The Importance of Text Accessibility: What We May Have Forgotten

head shot of jonathan hassell, ceo of hassell inclusionThis article was kindly submitted by Jonathan Hassell, CEO of Hassell Inclusion

If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language can do.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast & Slow (winner of the Nobel Prize)

Back in 2001, when I first started working in accessibility at the BBC, one of the key things we thought about was the aim to make text as simple as possible. Using Plain Language. Writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly, easily and completely as possible. In the Accessibility Guidelines at the time, WCAG 1.0, this was a single-A requirement, recognising it as one of the most important aspects of accessibility.  Accessibility experts and readers agreed that how we used words was massively important.

The challenge then was how we could make sure that our online educational content and content written for audiences with their own slang was available in simpler language. How do you do Shakespeare in Plain Language? How do you do Black Urban Culture in Plain language? And would either of those make sense for the many people who need online text to be altered to fit their accessibility needs.

How we forgot about the importance of text accessibility

Fast forwards to 2009, when WCAG 2.0 replaced 1.0, and a curious thing happened. The importance of making web sites understandable through Plain Language dropped from level A to level AAA. For those of you who aren’t in the know, A is what everyone feels like they have to do, AAA is what everyone forgets.

The authors of WCAG 2.0 did this because they could not find a way to objectively test whether a page uses the clearest and simplest language. However, in making the change, the Guidelines effectively said that making sure people could understand the words was less important than making sure screen readers could pronounce those words correctly. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t make much sense. There were some voices of concern, but they were quickly forgotten.

Fast forwards again to July 2018, in London, where I’d been invited to speak on accessibility at the Copy Forum of one of our clients. I had the chance to see what WCAG’s decision had done to the relationship between content authors and accessibility experts. Due to that decision in WCAG 2.0, you don’t often hear people talking about the accessibility of text content. The huge communities of content marketers and copywriters, of people who craft words rather than images or code, have been completely forgotten by the accessibility world.

Remembering the importance of text accessibility

At the Copy Forum, they’d invited me to tell them what they could learn from accessibility. I was there to tell them that there was a lot that accessibility could re-learn from them. I said this because, if you look at WCAG 2.0, you’d be forgiven for thinking that words don’t matter. That’s a real problem, as a large part digital content is text. And lots of groups of people with impairments really benefit from text accessibility:

  • People who are blind, want text to be as short as possible and structured well
  • People whose first language is not the native language (including sign language users), want text to use the simplest language
  • People with learning difficulties, want text to be as simple as possible
  • People with ADHD, want text to be as brief as possible, in bulleted lists

The good news is that WCAG may now be revisiting its 2009 decision, as the accessibility of text is likely to be addressed by its new Cognitive and Learning Disabilities Accessibility Task Force. You can take part in the Task Force if this is a topic that means a lot to you.

What is important about the accessibility of words?

There are a few basic rules that are worth remembering:

  • Simplify – replace complex words with simpler ones
  • Summarize – cut out the ‘unnecessary’ content
  • Show topics – pull out topics in the text with links to additional information
  • Show definitions – include definitions for difficult words
  • AAC symbols – add symbols to help people who use them for literacy support

With great advances in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence it is possible to get a computer to make a passage of text shorter or simpler. But managing to do this and not lose inherent meaning is very difficult indeed. Generating automatic summaries of text can be very unreliable particularly with the sorts of text people really need to be simpler, such as financial terms and conditions. This will, undoubtedly, improve with time and there are various tools available now that are making terrific headway with this, such as IBM’s Content Clarifier. In the meantime, using tools like the Hemingway app to advise you on which aspects of your documents you could make simpler can help you improve their accessibility.

So why should we care?

In a nutshell, the benefits of simple text can be huge. W3C’s main case study for the benefits of accessibility is for Legal & General. Often we forget this study comes from 2005, when the Guidelines used were WCAG 1.0, with its emphasis on Plain Language. Fortune Cookie’s site and information redesign strategy for Legal & General certainly addressed the needs of “3.2m Britons (who) have difficulty using inaccessible websites”. But it also focused on customers of whom “6m have dyslexia; 1 in 3 is aged 50+; 3m speak English as a second language; 1.5m lack basic language skills; and 5.2m adults have sub-GCSE level English”. The results were these: “Conversion rates on every online product improved substantially, ranging between 26% and an incredible 200%”.

If you turn complex language into Plain Language, you can sell a lot more products because people can now understand them. Which is exactly what Daniel Kahneman was saying, all those years ago. Simpler means more credible, as well as more accessible. There’s a prize to be won here.

Hassell Inclusion is an inclusion and accessibility consultancy founded and directed by accessibility expert Professor Jonathan Hassell. Jonathan has over 16 years experience in identifying new directions and challenges in digital accessibility, finding best practice process and technology solutions to these challenges, authoring international standards and presenting best practices to conference audiences across the world. 

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