Erin writing on a computer creating accessible content
July 1, 2019

Accessible Websites: 8 Steps for Content Editors

Donna Bungard

A brief overview of the whys, whats and hows of accessible content

Once upon a time I used to be a designer and front end theme developer. Though I’d love writing and would frequently manage content, my focus was on the building with the goal of creating a consistent brand presence. When that was my focus, I thought, like so many do, that the way to keep a website formatted in the way it was originally designed was to restrict an editors ability to change things. I was wrong. I was ignoring accessible content.

Over the span of my career to date, I’ve seen more than an evolution in the technologies we use but also in the way people approach the day-to-day issues on their teams and when looking at their company’s website. We’ve gone from hard coded websites fully managed by webmasters to building dynamic CMS driven digital experiences that empower users to build a connection with the sites they visit. Think about that for a moment: we’ve changed our focus from what we can do, to empowering people to drive their online user journey and get the most from their online experiences. With this movement, inclusion and it’s subset, accessibility has been given increasing attention; the more users who have rewarding user experiences means a better web for us all. 

So now it’s time to continue this movement of empowerment by opening the floodgates of possibilities and educating content editors, including you, so that we can all build and maintain accessible content. In the following article we’ll touch on why accessibility is important, what to look for, and how to start incorporating it into your content publication workflow. 

Why is Accessible Content Really Important?

We’ve all seen the shift in the digital ecosphere to be more inclusive. Companies have been adding non-binary options for gender on their sign up forms and writers have used more neutral content when needed. It has not saturated the web (yet) but it’s there and often discussed. A huge factor in this as been the role that accessibility has played. With nearly 1 in 5 US adults self-identifying as having some sort of disability, there’s no question accessibility is critical.

By the numbers: 

  • ~20% of U.S. Adults self-identify as disabled
  • ~2.4m have Alzheimer’s disease, senility or dementia
  • ~7.6m Americans experienced difficulty hearing, including 1.1m whose difficulty was severe
  • ~8% of males from northern European descent are colorblind
  • ~2m Americans are blind or unable to see
  • According to Austin Learning Solutions, 40 million American adults are dyslexic 

And, once we take into account those who may not see themselves as disabled (I know a few colorblind men who do not identify as such) as well as those who are underage, than the people impacted by accessibility blocker grows. And then there are the temporary disabled: broken wrist, injured eye, and so on. And then (yes this keeps going!) there are those who are experiencing a poor user experience such as a poor internet connection, a glare or cracked screen, or a loud/crowded location: these users benefit from accessible best practices too!

So you’re thinking, “okay, the numbers support what she’s saying but I’ve heard this all before,” and you know, you probably have. So as much as we all WANT to focus on the feel-good, lets touch base on some of the other ways accessibility is important.

  • An SEO friendly site may not be more accessible but an accessible site is more SEO friendly. Google uses a lot of the same information as assistive technologies. 
  • Legal pressure is building. In the US, since the Winn-Dixie case in 2017 that set the precedent that a website can be a gateway to a brick and mortar location and therefore is subject to the ADA’s 508 compliance, hundreds of organizations have had legal action taken against them. An accessible site keeps you out of legal trouble as well as gains a lot of goodwill among your customer base.
  • Voice recognition is not just for assistive technology! How often do you ask Alexia or Siri for information? You’re likely using some of the same code that those who use assistive technologies are using every day. 

So . . . after all these words, why is it important to build accessibility best practices into your content creation and editing workflow? Because if you don’t you are missing out on millions of potential conversions while potentially placing your team at risk of being found non-compliant. 

“Okay Okay, I get it — accessibility is important but where do we even start?!”

I’ve heard something along those lines from marketing teams as well as those new to government website management. Somewhere along the lines we’ve mistakenly sent the message that everyone needs to be some sort of expert to put efforts into effect. That’s not true! 

One of the most inclusive and talented writers/speakers I know keeps telling me that she’s not the expert, and yet at this point she’s learned so much she’s assessing more sites and guiding more people than I am. Why? Because she started by looking at what the biggest blockers were for users from an accessibility point of view, and helped the content managers figure out what they can do to fix them. And then she learned more, and she kept going, helping others learn along the way. It’s now a part of her everyday life, not because she set out to be an expert on accessible content, but because she collected knowledge and started putting that into practice. 

That’s all any of us need to do: start with some common issues and keep learning. 

With that, let’s dive into eight of the most common issues that content editors will see and how to fix them for more accessible content.

1. Alternative Text 

What is it? Alternative (alt) text is a word or phrase that can be inserted as an attribute in an HTML image tag to describe the meaning of the image on the site. If the image is purely decorative, it can be indicated as such by having the HTML tag present but empty. 

How to implement: 

  • Don’t get wordy: keep it to around the same length as a Tweet: approximately 120 characters. 
  • Use descriptive text: describe the image itself without using phrases such as “image of” or “photo of” (that’s a given!).

2. Descriptive Text Links 

What are they? The text that we include in a link matters. When we link only the words “learn more” in a given sentence, this gives users (and search engines) little idea of the value of the linked text. If we link a full phrase or sentence such as, “To learn more about sloths, read this article.” we are setting more complete expectations as to what will be learned by clicking that link. 

How to implement:

  • Use text that explains the context and value of the link to the user. 

3. Linked Images

What are they? Linking images can be a powerful visual tool but this can present problems to non-sighted users (and offers less of an SEO benefit). 

How to implement:

  • Use alternative text.
  • If there is too much information to convey via alternative text, you can give that image an empty alt text and then provide an image caption. 
  • Do not use both alt text and a caption if the information is redundant in any way.

4. Video Captions & Transcripts 

What are they? Video captions and transcripts are the written text of the material audible in a video. Captions are presented inline as words are spoken and sounds are included. Transcripts are separate from the video and often provided below the media or via a link. 

How to implement:

  • Captions must be consistent, clear, and readable.
  • Make sure the meaning of what is said is preserved: identity who is speaking, and how (such as [yell] or [whisper]).
  • Accuracy is critical!
  • Sound effects can be included with brackets. 
  • User proper page structure (headings) and grammar in transcripts.

5. Avoid All Capital Letters

What are they? It’s a common practice to use all uppercase letters as a stylistic choice but this can cause readability issues for those who are dyslexic. 

How to implement:

  • Only use all capital letters for acronyms, and not for style.

6. Unique Page Titles

What are they? The page title sets the stage for all content on the page and your websites theme should already have programmed this to be the H1 of your page. This tells both users and search engines why the page is important to them. Duplicate page titles lead to confusion and can contribute to either a frustrating or abandoned user journey. 

How to implement:

  • With each title to be informative and unique. 
  • Be brief: each title should be between 55 and 60 characters.

7. Heading Structure

What is it? When we’re talking about heading structure we’re talking about the proper use of the header tags (H1, H2 and so on). Headers give users of assistive technologies cues as to where they are on a page and what they will find in it. Search engines use these tags to better determine what is valuable on the page. Poorly used or omitted heading tags can create a poor user experience while misleading search engine rankings. 

How to implement:

  • Use Header Tags in sequential order. 
    • An example of the correct order is H1, H2, H3, H4, H2, H3, H3 etc. 
    • An example of an incorrect order is H2, H6, H6, H2, H4 
  • Make the content of the Header Tags relevant to the content on the page.

8. Table Formatting

What is it? Tables can be the most accurate way to present data. However they can create barriers for those using assistive technologies. The best rule of thumb is this; if you can present the information in a way that does not utilize a table, then do not use a table.

How to implement:

  • Avoid tables unless absolutely necessary.
  • Provide table captions.
  • Utilize column and row headings.
  • Never nest tables.

There you have it. Educating yourself and your team on these eight steps sets you up for success and on the road to compliance. If you want to learn more in-depth tricks, watch Kanopi Community Ambassador AmyJune Hineline give a talk on Inclusive Content Strategy (50 mins). 

Accessible Content is About Everyone’s Empowerment

The days of content editors being restricted are long gone. The digital ecosphere is changing and with that comes opportunities and the ability to create positive user journeys for all of our users. Though professional growth and incremental education, teams are able to evolve their web presence to be more inclusive, accessible and search engine friendly, while building in safeguards for the organization as a whole. You have the tools and the ability to make a difference!

Want to learn more or have a team member take a more in-depth look at the things that make your challenges unique? Reach out to us: we want to empower you to make accessible content.