Writing accessible copy
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
Easy ways to increase the reach of your content
Accessibility. It’s not political correctness. Or dumbing down. It’s not an add-on to your website. Or a set of features you can turn on or off. It’s an essential part of good writing. If you can spot a grain of rice from three miles away or read Proust upside-down at 600 words a minute then you’ll probably underestimate the need for more accessible copy. But the British Dyslexia Association say 10% of the UK population are dyslexic. The RNIB say one in 30 people have sight loss. Mencap say there are 1.4 million people in the country with a learning disability. And McKinsey say 91% of business executives simply don’t have enough time. Maybe you think your audience is too niche for accessibility. You know for a fact they all have perfect vision and great literacy. Well, what if they’re reading your content in a sunny room? Your tiny grey text on a black background isn’t looking so good then, is it? There are huge numbers of people who need accessible writing. And plenty more who’ll appreciate it. Accessibility isn’t for just a few extreme cases, it’s simply about making sure you include everyone.
What is accessibility?
A lot of the advice about creating accessible content just assumes you can tweak your website for blind people and you’re done. But accessibility is about making sure everyone can access your content with the same amount of effort. If you designed a website entirely for blind people, it would probably be very confusing for people with vision. Different people’s needs will often conflict with each other but your goal should be to remove as many barriers as possible for as many people as possible.
Everyone is different
The first thing to realise is there’s never a perfect solution that will please everyone. People think in different ways and use different language. And society changes a lot over time. If someone is upset or offended by your copy, figure out where you went wrong and keep improving. Just do the best you can with the information you have about your reader.
The language you use
Let’s start with the most subjective bit. Which words are offensive, and which are “correct”? Which words are understandable, and which are elitist? Which words are progressive and which words sound like something your racist grandparents would say? There will never be one definitive answer, but, if you follow the advice here, you hopefully won’t go too wrong.
Which phrases are ok?
In most contexts, “going for a walk” is unlikely to offend someone in a wheelchair because it’s such a common part of language. Don’t be afraid of everyday phrases: Take a stroll around our acres of landscaped gardens ✔️ Make your way around our acres of landscaped gardens in whichever way you are able to manage ❌
But sometimes it’s better to think of an alternative. For example, if the copy is on a webpage talking about which areas of your property are wheelchair accessible, it would be better to say: Explore our acres of landscaped gardens Just be sensitive to your audience and don’t get too caught up on every single word.
Idioms and jargon
If your audience is likely to include people on the autism spectrum, it’s best to avoid phrases that might need explaining. In fact, unless they’re used for creative effect, it might be best to avoid them anyway. You can never know how widely understood a particular figure of speech is. You could potentially confuse a lot of people, including people whose first language isn’t English.
The social model of disability
Talking about a disability as a medical condition can potentially be insulting and demoralising. The social model says that people are disabled by their environment, not by their bodies. If a deaf person can’t watch a theatre performance because there’s no signer, subtitles, or hearing loop, it’s a problem with the theatre, not their ears. Not everyone agrees with the social model, but it’s quite common in the UK. The most important implication for writing is to make sure you don’t talk about disabilities as problems to be fixed or something to be pitied. It also means “disabled person” is becoming more common than “person with a disability”.
The people first option
Some people don’t like the social model and prefer people-first language that lets them take ownership of their disability without focusing on it. In this case use “person with a disability” instead of “disabled person”. The emphasis is on the individual, not their disability.
How to write accessible copy
Although there’s absolutely no evidence behind this, we’re fairly certain 90% of content accessibility is just good copywriting. Well-written copy is clear and understandable. It’s well structured. And it helps you understand what to do next. Add a readable font and some high contrast colours and you’re laughing. And if you want to really go for it, look into Plain English and Easy Read.
But let’s break things down a bit more.
For everything you could possibly need to know about web accessibility, read the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium and WebAIM’s accessibility articles. For copywriting, the advice basically says to make text readable and not too complicated. That covers everything from using short sentences to making sure abbreviations are explained. Some other elements that people often forget:
Make sure you use headings and subheadings that explain each section
Use the right heading structure (h1 for big headings, h2 for subheads, h3 for smaller subheads)
Don’t rely on images, audio and video to tell the story – have text alternatives to them too
Make sure links are descriptive, not just “click here”
Don’t use visual descriptions, for example, “click the red button on the right-hand side”
Don’t rely on text formatting like bold, italic or different colours for meaning – only use formatting to make it easier to read text visually
Decent copy also takes the design into consideration. An easy-to-read font like Helvetica, around 15pt, left justified, 65 characters to a line, in black on a white background is the ideal. The further you get from this, the simpler and shorter your copy should be. Accessible copy online makes people want to actually read your site. As an added bonus, if your copy is clear and readable, you’re likely to see your search ranking go up.
If you haven’t come across it, microcopy is all the little bits of text that help you navigate a site or complete an action. As with other web copy, you should make it clear and understandable. But for people using screen readers there’s an extra consideration. Whereas someone navigating a page visually can look all around a button or text input field for help completing the task, screen readers read out text top to bottom and left to right. So if you have a “buy now” button, but after that button there’s some text saying “not in stock”, you could really confuse some of your users. For every action someone needs to complete, put all the necessary information first (above or left). And think about which words you use to explain things. There’s no point trying to be clever if it confuses people and stops them making a purchase or signing up to a newsletter. Good microcopy should help as many people as possible interact with your site.
A lot of print accessibility is down to design, so you’re almost off the hook on this one. Still, there’s plenty you can do to improve the reader’s experience:
Break everything up into easy-to-manage paragraphs
Use straightforward language
Structure your content with descriptive subheads
Much of the advice for online content applies to print. But one of the biggest differences is that people are more likely to read through, rather than skim to the extent they do online. So you can afford to have a bit more copy on the page (but only if you really need it).
Emails and letters
Whether it’s an application for funding or a sales email, most marketing communications have a purpose. If you’ve followed the advice so far, your copy is nearly there. But to make it as accessible as possible, remember to focus on making it really clear what you want the reader to do. Make the call to action as unambiguous as you can. For example, if someone has to do something, say “you must”, not “you should”. This is especially helpful for people with learning disabilities.
Reports and other b2b documents
You might think a serious business document needs formal language – lots of therefores and hithertos. But try to picture the executive you’re aiming for. They’re probably swamped with incoming reports, invoices and memos. The last thing they want is a complicated document to interpret. Make it accessible and your document will instantly be more persuasive and effective. Yes, your reader might be some sort of walking thesaurus with unlimited time on their hands. But probably not. So it makes sense to give your copy the maximum chance of success. Lots of the advice for web accessibility also applies to documents. For example, if you use the built-in headings from Microsoft Word (heading 1, heading 2 etc), people will be able to navigate the document with a screen reader. It’s also worth thinking about the format you use for your documents. Web pages are the most accessible option. PDFs aren’t ideal. They’re not responsive for mobiles, can’t be updated as easily, and most importantly, are hard for a user to customise to their access needs.
Even if you write in simple, clear language, with a legible design, it’s likely that at some point, someone will struggle with your content. So you might decide to offer accessible formats. There are too many options for us to explore here, but a good place to start is gov.uk’s guide to accessible communication formats. And don’t forget to do some market research first – the earlier you involve your audience in the process, the better you’ll understand their needs.
Testing your content
If you’re not certain your copy is accessible enough, why not test it?
Navigate with a screen reader
Most operating systems have screen readers built in and other options are available on app stores. The two most popular are JAWS (Windows) and VoiceOver (MacOS). They will take a bit of getting used to but could flag up any potential problems before your copy goes out into the wider world.
Test your website
To test your web pages, there are plenty of online tools like tenon.io. Most of the things these tools pick up will be down to the design and technology, but it still helps to check through to see if you missed any important copy points.
Test your document
If you’re using Microsoft Office, there’s a built in accessibility tool on the review tab (or in options in Outlook). It only checks functional details though so isn’t a substitute for writing good copy in the first place.
Ask different people to read it
Your children, your grandparents, your colleagues – the more people you can test it on, the better. What made perfect sense to you might be very confusing to the rest of the world.
Use Microsoft Word’s readability test or use an online readability tool to check your content. For most situations, you’ll want a Flesch-Kincaid grade level under 10. Good luck! Even after this long blog post, we’ve only scratched the surface of accessibility. And with constant developments in technology, things can change fast. Hopefully we’ve given you some insight into the basic principles of writing good content for everyone. If you’re always on the lookout for ways to make your copy easier to read and understand, you’ll have made a great start.