Content accessibility

Say ‘accessibility’ to many people and their first thought will be: ‘screen readers’.

But content design can make a big difference to your audience – whether they use screen readers or not and whether they have an impairment or not.

I am not an accessibility expert and I’ll provide you with a bunch of links at the bottom of this post for information from people who are. But I do have strong opinions on content accessibility.

I know. The shock.

Accessibility is opening up your information to anyone interested to consume it. And I mean consume it. Content design is the process of using data and evidence to give the audience the content they need, at the time they need it, and in a way they expect. It’s not reading, watching or calculating. It’s any of those things. Or all of them. Or none of them (could be listening).

Content designers produce content based on what the audience needs. But what if you don’t have that research, or think no one in your audience has an impairment? Stick with me here, some people really think like that. Let me show you.

Disability or accessibility myths

These are just 2 of the comments I have heard.

Deaf people can read our written content, so it’s fine.

We are going to take this in 2 parts: hearing impairment and profoundly deaf.

Hearing impairment

Around 19% of the UK population have some sort of hearing impairment. So if you are producing a video, you could be excluding 1 in 7 people.

You are also excluding anyone who doesn’t have their headphones on them and they want to hear your content whilst in a public place.

This one is the easiest to sort. Don’t hide your main content in a video and provide a transcript. I use They provide captions, transcripts the lot. It’s cheap and easy. I am sure there are stacks of organisations out there that do this. Pick one and get on with it.

Profoundly deaf

If you have no hearing at all, that’s ‘profoundly deaf’. There are around 50,000 profoundly deaf people in the UK who use British Sign Language (BSL).

When I was working with Citizens Advice, I met a wonderful set of advisers working in Sheffield who only sign to the community. Their audience don’t speak English, they are BSL-only. How many digital services that are essential for people do you see with a signer? Most of government does not communicate its basic services using a BSL-signed video. There is provision but only if you dig for it.

If a member of your audience can’t hear, it doesn’t automatically mean they can read.

BSL-signed videos are too expensive for many. But if you are a massive organisation, you are missing an audience. (Content Design London is not a massive organisation but as usual, I need to put my money where my mouth is, so I am looking for help to research if my content audience would appreciate BSL content. Please get in touch if you have any information.)

We don’t have blind users

Yes, I did sputter a bit before I could get a coherent sentence out when hearing that one.

The NoCoffee vision simulator is a Chrome extension that can show how your page will look with various impairments.

You don’t have to be 100% blind to have a visual impairment.

Talking about visual impairment is usually the impairment people understand so it’s the first one I use for getting people to structure their headings and cut words.

I ask the organisation to read 750 words with one of the impairments simulated by the NoCoffee extension. Then I ask them to read a 450 word version with short, action-orientated headings, bullet points and short sentences. You can guess which one people prefer reading.

Your audience may need that information from you and they may struggle through to get it from you.

Struggling through content is not a success metric.

Use impairments people can relate to

Some people can’t understand living with any impairment because they don’t have one and they don’t know anyone with one. If the person I am talking to struggles to understand the implications of inaccessible content, I find something more relevant to them.

For example, I get migraines. I can lose 95% of my vision in 15 mins. Then I get vertigo. I have had times where I have been without medication, can’t get to a chemist in time and have sat on the floor in London, waiting for someone to come and help me (I use the voice controls on my phone).

If I didn’t have that, it would be a minimum of 4 hours for the basic symptoms to pass so I could use my phone to get help.

Migraines are something people may understand. It’s temporary blindness. It’s temporary balance and mobility problems. I’ll ask people if they know anyone with migraines, get them to relay the symptoms, then ask them to imagine those symptoms when looking at their own content.

Now you are unlikely to be casually surfing the internet with a migraine. Of course not. But some people live with those impairments. It’s not a temporary thing. It is life. This is just to help some people open their minds to what it’s like to live with something they may not have experience of.

RSI (repetitive strain injury) is something many in the digital industry have heard of. If you are trying to convince a colleague about mobility issues with a site, ask them to think about RSI and then work from there.

If you can take your organisation even one step towards opening up your content, you are winning.

Content accessibility is not all about screen readers and alt text. It is about giving your audience what they need, in the way they need it, on a channel they are on, in a format that works for them. We need to understand our audiences – all of them – if we are going to build an inclusive web.

That, and only that, is accessibility.

I’ll be speaking at the London accessibility meetup on May 17th (World Accessibility Day!) if you want to come and chat.

We cover how to write for all audiences in our training courses.

Experts in accessibility

I regularly learn from:

And thank you to whoever recommended and NoCoffee to me. I can’t remember where I got those from but they were sent to me on some channel… thank you.

...And one more thing. An edit from me in 2022: NoCoffee was great. I loved it. Sadly it is no more. As an alternative though, I've had recommendations for the Web Disability Simulator.

Sign up to our newsletter

Get content design insights sent straight to your inbox.

  • Choose what information you get: (required)