For technical communication, accessibility refers to how available information is to those with disabilities. Those who are blind, colorblind, or hard of sight rely on accessible documents to easily absorb information. To make accessible documentation, technical writers have to first be familiar with regulations. Then, they can learn how to adhere to those regulations.
The Section 508 Amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, commonly referred to as Section 508, requires Federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. To help agencies comply with Section 508, the Department of Health and Human Services has guidance for agencies to follow. This guidance includes checklists that content managers can use to ensure their documents are completely accessible.
Screen Reading Technologies
Screen readers are used by those who are hard of sight or blind. The technology vocalizes what is on the screen so that they can absorb the information through sound rather than sight. Screen reading technologies rely on proper formatting in order to relay information correctly. Everything from organization through headers to text and image alignment affects how screen reading technologies work. Without following Section 508 and other accessibility principles, screen readers cannot vocalize the information properly.
Headings not only visually breakup information, they create metadata that screen readers rely on. By using heading styles in documents, screen readers are can recognize and vocalize division in information. Next time you write a document, use the heading styles to not only create a visual distinction, but a metadata distinction in your text.
Tables and Images
Tables and images are visual-based. But, that doesn’t mean screen readers cannot vocalize their information. Here are just a few things to make your tables and images more accessible.
In order to vocalize a table or image, screen readers rely on alternate text. This text is put in the properties of the table or image. When screen readers approach the table or image, they vocalize the alternate text provided. This text should not only describe the look, but the content and intent of the table or image. That way, listeners miss as little information as possible.
Screen readers move through a document like a cursor, vocalizing information it approaches. While aligning tables and images square with text may be visually appealing, they remove the point of reference for the screen reader. This could result in the screen reader vocalizing alternate text in the middle of a sentence. To make sure everything is read in order, align tables and images with the text.
Merged cells are very common with tables. They make the information more visually appealing. However, screen readers cannot vocalize merged cells, much less their intent. Make sure tables do not have merged cells so their information is fully accessible.
Text Size, Alignment, and Spacing
For those who are hard of sight, text size, alignment, and spacing make all the difference in readability. Text should not fall below 11pt font to be legible by the naked eye. Text should also be aligned left. While justified text is visually appealing, it affects the spacing between letters and words which can make the difference between a readable document and a bunch of gray lines.
When creating charts, graphs, and visual presentations, colors can determine a document’s accessibility. Colorblindness affects are large portion of the population. With this in mind, use textures and patterns to supplement charts and graphs with color coding. Also, keep in mind common color combinations affected by colorblindness. Blue text with a purple background will be muddied an unreadable to many people who are colorblind.
Many people rely on accessible documentation to absorb information. By following Section 508 and other accessibility best practices, not only with documents be accessible to those with disabilities, but they will be better structured and organized for all audiences.
About the Author
Greta Boller is a technical writer located in the Washington, D.C. area. For more information, please visit her bio page.