Making digital technologies accessible to all

The Oxford English dictionary defines accessibility firstly, as how easy something is to reach, enter, use or see and secondly, as how easy something is to reach, enter or use for somebody with a disability. In the second instance, accessibility means people with disabilities are not excluded from using something as a result of their disability and that they can do what they need to do, in a similar amount of time, in a similar way and with a similar amount of effort as someone who does not have a disability.

Why is digital accessibility important?

Digital accessibility means that all people can use the exact same technology, regardless of whether they can use a mouse, have a vision or hearing impairment or how they process information but for many people with disabilities, this simply isn’t the case. The short film below provides a brief introduction to digital accessibility.

To fully understand what is meant by digital accessibility, you need to experience how technological barriers feel. You can do this by turning off your computer monitor and trying to type; using your phone from under a table; unplugging your mouse and trying to navigate a website; increasing the zoom level on a document or web page to 500% or unplugging your speakers and watching a webinar without sound. Digital technology has the ability to provide access and independence but when technology is not made accessible it creates barriers, therefore accessible technology is important so that as many people as possible can use computers, websites and social media, allowing them to participate independently in society.

Research undertaken by Reason Digital via Populus and Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index in 2020 shows that:

  • people with disabilities are over 50% more likely to face barriers to accessing digital and online services than people without disabilities
  • if you have an impairment you are three times more likely not to have the skills to access devices and get online.

And the covid-19 pandemic which forced everyone online more, has now widened the digital divide further, showing accessibility is no longer a ‘nice to have’, as starkly illustrated in the video below, which shows Labour MP Vicky Foxcroft asking a question at Prime Minister’s Questions on 14 April 2021, over one year into the coronavirus pandemic

Accessible technology versus assistive technology

Accessible technology is technology that can be used easily by people with a wide range of functional abilities, allowing each user to use it in the ways that work best for him or her. When using a computer for example, there are many ways to input information, say with a mouse, the keyboard, or through a speech recognition system. Accessible technology can be directly accessible, meaning it is usable without the need for additional devices, or accessible through and compatible with assistive technology.

Assistive technology is the term used to describe devices, equipment and software that help people with disabilities live more independently, so for example a smartphone with a built in screen reader is directly accessible and an online job application is compatible with assistive technology when someone with a visual impairment can navigate it using a screen reader.

You can learn more about the range of assistive technology available and the impact and benefits of accessible and assistive technology below.

People with disabilities are your audience

The charity Scope reports that at least one in five people in the UK have a long term illness, impairment or disability. Many more have a temporary disability and others will become disabled in old age. People with disabilities are everywhere and everyone.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is audience.jpg
Photo by Gerd Altmann

However, as a society, we treat people with disabilities differently and in doing so exclude them, forcing them to find adjustments simply so they can access information or services other people take for granted. In turn companies:

  • alienate people with disabilities
  • limit the size of their audience
  • potentially put others in danger of missing out on essential information.

Accessibility issues may affect those with vision and hearing impairments; neurodiversity such as dyslexia, seizures, autism, or other cognitive differences; learning difficulties; mobility issues including arthritis, quadriplegia or spinal cord injuries and mental health such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, PTSD, depression, or ADHD, so when designing anything it is important to consider the range of people who need to use the product or service. You can learn more about this on the GOV.UK website below.

What accessibility isn’t

Accessibility isn’t about changing existing content or making alternative content specifically for people with disabilities but designing content that can be used for everyone, aiming to be inclusive at all times and being inclusive regardless of who you are writing for. There is no doubt it is a difficult task to get right every time for everyone but ultimately, it is the right thing to do and will also enable you to reach the largest possible audience for your business. You can learn more about inclusive design on the Microsoft website below.

Getting started

Want to create accessible websites and social media but don’t know where to start? Here are some tips.

Alternative (alt) text

Alt text describes an image to someone who cannot see by reading the text aloud to users of screen reader software. If adding a photo of say a plate of food, a bad description would be ‘a plate of food’. A good description would describe the food, say ‘A plate of fish and chips’.

You can learn more about screen readers and alt text below.

Not sure how to add alt text to your social media posts? Instructions can be found below.

Colour contrast

How easy is it for you to read the number in the image below?

The number 74 formed by shades of green bubbles on a circular background of orange and brown bubbles.

When designing images, it is important to consider the colours you use. Pastel coloured backgrounds with pale text are almost impossible to read if you have low vision or visual impairment. Black text on a white background is also difficult for people with dyslexia to read. Where possible, use an off white or pale background with dark text. You can learn more about colour contrast below.

Emojis

Screen reading technology reads emoji descriptions out loud, so try to use no more than three at a time and avoid adding lines of emojis. You should also check the name of the emoji you are using, to make sure it means what you think it does.

Interested in hearing how a screen reader handles mass emojis? Take a look at Twitter page of Alexa Henrich.

Fonts and special characters

People with dyslexia, learning and visual impairments can struggle to read some fonts, so choose easy to read fonts like Arial, Helvetica, Calibri or Verdana and avoid italics and special characters.

Interested in hearing how a screen reader handles fonts and symbols? Take a look at the Twitter page of Kent C Dodds.

GIFs

Colour contrast is also an issue with GIFs. Flashing images can trigger symptoms in people who have epilepsy or get migraines and can cause seizures. To ensure GIFs are accessible, make sure they do not flash more than three times per second, check the colour contrast ratios if the GIF includes text, add alt text if possible and describe the GIF in accompanying text.

A hashtag drawn in sand.
Image by Tanja-Denise Schantz.

Hashtags

To make hashtags more accessible, use capital letters at the start of each word. This is known as camel case and it enables screen readers to recognise the words, making your content more readable to people with dyslexia or cognitive disabilities. Also, use hashtags at the end of a post so as not to disrupt the flow.

Headings

Headings are an important part of web accessibility. They aid readability of a web page for all readers by splitting it into sections so helping readers scan the page and find information quickly. However, headings are essential for assistive technologies such as screen readers which use them as signposts to navigate a web page. To make your headings as useful as possible:

  • Use headings in hierarchical order. This means a <h2> heading should always follow a <h1> heading and so on.
  • Only use one <h1> heading per web page.
  • Don’t skip headings, for example, using a <h2> heading followed by a <h4> heading.
  • Headings should describe the content that follows it
Woman wearing a mustard coloured hat covering one eye with her hand.
Photo by Javad Esmaeili.

Images

It is difficult for people with visual impairments to read text that has been embedded in an image, so make sure any such images are accompanied by a text description that can be read by a screen reader. 

Plain English

Writing in plain English is important if your message is to be understood by as many people as possible. You can learn more about Plain English in the Plainly Speaking blog post on this website.

Videos without captions or audio description

People who are deaf or have a hearing impairment are unable to access the information without captions or a transcript, so when creating video content, always add captions to your videos, make transcripts available for longer videos, add audio description to your videos and provide a summary of the video in accompanying text.

Designing for accessibility

For more information about designing for accessibility, visit the websites below.

Sources

GOV.UK

Other sources

Disability facts and figures

Further information

Bee.

© Toni Louise Abram at Izzy Wizzy. All Rights Reserved.

Plainly speaking

The English language is spoken around the world from the United States to Tristan da Cunha, a remote group of volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean. English is part of the Indo-European family of languages which are spoken in most of Europe and areas of European settlement and in much of south west and south Asia. The English language uses words from 350 languages and its evolution is fascinating, as shown in the short film below.

Currently it is thought there are around 1.5 billion English speakers, about one quarter of these are native speakers, with a quarter speaking English as their second language. Today the Oxford English Dictionary contains over 600,000 words, so it is hardly surprising that humans struggle to understand one another sometimes and as amazing as the English language is, writing in plain English is important if your message is to be understood by as many people as possible. In some instances, the law even gives people a right to expect plain English. For example, European law states that terms in a consumer contract can only be enforced if they have been written in ‘plain and intelligible language’ and in the USA the Plain Writing Act was signed by President Obama in 2010.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne.

What is Plain English?

Plain English encourages clear and concise use of the English language. It is best described as concise, easy to read and allows the reader to understand the message the first time they read it, whether that be web content, documents, emails or social media posts and being able to read quickly, means everyone can benefit from this style of writing.

Writing in plain English helps people:

  • who have poor memory
  • are easily distracted
  • are slow at reading or processing information (one in six adults have difficulty reading)
  • have difficulty identifying the main points from a long passage of text
  • have a very literal understanding of language
  • are reading in a hurry
  • who have learning difficulties such as dyslexia (10% of the population who are believed to be dyslexic)
  • speak English as a second language

The Plain English Campaign

Since 1979 The Plain English Campaign have fought for ‘crystal clear communications’, campaigning against what they call gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information, particularly in legal and government documents, believing that everyone should have access to clear and concise information and working with thousands of organisations including many UK government departments, public authorities and international banks, helping them make sure their public information is as clear as possible and promoting a writing style that enables readers to understand a message the first time they read it. The campaign encourages the use of short, clear sentences and everyday functional words, so for example, instead of ‘demonstrate’ say ‘show’, instead of ‘objective’ say ‘aim’ and instead of ‘in relation to’ say ‘about.’

The campaign officially began after its founder, Chrissie Maher OBE, publicly shredded hundreds of official documents in Parliament Square, London and delivered the first issue of the ‘Plain English’ magazine to 10 Downing Street dressed as the Gobbledygook Monster. Born in 1938, Chrissie could not read until she was in her mid teens, however, heavily involved in community work during the 1960s, she founded Britain’s first community newspaper, ‘The Tuebrook Bugle’. In the 1970s she set up ‘The Liverpool News’, the country’s first newspaper for semi-literate adults and Impact Foundation, a community printshop. Chrissie was invited to be a councillor on the National Consumer Council (NCC) when it was created in 1975 until 1979 and during this time she also started the Salford Form Market, a project to help people fill in forms, which led to the birth of the Plain English Campaign. In 1994 Chrissie received an OBE and has an honorary MA from Manchester University and a honorary doctorate from the Open University.

Two people signing a document.
Photo by Romain Dancre.

Organisations can now apply for The Plain English Campaign Crystal Mark, a seal of approval for the clarity of a document which appears on over 23,000 different documents in the UK and in other countries including the USA, Australia, Denmark and New Zealand, while the Internet Crystal Mark enables organisations to show they are committed to plain English on their websites. The campaign also holds an annual awards ceremony which includes the Foot in Mouth award (for baffling quotes by public figures); Golden Bull awards (for the worst examples of written tripe) and the Kick in the Pants award (draws attention to companies or organisations who need to communicate in plainer English).

Photo by Aaron Burden.

In a 2012 study by Christopher Trudeau, 80% of the people who responded said they preferred sentences written in plain English. The more complicated the issue, the more they preferred to read simpler language. It also found people with specialist knowledge had an even greater preference for plain English because they had more to read and did not have the time to wade through pages of content.

It is also important now so much reading is done online, as people read differently on the web than they do on paper. The IONAS website explains ‘Firstly, online content is read up to 25% slower, yet at the same time, the internet provides users with an unbelievable mass of information. The combination of these two factors means that the average internet user has become impatient. Whether the text is a news article or a product description, these days it’s rare for users to consume each word like a good book. Instead, online texts are scanned and skimmed over, while search results are scoured and combed through. This must now be taken into account when designing web projects and content campaigns.’

So, to quote Winston Churchill ‘Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.’

The Plain English Campaign have a wealth of useful information on their website to help with writing clearly. Take a look below to learn more.

Sources

Further information

Bee.

© Toni Louise Abram at Izzy Wizzy. All Rights Reserved.