Working with content to increase accessibility

Many assume that accessibility is all about following the latest web standards. While following standards will increase accessibility for a website it does not automatically make it accessible for all your visitors. You can do a lot for accessibility by making sure that your content is understandable and comprehensive.

In this article I want to make two points about accessibility:

  1. It is a common misconception that accessibility is all bout making sure screen readers can access the content of a website.
  2. You can do a lot for accessibility by working with the content of your website.

Let’s face it. You do not have an unlimited budget for your web project. Accessibility experts and standards-wielding maniacs have been bombarding you with e-mails about the poor quality of your existing website (which was made on a rainy day by your boss’ teenage son). Your IT-manager has seen a leaflet about accessibility and now believes that everything will be fine as long as everything is converted to xhtml. You get a lump sum to convert your existing website to xhtml. Everyone will be happy.

Not so fast. There may be a better way to spend your money. While we all agree that following standards is a good way to go when developing websites/applications it is important to look at the complete picture. Standards do not guarantee accessibility. Crap content does not get better in a screen reader. So, if you are not redesigning your website you may be able to increase accessibility a lot by ensuring your content gets through to your audience.

Improving content

Some things to consider when working with content:

  • Make sure you publish the information that your visitors are looking for. Making sure that as many visitors as possible do not lift the phone to call you will provide better accessibility for those who actually need to use it (e.g. elderly and people without access to a computer).
  • Use a writing style that is simple, clear, and to the point. You may not believe it, but chances are high you have a lot of visitors with varying degrees of cognitive disability. Writing in this style will enable visitors to actually understand the message you are trying to send. This may be contrary to what your search engine optimizer friend tells you, but it will help a lot of people. Visitor laguage skills are often overestimated.
  • Write the most important stuff first. Visitors who are slow readers may skip the page entirely if they can not figure out what it is about in the first few paragraphs.
  • Use the header tags (h1, h2 etc.) for your page headings. Even if your website does not follow any standard at all, the use of proper header tags makes it a lot easier for many visitors to understand the structure of your information. If you use a content management system, chances are you can change this on your own without the help of consultants.
  • Separate content into paragraphs to make the page easier to read.
  • Try to publish information in html. Putting all your press releases online as Microsoft Word documents does not help anyone. What if a visitor lacks access to Word? (If you say “get the free Word viewer” I say “corporate it-policy” and “public terminal without administrative privileges”).

I hope this inspired you to take a look at your current content. Maybe you can save your money for a rainy day?



  1. Amit Karmakar says at 2005-01-03 11:01:

    So very true and a very nice post! There are stacks of people out there who think jumping on the xhtml band-wagon will have their site accessible totally. I like your scond point very much and it is the crux of everything really. Simple and clear! This is where a lot of them go wrong!

  2. David says at 2005-01-19 16:01:


    I am not sure the standards advocate bashing is fair. No doubt there are purists out there, but most do not tend to say validation is end all.

    Most do, from what I can see, say that validation and standards compliant are very important. But, as you have noted, semantics can be poor even in valid documents.

    I think most standards evangelists do recognize that. My understanding from reading a number of major evangelists is that they

    1) preach standards as the starting point;

    2) emphasize semantically meaningful markup as critical for accessibility, and

    3) additional accessibility considerations are needed on top of valid markup and good semantic tag choice (such as good content).

  3. Rich says at 2005-05-09 19:05:

    Ah yes, and it really is all about content. And what happens when that content is inherently visual, or symbolic (mathematics or other domain-specific material such as chemical formuli)?

    The point is that ultimately, we are trying to deliver content here. Yes, its important to be able to navigate the site structure efficiently in order to find the content we are looking for, but if that content is by its nature inaccessible, then what have we accomploshed?

Peter Krantz, (remove giraffe).