Writing text accessibly
The majority of content on the majority of sites is text. It is important that text is written in an accessible manner. This also considerably improves site usability.
Web Accessibility Initiative Guidelines
This page explains how to meet:
- Guideline 14.1: "Use the clearest and simplest language appropriate for a site's content"
- Guideline 4.1: "Clearly identify changes in the natural language of a document's text and any text equivalents (e.g., captions).".
Reasons for following these recommendations
Use of the simplest appropriate language benefits everyone, but especially people with a cognitive or learning difficulty, people trying to read the site in non-ideal conditions, or who are short on time, and people for whom the primary language of the text is not their first language.
Improvements to the readability of text make it easier for users to find and remember information on a page. Case studies suggest that this can give an impression of more information being present, when only the readability of existing information has changed.
Identifying changes in the language of the text allows browsers to apply appropriate display rules. Browsers in audio media can use different pronunciation rules for different languages. Search engines are able to index pages better if the language of the text is identified. A translation service could automatically translate an entire document from multiple languages into a single language if language changes are identified correctly.
How to write text accessibly.
Make sure that the text is as clear and simple as possible. How much is possible depends on the content of the text. For example, a news article can be simpler than an official description of a legal case.
Some documents cannot have their language simplified and clarified for the web. For example, a statement of University policy must be displayed verbatim. This does not mean that no accessibility improvements can be made. For example, accessibility could be improved by:
- providing a clear and simple synopsis of the document
- adding a table of contents or index if the document does not have one
- splitting the document into several sections.
Studies into how people read on the web have shown that writing text that is easy to scan can give large improvements in reading speed.
Use of highlighting and numbered or bulleted lists makes the text easier to scan. Highlighting can be:
- Emphasis using the
<strong>tags (in Dreamweaver, the text styles 'Emphasis' and 'Strong' respectively). Exactly how this emphasis displays is determined by the style sheet.
- Links to other pages
Structuring the document well improves readability. Using a meaningful heading structure (start with the top-level
<h1> and nest headings properly within it), placing only one concept in each paragraph, and using the inverted pyramid writing style can all significantly improve readability.
There is no automatic way to check compliance with recommendation 14.1. Some accessibility checkers will detect changes specified in the document language, but none are able to detect whether all appropriate changes have been made, or whether any changes at all are necessary.
Also, some word processors and accessibility checkers can assess readability based on formulae such as the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Scale and the Gunning Fog Index. However, there may be good reasons for documents to have poor scores (highly technical or legal documentation, for example), and a document with a good score might still be clarified.
Therefore, you must check that your pages comply with this recommendation manually.