4 Things I Learned About Accessibility at Confab

Last week I attended Confab Intensive. While I was presenting a workshop myself (Designing Future-Friendly Content), I also got to attend other workshops and talk to attendees and speakers. It was humbling to be around so many people doing such amazing content strategy work. It became obvious that the discipline is maturing. There is an ever-growing need for talks and workshops and articles on advanced or specialized content strategy topics. This is great news for the user experience world and the business world in general.

One of the sessions I attended has lessons that can help everyone: Accessibility for Content Creators by Derek Featherstone. Here are 4 things I learned that might help you too. But before I start, this sums it up:

There are a lot of people with disabilities

Over 20% of Americans (and 15% of the world population) have disabilities. The number will continue grow as the population gets older. And as we age, things we didn’t think about when we were younger turn into challenges as we rely on screens more and more to communicate and accomplish tasks. The simplest example is font size. Everyone over 40 knows those small words quickly become unreadable without glasses (or with glasses if you are nearsighted). Dexterity and hearing also decline with age. While we don’t normally think of these things as disabilities, they add to the already long list of disabilities millions of people live with, including low vision or blindness, mobility impairment, cognitive deficiencies, and deafness.

If you are not creating websites and digital products that can be used by someone with a disability, you are alienating a sizable part of your audience. Whether you are a U.S. government agency that is required to comply with Section 508 of the U.S. Code, a non-profit that provides services for people with disabilities, or an ecommerce company, you can make everyone happy by making your site and your content accessible.

Separate is not equal

No, I’m not making a political statement (though I could). What this means is that we should make things inherently accessible for everyone instead of providing separate services for those with specific needs. It starts with incorporating functional requirements into personas instead of creating different personas for someone with a disabilities. For example:

Profile: Overwhelmed working mother
Donna is a 35-year-old blind single mother of 2 preschool-aged children. She works full-time as a science instructor at the local community college. (And so on with her needs with all of those characteristics.)

That allows us to practice inclusive design, a process to make things accessible to and usable by as many people as possible without the need for special adaptation or design.

Good structure is required

When we provide good structure we can convey hierarchy with headings as well as styles. I learned that people with screen readers often move through by headings first to decide if the content is worth their time. Also, screen readers read top to bottom, then left to right, based on source code order – not necessarily visual display order. This has several implications for content as well as development:

  • Headings should be written clearly and with purpose
  • Code should be written so that it follows a logical order column by column. (By the way, this helps for responsive design too.) You can check your page source order by highlighting content to see what order it’s been done. 
  • Front-load your content by using the inverted pyramid style for not only the page, but each component on the page, paragraph, alt tags, and headings.

To see how your site would be read by a screen reader, start at the top left and start highlighting the content. This will show you the order of the code. It’s quite revealing! On forms, tab through the fields. Does the cursor go in the order you see the fields or does it skip around?

Sometimes an image is not an image

I see this myself in emails because I have images turned off by default. Content is often embedded in an image. If visitors cannot see the image for one reason or another, they cannot receive your message. Therefore, you need to decide which images are important to have as images. What is the purpose? Is meaning lost when the image is missing? If so, find a way to get the meaning and message out of an image and into text.

There are many reasons to use the alt tag for every image, and accessibility is an important one. Make it descriptive too. Take these two examples of the same image, which we cannot see.

alt text = img_3847.jpg

alt text = img_3847.jpg

alt text = Photograph of small bonsai tree in Jack’s Charlottesville garden

alt text = Photograph of small bonsai tree in Jack’s Charlottesville garden

The first uses the file name while the second describes what the image is, and also tells us what kind of tree it is and where it is located. These latter two things also help SEO, by the way.

Content accessibility matters

During the 3 hours I spent learning from Derek and the rest of the attendees and doing a context mapping exercise, I learned lots of practical tips for making websites accessible through content and coding. More importantly, I learned that as a person without disabilities (other than my reading glasses), I could barely begun to consider the challenges so many people face in everyday life, let alone during times of high stress.

With this new knowledge and more than a few easy practices to incorporate immediately into my work, I can help my clients create accessible content without really doing any extra work. I can also incorporate accessibility standards in audits, functional requirements, and content models.