately identified as headings, subheadings, paragraphs, lists, etc. using the tools available in the software we are using.

In most software the default content type is a paragraph. Choose the content type that most accurately describes the content you have included—avoid the temptation to choose based on appearance (in most cases the visual style of a particular content type, like a subheading can be changed in the software, details on how to do this can be found in our software-specific tutorials). 

Quick Tips

  • Use headings. There are up to six heading levels available (heading 1, heading 2, etc.). In most cases a document will only have one main heading or heading 1. If a document has subheadings (heading 2) then it likely has multiple subheadings of equal importance. For example, on this page How Do I Create Accessible Content is a heading 1 while Accessibility Principles is a subheading or heading 2.

  • Use lists. Consider readability—if it would be easier to read a list, use a list. For example, formatting requirements for a written assignment would be easiest to read as an unordered (bulleted) list. When sequence matters (e.g. directions), be sure to use an ordered (numbered) list.

  • Tables should only be used for tabular data. If you need to display a data set, a table is  likely the way to go, but avoid the temptation to use a table as a convenient way to layout  or organize other types of information. Doing so disrupts the reading order for people using assistive technology and will make the content no longer make sense.

Provide Text Equivalents—Captions and transcripts

Images, video, audio and non-text media should have the same content communicated in a text format—this is often done by providing text-equivalents in the form of alternative text, transcripts or captions. This helps to make sure that people with vision or auditory (hearing) impairments get the same information as everyone else.

Quick Tips

  • Write alternative (Alt) text for images. This includes, photos, charts, graphs, comics and animated gifs. Most software allows you to provide alt text when you insert an image. Leave the alt text blank if the image is purely decorative and does not communicate anything that is not already communicated within the text. Avoid the temptation to describe what is in the image—instead write what the image is meant to communicate.

  • Provide captions for video and multimedia. Captions provide a synchronous equivalent to all auditory content, including sounds that are not words like laughter and sound effects. Captions help people who are deaf or hard of hearing, non-native English speakers, and people who may be in a noisy environment. You can create captions yourself or outsource to a captioning service. In general, captions are initially auto-generated with software and then are manually edited (by a human) for content, punctuation, spelling and capitalization. If you have a video file with no sound, a note should indicate that,  “No sound is used in this clip”.

  • Provide transcripts for audio (and video) content. Transcripts are text equivalents to what is said, seen, heard etc. They include descriptions of things like laughter or music. Transcripts primarily help people who are deaf or hard of hearing but may also be used by screen-reader users or people who just want to skim the content.  An additional benefit of transcripts is that they make multimedia content searchable. Transcripts are generally documents separate from the audio or media file.

Check for Color Contrast—Readability of color choices

Color is comprised of the hue (what we think of as red, purple, green, etc.), the intensity (or how vibrant it is), and the tone (how dark or light it is). All of these factors impact readability and can impact perceivability of content. Color choice impacts people with visual impairments, including people with aging eyes or are in situations where the lighting may cause a glare on screen.

Quick Tips

  • Don’t rely on color (alone) to communicate information. This can be particularly problematic with combinations of red and green, which are both perceived as brown by those with the most common form of color blindness (this is why traffic  lights always have red on top and green on the bottom—the position, in addition to color, indicates whether or not to stop and go).
  • Choose text colors that have a high tonal contrast with the background. The best solution is dark text on a light background or light text on a dark background. Avoid vibrant and intense colors for text that is meant to be read (although there is a little more wiggle room with large text like headings). Use a tool like the WebAim Color Contrast checker to double-check your choices. The standard contrast ratio between text and its background  is 4.5:1 (large-scale text should have a ratio of 3:1). A good rule of thumb is that it should be easy to read if it was converted to grayscale (which you can often check in a print preview with the grayscale setting turned on). 
Provide Contextual Hyperlinks—Well defined links

Like headings, hyperlinks are another key way individuals skim documents looking for relevant sections or content. Those who are blind or visually impaired can browse hyperlinks using a screen reader. This means that links are provided without the surrounding text.

Quick Tips

  • Provide context or the purpose of the link in the link itself. Phrases like, “click here” or “read more” should be avoided because they aren’t specific. The best way to direct someone to this accessibility website would be to include something like this, “Visit our accessibility section to learn more about making your documents accessible.” You’ll notice that the text that describes where the link will take you is the clickable URL. You’ll also notice the link text starts with “accessibility” rather than “our.” This is an important detail because some screen reader users browse links alphabetically, so they likely wouldn’t be looking for accessibility under the letter “O.”
Use Plain Language—Simple, clear and understandable

Text directions, assignment instructions, syllabi, correspondence, etc. should be written at the lower secondary (middle school) level. Keeping this type of content clear and concise helps readers save time by making sure they are in the correct place and what the expectations are. Plain language helps people with cognitive disabilities, people with a high cognitive load, individuals whose primary language is not English, etc.

This is not to suggest that we don’t ask our students to read and analyze complex texts. Content that is disciplinary (like a course reading, rather than the instructions for an assignment) can, and should be, written at a higher level. 

Quick Tips

  • Limit jargon, specialized terminology, and idioms. When providing general communications like emails, instructions on a test or summary content on a website it is best to avoid hard to interpret language—this will help ensure that everyone gets the same information. Save industry terminology for documents where experts or experts-in-training are the target audience.
  • Be clear and concise.   When safety, grades or other mission-critical situations arise, write clearly and concisely. Limit complex sentence structures and eliminate any erroneous information.

Be Practical

Don’t panic, making all the content you have ever created accessible right now is not practical. Instead, we recommend focusing your attention on making all new content and content that you revise accessible. Over time, more and more of your content will be accessible.

Applying the Principles

Now that you have a good sense of best practices you are ready to jump into a tutorial that focuses on how to apply those principles in the documents and media you are creating with the software you use.

Accessible Documents

Accessible Presentations