General Accessibility Guidelines
A quick glance at a document provides a lot of information. We can tell how long it is, how it is organized, where each section begins and ends, and where there are special elements. Using a screen reader to access a document is a completely different experience. Content is accessed in a completely linear and sequential manner. If there are no clues given to the reader about the structure of the document, they can quickly become overwhelmed.
For long documents, include a table of contents. For all documents, be sure to organize your content by using heading styles, rather than text formatting. A screen reader doesn't know the significance of Times New Roman size 14pt bold, but knowing that the content is a second level heading lets the reader know that the content is the title of the next section.
Similarly, use styles to highlight or emphasize content, rather than forced formatting. For example, instead of using the bold button to draw attention to an important term, use the Emphasis style. Instead of using tabs or margins to insert a quote, use the Quote style to separate the content from the rest of the paragraph.
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but only if you can see it. Every time you represent information visually, whether with a picture, graphic, chart, or graph, provide a text alternative. When a screen reader encounters a placeholder for a graphic object, it will read aloud the alt text, essentially describing the picture. It is up to you to create this alt text.
There are several other benefits of using alt text in your electronic documents, particularly on the web. Alt text is displayed when the mouse is moved over an image as well as in place of the placeholders if the images are not displayed, such as when they are turned off by the user or while downloading over a slow internet connection. Finally, search engines index alt text, so your content may come up in search results based on the alt text you provide.
Alt text does not otherwise appear on the screen, so there may be times when you want to place additional descriptive text within the document, such as a picture caption or table summary.
To create appropriate alt text, ask yourself what you are trying to convey with the image. Write a short description in 1 - 2 sentences or a short phrase. If the image is not meant to convey any meaning, such as a bullet or decorative element, simply type a space on the keyboard or leave the alt text field blank.
Screen readers move through documents in a purely sequential manner, while sighted readers have the luxury of skipping around in a document by scrolling around. How can you provide this same feature to users of screen readers or learners who are unable to manipulate mouse and must use the keyboard?
Add navigation to a longer document by creating a table of contents that links directly to other sections of the document. Many word processors, including Microsoft Word and Google Docs include tools to do this automatically. They will inventory your document for headers and use these to generate a linked table of contents. This is another reason why it is important to label sections of your document with various levels of headings.
When navigation is provided on a document or a website, ensure that there is a way to skip this and jump directly to the content. This can be particularly frustrating for people using the keyboard to navigate or a screen reader as they must make their way through each item in the navigation on each page of a website if there is no method of skipping provided.
About 1 in 10 males of European descent have a color vision impairment. This means that they are unable to see some or all colors or are unable to differentiate between certain hues. Be sure to provide high contrast in colors when possible and avoid red and green combinations as these are often the hardest to see. If you are using color to emphasize content (such as red for required), use an alternative method of emphasis as well, such as making the text boldfaced or adding an asterisk.
The beauty of the Internet lies in the ability to link together electronic documents and websites. To jump directly to another location with a hyperlink, the computer needs a uniform resource locator (URL), but the text in these addresses can be quite cumbersome for users of your document who are listening to the content. Rather than using the URL in your hyperlink, consider creating a hyperlink around descriptive text with the URL hidden. Hyperlink tools in MS Word, Google Docs, Blackboard, and many other applications, include a field for the URL and the hyperlinked text. Paste the address that starts with http into the URL field and type your descriptive text about the destination in the hyperlink text field.
Click here! How tempted are you to click on that link? By not giving you any context or clues about what is behind the click, I am imposing a new website on you, one you might not be interested in seeing. It's good practice to prepare people for what is behind a link, particularly if it will download a document rather than visit a web page. For users with low bandwidth or on mobile devices, they may get stuck with a white screen for quite some time, and may be completely unsuccessful. Don't set your users up for failure.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommends using brief and meaningful text that:
- provides some information when read out of context
- explains what the link offers
- doesn't talk about mechanics
- is not a verb phrase