Digital Text Accessibility Doesn't Have to Be Complicated

Three people helping each other understand what is on a laptop screen thanks to digital text accessibility

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

In today’s multimedia digital communication landscape, text continues to dominate.* Digital text accessibility doesn’t have to be complicated and ensuring that your i’s are dotted shouldn’t be a burden.

There are a few rules to keep in mind. While focusing on screenreader compatibility is an important aspect of the accessibility effort, the overall benefit to users goes beyond this technology.

The basic elements of digital text include font (font face, size, and color), layout and structure (headings and paragraphs), the intention behind the text (emphasis), and then there are links and tables. (Images are often included with text and require descriptive alt text which can now be added in a majority of applications.) Below are some easy accessibility design guidelines and best practices for each element.

Fonts

The standard rules for on-screen fonts are straightforward: use a decent size (no smaller than 11 pts), use enough contrast (if in doubt, check out tota11y to test your page) and use a sans-serif font type (there are a number of those; typically, Helvetica and Verdana are mentioned, but I prefer Open Sans in Google Docs and San Francisco on Apple devices. Arial is also an accessible option and in some cases the default font, like in UNE Online’s Blackboard).

These are clean fonts and any reader benefits from good spacing and plenty of negative space. These fonts aim to make characters more distinguishable from one another.

Layout and Structure

There is certainly no underestimating clear layout and well-organized writing. The very first rule is to use headings. Lots of applications come with preset formats for headings, paragraphs, and lists, but they are customizable and can suit any fancy. They are also often configured with extra space before and/or after the heading, so you don’t have to create visual-only spacing by adding empty paragraphs.

The additional benefits to this? Your document (or just text) will be easy to display in any compatible application as each will have a way to interpret headings, paragraphs, and lists. Converting such a document (or even pasting from the web) won’t be by any means disastrous. Properly sequenced headings also allow you to see the structure of the document by viewing its outline and jump from heading to heading as desired – the same benefit for sighted and visually impaired persons.

With a tool like tota11y or displaying the outline view, you can double-check that your headings are properly set up. Speaking of outlines – if your text is fairly long, you can increase the navigability of your document (and help ensure that it’s read!) by adding a table of contents. Such tables are a breeze to generate if you use headings with appropriate levels.

Tip: Bolding text means emphasis, not headings (see what I did here?). Keep that in mind when formatting your document. You can clearly see this yourself when you turn on the outline view.

Tables and Links

In general, tables should only be used for storing data. Any narrative is best presented in a paragraph.

When using tables, make sure that your use header rows (by default, most applications will format them to be bolded and may help you get a snazzier color scheme, too, for your sighted table-readers) to designate them as such.

Links usually do not require special attention other than avoiding non-descriptive text (e.g., “click here”). In this case, adding a descriptor to the link (e.g., “click here to learn how to make text look normal in Blackboard“) will mitigate the issue. However, it is a best practice to use contextual language (e.g., “It’s easy to make text look normal in Blackboard…”) when using any sort of links.

Converting to PDF

One final tip is to use built-in exporting features (in Word, for instance) to convert your document to PDF. This will preserve both the links and the headings so a screen reader can interpret your special elements correctly.

Additional Resources for Digital Text Accessibility

There are many good resources, brief and expanded, from authorities, software companies, and users, on good practices around accessibility in digital text:

*Of course, if you use this yardstick – “one picture = a thousand words,” then your conversion result may differ. To generate this statistic, we just went with a frequency of use per real estate of web space plus a gut feeling.

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