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Accessibility fundamentals

Creating accessible content benefits everyone

You do not need a disability or specific learning difficulty (SpLD) to benefit from accessibility. We all benefit.

Understanding accessibility

Making your website, mobile app and digital content accessible means it can be accessed and used by as many people as possible.

Accessibility means more than putting things online. It means making your content and design clear and simple enough so that most people can use it without needing to adapt it, while supporting those who do need to adapt things.

For example, someone with impaired vision might use a screen reader (software that lets a user navigate a website and ‘read out’ the content), braille display or screen magnifier. Or someone with motor difficulties might use a special mouse, speech recognition software or on-screen keyboard emulator.

(Understanding new accessibility requirements for public sector bodies, Gov UK)

Before starting to create new digital content it is important to consider accessibility fundamentals:

  1. Who is your audience?
  2. What is your accessibility strategy?
  3. What is the purpose of your content?
  4. Use of language
  5. Structure, navigation and layout of your content
  6. Style and format of your content

Let's explore each in turn.

Accessibility fundamentals: things to consider

1. Who is your audience?

When creating digital content please consider the range of accessibility requirements that your audience may have.

Considerations around creating accessible digital content has often focused on people with blindness e.g. will this work with a screen reader? There are of course a wide range of disabilities and SpLDs which can pose a challenge for a web-user. These challenges broadly fall into the following categories (physical and cognitive):

  1. Deafness
  2. Dexterity
  3. Cognitive difficulties
  4. Colour blindness
  5. Low vision
  6. Blindness

It can feel overwhelming to cater for such a diverse range of needs but it is possible. We just need to change the way we create content and this will eventually become routine.

2. What is your accessibility strategy?

There are three broad accessibility strategies that you can choose to adopt:

  1. Universal design (born accessible): the design only contains elements that work for everyone. This is the most flexible approach and means you only require one version of your content. However, it can result in you excluding some tools and features which most of your audience may benefit from.
  2. Equivalent design: the design of your content where necessary includes alternative formats which are considered equivalent e.g. a transcript of a podcast.
  3. Accommodation: this design also makes use of alternative formats however the two versions are not considered equal, resulting in a degraded experience for some of your audience e.g. a text-only version of an interactive resource.

In the Inclusive Learning and Teaching Development Working Group, we are promoting universal design, where appropriate. It is less resource-intensive to have a single version of a resource to maintain. However, we still encourage equivalent design because we should still embrace new technologies that the majority of our audiences will benefit from.

3. What is the purpose of your content?

  1. Be clear: by being clear about the purpose of your content, you will avoid unnecessary or irrelevant information which could overwhelm your audience.
  2. Include a call to action (CTA) where appropriate: what do you want your audience to do with your content once they have worked through it? Whether you would like a response to an email, or would like a learner to complete an assessment, let them know.

4. Use of language

In higher education we are often expected to write in a passive and formal style. However, accessible language is active and avoids unnecessary use of complex language. Quick tips for writing in plain English:

  1. "Keep your sentences short
  2. Prefer active verbs
  3. Use ‘you’ and ‘we’
  4. Use words that are appropriate for the reader
  5. Don’t be afraid to give instructions
  6. Avoid nominalisations
  7. Use lists where appropriate"

Learn more: Plain English Campaign website

5. Structure, navigation and layout of your content

  1. Less is more: present your content in bite-sized chunks and make good use of white space. Avoid cluttering web pages, documents or other resources you create with unnecessary and distracting information and graphics.
  2. Format your content correctly: use the styles available in the software you are using e.g heading styles, bulleted lists etc. It's also important to use heading styles logically e.g. Heading 1 (H1) should be followed by H2, H3, H4 as needed. You should never start with H2 or skip headings (i.e. go from H2 directly to H4). This helps people who use screen readers to scan and navigate content. Depending on the software you are using, H1 might be the title or page name. In that case, you should only use H1 once and should start sub-headings with H2. If you are creating WordPress pages, H1 should not be used in the textbox editor. In this case, the page title is H1.
  3. Enable the user to control their own experience: 
    1. Avoid content that unnecessarily progresses automatically: this avoids making an assumption about the amount of time a user needs to read the content before it changes. If multimedia content or sliders have to carousel automatically, ensure features are included so the user can stop the animation and progress it at their own pace.
    2. Do not set multimedia content to play automatically: this assumes your audience is ready to engage with the content and has unrestricted access to a good internet connection. If a visitor is returning to your site, they will not appreciate being forced to watch/listen again to the content you are automatically playing.
    3. Player controls: should always be available where multimedia content is presented.
    4. Use navigational breadcrumbs on webpages: as an additional way to assist people navigating through. Breadcrumbs can be included on webpages and are also available in Minerva modules and organisations.
    5. Include a search feature: as an alternative way for people to find what they are looking for.
  4. Create accessible links:
    1. Enable the user to control their own experience: links on a webpage should open in the same web browser window unless it is necessary to have two windows (or tabs) open at the same time e.g. a help guide to support a user completing a form, or if a link will take a user from a secure environment (such as Minerva) to an external website. It should always be clear when a link will open in a new window if this is necessary. By opening links in the same window, a user can still choose to open the link in a new window or tab. We remove that choice if we force the link to open in a new window (or tab).
    2. Add meaningful text to links: we should always make clear what we are linking to including the location e.g. a website. Please do not use generic instructions such as “click here” as your link text because this is meaningless for a person navigating your content with a screen reader.
    3. Warn users what a link will launch: be specific about the type of content the link will open e.g. audio, visual content, a PDF, external website etc.
  5. Support keyboard navigation: ensure a keyboard can logically tab through your content otherwise some users will not be able to access everything.
  6. Mouse hovers/tool tips: users should be able to navigate these with a mouse and keyboard. However, touchscreen devices do not support mouse hover and they can be distracting. If they are not designed well, they can block other content on a page.
  7. File naming conventions: create meaningful filenames and use CamelCase (capitalising the first letter of each word in the filename), to make it easier for everyone to read.
  8. Buttons and controls: reduce the need for fine-motor skills when interacting with your digital content. Controls and buttons should be sufficiently large (and spaced out) so that a finger on a small touchscreen can easily access them.

6. Style and format of your content

  1. Sans-serif fonts: always use sans-serif fonts such as Arial, Calibri or Verdana. These are easier for everyone to read.
  2. Italics and underlining: avoid over-use of italics and underlining; both of these can be difficult for some people to read. Replace italics with quotation marks.
  3. Uppercase letters: avoid over-use of uppercase letters. Uppercase letters can be more difficult to read and also give the impression of shouting. Instead use mixed case, especially in the main body of your text.
  4. Font sizes: font sizes should never be smaller than 12 point. That does not mean that we should always use 12 point because it's important to consider the context of the content we are creating. Font sizes often need to be much larger and contextual advice is provided in format-specific tutorials in this section of the site.
  5. Text alignment: left-aligned text is easier to read.
  6. Colour: avoid using colour as the only means of highlighting important information. Not everyone can access colours. Where colour is used, it needs to meet the Web Accessibility Standards (page) for colour contrast.
  7. Visual content: all visuals needs to have appropriate ALT (alternative) text added. This enables a screen reader to read aloud a description of the content to a person with a visual impairment. If the visuals are only decorative and serve no other purpose, they should be tagged as decorative. Detailed visuals that convey important information need to have detailed descriptions. Videos should be accompanied by a transcript. Closed captions alone do not always provide an equivalent experience.


Written by Kirsten Thompson | Last updated 08/09/21

Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)