Digital accessibility: Don't leave anyone out
November 6, 2018
Katherine Wahl
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Three signs displaying accessibility symbols

Everyone at MIT wants to make their digital information available to the widest possible audience, including those with disabilities, but they don't always know how. The Accessibility and Usability Team from MIT's Assistive Technology Information Center (ATIC) is here to help. Below are some first steps you can take to make your information accessible. These suggestions apply to all kinds of information like websites, Power Point presentations, and Word documents.

Quick tips

Below is a short list of things you can do to make your documents and websites accessible right from the start. Thinking about accessibility at the beginning of a project is much easier than trying to make it accessible later.

Content

  • Make information easy to scan. Don’t cram so much information on a page or a slide that your readers are overwhelmed by it. Break up the information into manageable pieces so that it is easier to take in, whether users are visually scanning it or hearing it through text-to-speech software.
  • Use lists. Bulleted or numbered lists help organize information. It’s much easier to scan information presented this way, both visually and using text-to-speech software.
  • Use descriptive language. Make your headings, titles, and links short and clear. Links like “click here” or “read more” don’t give readers context but long links can overwhelm them. Links like “This month’s newsletter” provide helpful information.
  • Use styles and good structure. Styles available in Word and PowerPoint can be helpful in giving your content structure and ensuring that the structure is carried over to other formats. Semantic structure (using headings correctly, for example) is also important for web content.

Color

  • Meet contrast standards. There is a standard measure for minimum contrast between the text and background colors. Text with low contrast is very hard to see for many people. You can use a tool like the free Paciello Group Colour Contrast Analyser to measure the contrast between the text and the background. It will also allow you to choose colors that meet the standard.
  • Don’t use color alone to convey information. Make sure to use more than color alone to denote differences, emphasis, and content meaning. For example, on a form make sure that required fields are indicated using text (“required field”) or a symbol (an asterisk is commonly used) instead of just making the required fields red.

Images

  • Alternative text. Sometimes referred to as alt text, these are descriptions for images, icons, graphs, and charts. Alt text makes visual information available to those who cannot see it when they are read to by text-to-speech software. If there is no alternative text on an image, the screen reader will often read the name of the source file, which can be very confusing. There are three main types of images:
    • Informational images are those that convey some information, like a graph, a chart or a photo of an event. The alternative text for these images would need to describe the image. These are common images in Word documents or Power Point presentations as well as on websites.
    • Functional images are those that have a purpose or initiate an action like a printer icon to print or an arrow to take the user to the next page. The alternative text should convey the action rather than describe the image. These are quite common on websites.
    • Decorative images are those that add nothing to the content or functionality and are just visual decoration. They still need alt text! The alt text used here, referred to as null text, is represented by an empty pair of quotation marks (“ ”). Screen readers will skip over images with null alt text.

Videos and audio

  • Caption video. Video with captions makes the content available to those who cannot listen to the audio. Auto captions from YouTube are not sufficient. YouTube provides good information on how to caption videos and there are a number of services that will caption videos for a fee, usually under $5 per minute. You can visit MIT’s Accessibility and Usability website for more information.
  • Audio transcripts. Provide transcripts for audio files like podcasts so that those who cannot hear the information can still access it. This also makes your content available to search engines so that users will find it. Transcription services and captioning services can provide audio transcripts.

DIY website accessibility evaluations

There are several ways that you can evaluate the accessibility of your website without any special equipment. A number of accessibility tools are built into the Mac and Windows operating systems that make this even easier.

Enlarge the content
Use your browser or document viewer to enlarge content to 200% and verify all the text remains readable. Many users with visual disabilities need to enlarge content and if the content is no longer readable at a large size, it’s not accessible.

Don't use your mouse
Use only the tab, arrow, shift+tab, escape, and enter keys to navigate a website. Many users cannot use a mouse and they should be able to navigate a site and interact with forms or widgets with only the keyboard.

Use a screen reader
A screen reader is text-to-speech software that users with visual disabilities use to access information on a computer or tablet. Screen reader software can be tricky to learn but just trying it out will give you a sense of how digital information is converted to speech. Two common screen readers are

If you have questions about accessibility or how to make your website or information more accessible, contact the Accessibility and Usability Team at accessibility@mit.edu or visit the team’s Accessibility and Usability website.