How to write for screen readers: accessibility content tips

Written by Alan Black

We’re often asked to follow accessibility guidelines when we work for public sector and not-for-profit clients. But shouldn’t we all be doing more to make our content accessible? Let’s start right now – beginning with content that’s optimised for screen readers.

What is accessibility?

There are many aspects to accessibility – helping people with different levels of vision, hearing, movement, or cognitive, mental or learning ability. Even sensitivity to flashes or movement. But for writers, one of the biggest tasks is creating content that works with a screen reader. So that’s what we’ll focus on here.

This is how you get it right.

Plan for accessibility before you start

Writing a full draft then tweaking for accessibility afterwards doesn’t work. You need to start by planning the structure. You might also need to subtly shift your writing style. Which brings us to…

Use straightforward language

Simple writing is inclusive writing. What do we mean by simple? Short words, basic sentence structure and no jargon, mostly. Readers have the luxury of scanning back if they miss a bit. Listeners don’t. Keeping language simple makes sure they take it in first time.

There’s a simple way to tell if you’ve got it right – run a readability test. If the results show that your content is suitable for someone in lower secondary education, you’ve nailed it. The accessibility guidelines recommend removing things like names of people and companies from your content before you run the test, as they can skew your score. Take out the page titles (title tags), too.

Add alt text to captions 

First things first, don’t put important information exclusively in images or video. Neither screen readers nor magnifying software replicate these reliably, so your audience might miss it. Yes, that includes text in banners.

That’s not to say you can’t use images at all. When you do, add a written description to the image’s metadata. This gives screen readers the information they need to let the user know what’s in each picture. Writing this ‘alt text’ isn’t complicated. In the words of Catchphrase’s Roy Walker, just say what you see. Our guide to making your social content accessible has plenty of tips on this.

 

For video, add closed captions. And don’t forget a transcript – this helps people access a braille version of your content. And lets search engines crawl it too. Double win.

Make metadata descriptive 

Screen readers read out page titles to help your audience understand exactly where on your site they are. Keep titles straightforward to help them navigate easily.

Ditch visual references

Statements like ‘click the red button’ or ‘see sidebar for details’ make little sense when you can’t see the red button or sidebar in question. There are subtler examples too – for example, you can’t rely on italics, bold, underlining or colour for emphasis or attention. A significant proportion of your audience will miss the cue. Avoid these kinds of visual reference and your copy will instantly be more inclusive.

Use plenty of subheaders 

Breaking news: no one reads your website from start to finish. Instead they scan the page looking for keywords related to what they’re reading for. Screen readers can’t quite do that, but they do help your visually impaired audience to scan the page. How? By improvising a table of contents out of your headers.

Help make this content summary useful by segmenting your content into logical chunks. And keep headings descriptive so your audience can tell exactly what each one is about.

Front-load important info

Repetition and fluff are ill-advised at the best of times, but in accessibility terms they’re inexcusable. Get straight to the point and save your audience the pain of listening to repetitive, irrelevant or uninteresting content. This applies everywhere, but is particularly important for headers.

Say what links do

Screen readers offer the option to skip through the links on a page. On some pages, that sounds a bit like this:

“Click here. Here. Click here. Here. Find out more.”

Not very helpful is it?

But use descriptive phrases as link text and it’s a whole different story:

“Discover our product range. Meet our team. Read our case studies.”

Another point on that – if the link will open in a new window or tab, say so in the link text. Having windows unexpectedly flying about can be disorientating for people with limited vision.

Avoid or explain tables

Screen readers tend to read tables by moving across each row in turn. The result? Jumbled data and confusion. But tables are great for communicating complex information to sighted people – so what’s the answer? Include a table. Just be sure to add a screen-reader-friendly summary so the information within it is available to everyone.

Give the technology a go

Never used a screen reader? Try it now. Go on, tell it to read this blog to you. It’s the best way to understand what works and what doesn’t. Am I now coming to you through the medium of robotic voice? Great. From the top…

For more tips on content process, get in touch.