Digital accessibility is all about making your content available for anyone who wants to access it. It has the potential to help you reach the broadest audience possible.
One place to start is to consider the assistive technologies people with disabilities may be using.
Around 18% of Australians have a disability and some of those disabilities will impact how they interact with technology. There’s a digital inclusion gap for people with disabilities that hasn’t improved much since 2014.
While it’s important from a social responsibility perspective to address this gap, the digital accessibility strategies to do this can also be good for SEO and business.
Content Marketing Institute points out that inclusive content can reach an even broader audience than you intend.
“Think about captions scrolling at the bottom of videos. Originally created for people who have hearing challenges, captioned content benefits a much wider audience, including workers in shared spaces, caregivers who don’t want to wake a baby, and social media scrollers on mute.”
So, how can we head towards inclusive content? We spoke to digital accessibility expert Adem Cifcioglu, co-founder of Intopia, for some tips.
What is digital accessibility?
Digital accessibility to me is the process of ensuring that anybody who wants to use a website, an app or any form or digital content or technology can do so. It’s opening up the digital world to everybody and anybody. Being as inclusive as we can be.
Why is it important?
It’s important from an equality and equal access perspective. It’s even more important today than in the past with technology being such a huge part of our lives. Nobody should be excluded from being able to use technology because they’ve got a disability.
For example, if you’re blind or visually impaired using a screen reader, deaf or hard of hearing and need captions to interact with video content, or have a mobility impairment and can’t use a mouse and have to use a keyboard to navigate around websites. [Digital content] should be usable by everyone.
What are the most common accessibility issues?
It depends on who you ask and what you’re doing. For me, the most common things we come up against for websites are things like the structure of the site.
For example, not using HTML headings properly to break up the content and to give people anchor points. Not using markup for lists, links and buttons.
If you can use HTML correctly you’ve done 70% of the work already. I was a developer, so I started from that perspective.
From a design perspective, use appropriate colour contrast so your content is easy to see.
Make sure the font size is big enough. Make sure there’s enough line spacing and padding so what is being presented can be understood as easily as possible.
An Instagram post from @access_guide_ visually shows the difference between high and low contrast readability.
What are some quick fixes to make a website more accessible? Ie without major development.
Adjusting colour contrast is probably a lot simpler than some people think. We know that brand is sacred and brand guidelines are important. So, if you’re doing a brand redesign make sure you have a combination that meets the requirements. If you’re not redoing your brand and your brand is low contrast, see if there are secondary colour combinations you can use to make things easier to read.
Go through the content in CMS [content management system] and make sure your essentials are right. Headings are really important. At the very least you can have a heading on each page at the right level, outlining the topic and purpose of the page and the sections of the page.
This is great for accessibility because people know they’re on the right page. Anyone listening to the content with a screen reader will think “they match up, I’ve gone where I’m expecting to go”. It’s good for SEO as well.
Similarly, make sure page titles [which show in the tab of your web browser] are properly titled. It’s a code thing but it’s a small change. A lot of organisations have brand name, dash, some keywords in the actual title. For example, let’s say it’s Nike. You’d have Shoes – Nike as opposed to Nike – Shoes. Because if you have several tabs open every one is going to start with Nike.
And then make sure the linked text correspond to main heading on the page they link to, so user knows where they are going to go.
All those things are in the CMS and are less about development and more about selecting the right options when you’re putting in the content.
When building a website from scratch, what are some non-negotiables?
Building a website from scratch, the structural elements for me are non-negotiables. Using the right HTML elements – header, footer, main content, navigation. With HTML5 now there are structural elements that, used properly, communicate structure and semantics to assisted technologies.
Make sure the elements of the page are in the right logical order. Assistive technology reads from top to bottom, in the order they are in the code. So the order of information is really important.
There’s also making sure that anything you can do with a mouse you can do with a keyboard. If there’s things you have to hover over, what is the equivalent? You can’t hover with a keyboard.
The other really simple one is to run it through the W3C HTML Validation Service.
An Instagram post from @accessnowapp goes through how to add alt text to Instagram photos step by step.
What are your accessibility tips for social media?
The key with social media is when sharing images to make sure there is alternative text so everyone using assistive technology can access the visual elements. This is also helpful If the image doesn’t load for whatever reason.
Make sure your videos have captions, don’t rely on auto-captions.
Then in terms of hashtags, capitalise the first letter of each word so it doesn’t run into each other [eg #DigitalAccessibilty]. That makes it easier for all of us to read.
When we think of digital accessibility, we may mainly think of relevant disabilities. But is it broader than that, such as English as a second language?
Absolutely. Yes, it makes things more accessible for people with disability, but in turn it makes things easier for everybody, particularly for anyone who has English as a second language like my parents and grandparents. Plain, simple, easy-to-understand language is critical. If we’re using words that are not understandable your message isn’t going to get through.
Plus, most of us experience temporary or environmental disability from time to time, for example a broken arm, an ear infection, bright sunshine or a noisy location.
A11y Bytes explains how to make your content more inclusive. "When you’re planning your next digital creation, think about your audience’s preferences and how varied those experiences can be."
Beyond these practical tips, are there ways we can improve content accessibility? For example, through training and awareness of diversity.
There are accessible content training courses, including one we provide. It includes plain language, headings, writing good text alternatives for images etc.
Simplicity is the key. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down, that’s not at all what it means. It means you’re making content more understandable and broadening the audience. Many of us are time-poor and will also benefit from plain language for faster reading.
You started out as a web developer. What got you interested in digital accessibility?
Great question. I’m a wheelchair user. Most people look at me, realise I work in disability and assume there’s a link. That’s the furthest thing from the truth.
I started working with computers at an early age. From there did a work experience gig at a small computer shop in high school and the boss at the time said “you’re really good at this sort of stuff, you should look at computer programming”.
This shaped the rest of my studies and led to me doing computer science but I was bad at maths. I discovered that with the web, and building websites, you could make a tweak and hit refresh and have something ready to go on the screen. That led me to W3C's HTML 4.01 standard and I started reading up and came across this thing I knew nothing about which was accessibility.
I had my disability from birth so it was my normal. In terms of access needs it was a foreign concept. I do things differently but that was normal for me.
I started reading and realised there were guidelines and screen readers and other assistive technologies. For example, who knew you shouldn’t use a “click here” link because it doesn’t tell the reader where they’re going. As a web developer I started marking things up properly.
I was self taught. The more you read, the more you learn. I got a corporate job where they said “you seem to you know about this accessibility thing, maybe you can help us do that as part of your role”. The rest is history.
There’s a famous quote by Tim Burners-Lee, the creator of the web: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
I read things like that and thought “this is opening up the world for everybody and that’s pretty cool”. I’ve always wanted to help people and this is my way of doing that.
Digital accessibility resources
For more information about digital accessibility, visit:
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
WCAG 2.1 Map by Intopia
Readability Guidelines by Content Design London
Plain Language is for Everyone, Even Experts by Neilsen Norman Group
How to Write More Accessible Social Media Posts by the Australian Network on Disability
How to Do Inclusive Content That Helps Your Audience and Your Business by Content Marketing Institute
A Beginners’ Guide to Accessible Content by the Australian Network on Disability
Colour Contrast Analyser from The Paciello Group
Keyboard Accessibility by WebAIM
Introduction to Web Accessibility on edX by W3c
The A11Y Project
Sophie Al-Bassam, senior managing editor
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