A beginner’s guide to accessible content

If you communicate with people, you need to know about web accessibility. It’ll help you write more compelling emails, create easier-to-read documents and improve your search rankings online.

“But I’m not a web developer!” – we hear you cry. You don’t need to be. These days, the basic principles of accessibility are easy to understand and apply. With a few simple changes, everyone in your audience will benefit.

Practical tips anyone can use

You don’t need to know the ins and outs of technical accessibility, but you do want to make sure your communications can be easily read and understood by everyone. To that end, we’ve put together some simple, practical tips you can apply day to day to make your content more inclusive.

Use meaningful links

It can be annoying for anyone reading a document or webpage to come across an ambiguous link, such as “read more” or “click here”. By following the link, you have no idea where exactly you’ll end up. You might get a reasonable idea of the destination by reading the surrounding text, but wouldn’t it be easier if you just had to look at the link text to know where you’re going?

Ambiguous links can be even more frustrating for people who are blind or have low vision and rely on screen reader software to access content. It can be helpful for a screen reader user to jump from link to link to decide where they want to go next, but this exercise is pointless if all they hear is: “click here”, “read more”, “click here”, “further information”.

Imagine not being able to quickly scan a page of content to find the information you need.

Tips for writing link text:

  • Concisely describe the link’s target – where it will take the reader.
  • Make sure the link makes sense when read out of context.
  • Front-load with the most important words, e.g. instead of “Learn more about barriers to inclusion in the workplace,” you could simply use, “Barriers to inclusion in the workplace.”
  • If the link’s purpose is a download, include details about the type and size of what will be downloaded, e.g. “Australian Network on Disability 2017 Annual Report (PDF, 7MB).”

Provide image descriptions

Image descriptions, otherwise known as alternative text or alt text, benefit those who can’t see or can’t see well, as well as those with cognitive or learning disabilities. Alt text is picked up by screen reader software and read aloud to the user. If a screen reader comes across an image on a web page or within a document that doesn’t have alt text, the person using the screen reader may feel like they’ve missed out on information.

Imagine how much information, entertainment and understanding you’d miss out on if you couldn’t see pictures.

Tips for writing image descriptions:

  • The description should accurately reflect the content or function of the image.
  • Be succinct.
  • If the image contains text, replicate that text in the description.
  • If the image has been used as a link, describe the link destination in the description.
  • If the image serves a purely decorative purpose, it could be described as “decorative” or have a null alt (a null alt looks like this in HTML: “”, which is a cue for screen readers and other assistive technologies to ignore it). Which method you use depends on the platform you’re using.

Alt text can be added easily within most platforms. For example, in newer versions of Microsoft you can simply right-click the inserted image, “Edit Alt Text” and add a description. In your website’s content management system there’s likely to be an image description field.

Use ‘true’ headings

We use headings all the time. They help us section blocks of content into smaller, more digestible chunks. Meaningful headings make content easier to read and navigate. For example, many of us will skim over all the headings in a document or web page to get a quick picture of what it’s about and where we should focus our attention. But what if the reader can’t see the headings?

People who are blind or have low vision may rely on screen reader software to read content out to them. In this case, if the person who created the document or web page has used only visual cues to identify headings – for example, made them bigger, bolder and a different colour – the headings will be read in the same way as the rest of the content. Without this structure, it’s difficult for the reader to get a quick overview of the content or be able to jump to the parts that interest them.

Imagine how difficult it would be to read a 200-page document without any headings. Imagine how frustrating it would be to find specific information within that document.

‘True’ headings are structural elements you can use to identify heading hierarchy from the back-end. The most important heading is level 1 (or H1), followed by H2, then H3, and so on. For example, the heading hierarchy in this article looks like this:

  • H1: You need to know about web accessibility
    • H2: Practical tips anyone can use
      • H3: Use meaningful links
      • H3: Provide image descriptions
      • H3: Use ‘true’ headings
      • H3: Use transcripts and captions for videos
      • H3: Makes it as easy as possible for the reader
    • H2: A note on web accessibility standards and obligations
    • H2: Further support to drive accessibility in your workplace

Even though you can’t see the hierarchy when looking at the content, a screen reader can pick it up and announce the heading level to the reader. It will say, “Heading level one: You need to know about accessibility,” “Heading level two: Introduction to accessibility video,” and so on. This gives the screen reader user a clearer picture of the content as a whole and enables them to skip to the sections they want to read.

‘True’ headings can be found in the “Home” ribbon of Microsoft Word, the “Format Text” ribbon in Microsoft Outlook, the editing section of your website’s content management system, or the structure tree within a PDF authoring tool.  

Use transcripts and captions for videos

More than ever before, videos are being used to communicate with both internal and external audiences. So, it’s important to know how to make them accessible to everyone. This largely comes down to two areas: captions and transcripts.

Imagine watching your favourite movie without being able to see it or hear it.

Captions are an equivalent, synchronised, textual version of what is spoken throughout the video. Closed captions can be turned on or off, whereas open captions are always visible. They benefit people who can’t hear or hear well. They’re also useful to people who have a different native language, and those who can’t have the volume on or too loud, such as parents of sleeping babies and commuters.

Transcripts are important for those who can’t or don’t want to access the audio or video. It’s a textual version of what is said during the video, but may also include descriptions, explanations or comments. An example transcript (text description) can be found accompanying Australian Network on Disability’s Access and Inclusion is Good for Business video.

Make it as easy as possible for the reader

Accessibility techniques are designed specifically to improve access for people with disability. However, they often have far-reaching benefits related to general readability, comprehension and findability. Here are some additional tips to make it as easy as possible for every reader to enjoy your communications.

Tips for readability:

  • Use clear, simple, inclusive language that is appropriate for your intended audience
  • Left-align text to avoid uneven spacing between letters and words.
  • Use sans serif fonts, such as Arial or Verdana.
  • Use real text, not images of text.
  • Expand acronyms on first use and wherever else is reasonable.
  • Use ‘true’ lists (same concept as discussed in “Use ‘true’ headings).
  • Avoid excessive use of bold, capitals, italics and underlines.
  • Avoid very small font sizes.
  • Links should be underlined and in a colour that stands out.
  • Ensure good colour contrast between text and its background (a number of free tools are available to test this, such as Vision Australia’s Colour Contrast Analyser).
  • Avoid using colour alone to convey information.

A note on web accessibility standards and obligations

The current and complete global standard for web content accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.1, commonly referred to as WCAG 2.1. This technical standard is most useful to web developers and those involved in the maintenance of online content. WCAG was developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the W3C in pursuit of a web that is accessible to people of all abilities. Watch their video, which introduces web accessibility.

The Australian Human Rights Commission endorses the application of WCAG in an Australian context in its World Wide Web Access: Disability Discrimination Act Advisory Notes.

Web teams, and anyone with permission to upload content to your organisation's website, should be familiar with and responsible for applying the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Where extra technical support is needed, there are many specialist accessibility consultancies in Australia that can provide expert advice.

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