You use it in your emails and on your web pages. You create leaflets, toolkits, guides with it. You send your customers, readers, clients to your web pages and websites. You may even send out printed materials. All of which have content.

It’s how you communicate with your audience. It’s the filling for everything. Your email is nothing without content. Your website is just empty buttons and pages without content. Your guide is just blank pages.

And yet, very few people think about the impact of their content:

  • Are the words you’re using accessible?
  • Is the language overly complicated for that quick email to Jane in Marketing?
  • Is 50 per cent of the guide to your HR system unnecessary extra words?
  • Does your customer have to scroll down half of the page to get to the information you promised in the title?

You might just be sharing other people’s content. But you still need to make sure your social posts or other communications are accessible.

Creating accessible content is essential. It benefits everyone. Here are 7 things to check when writing content, online or in print:

Language

In the UK:

  • 5 million people have a learning difficulty
  • an estimated 1 in 10 people have dyslexia
  • 2 million people have a visual impairment

It’s really important that your language is clear, direct and easy to understand.

Why everyone should write accessible content

There are lots of resources to help make your language more accessible. This includes using plain English.

Plain English is not over-simplifying or patronising. In a fast-paced world, there are so many things fighting for our attention. Being able to read and understand information easily and quickly benefits everyone. But it also means everyone has access too.

You’ll still be able to keep a range of tones, from authoritative and professional to atmospheric. You’ll still be able to engage your readers.

There are some other things that can help you improve your language and content:

  • Avoid metaphors and figurative language
  • Keep paragraphs short
  • Use shorter sentences

When the average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90 per cent. At 43 words, understanding drops to 10 per cent.

Learn more about writing accessible content:

Headings

Headings are an easy and simple best practice to follow. Look at any well laid out, accessible website, email newsletter or document. You’ll see they’ve used lots of headings.

This is because headings:

  • break text into chunks. This helps those who struggle with large sections of text.
  • highlight a change in topic, sub-topic or point
  • help people to scan the text for the bit they need. Not everyone wants to read your whole page!
  • make content easier to use for screen reader users

You must use proper heading formatting or tags. This is where you format the heading as a:

  • heading 1 for titles
  • heading 2 for headings
  • heading 3 for sub-headings

This helps screen reader users understand the structure of the page. It also helps with skipping to the most relevant section. This is important in all your documents and web pages, internal and external.

In Word documents, it also gives sighted users an easy way to skip to sections using the navigation pane.

Heading structure and accessibility

Text size

Size 11pt is a good standard size for text, right? Wrong. So many organisations use small text, usually for various reasons:

  • ‘We need this to be on 2 pages’
  • ‘it’s Ts and Cs’
  • ‘we need smaller text for the design’

All of those are not good enough reasons to use inaccessible text sizes. Especially if it’s a print or pdf document. Why? Users cannot customise text size on a print or pdf document to make it accessible to them.

Your text needs to be large enough so all users can access it easily. Use:

  • 12pt as standard text and do not use smaller
  • 14pt and over to be more accessible to a wider audience

Also make sure your online documents and web pages have flexibility. This will make sure your readers, customers, or clients can adjust the text size to meet their needs.

For example, using text-only zoom browser extensions for web pages. Or accessing documents in Word or PowerPoint instead of pdf.

It’s also important to make sure the font you use is accessible. The accessibility of fonts can vary with different needs, particularly dyslexia. Again, flexibility is essential as it means people can change the font to one accessible to them.

Font accessibility and readability: the basics

Colour

Not having enough colour contrast is a common accessibility issue. Many organisations fail the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) colour contrast criteria.

Poor contrast can make it difficult for some people to tell 2 colours apart to see or understand content. This is particularly difficult if you have low vision or colour blindness.

To meet the WCAG AA standard, you need to have a contrast ratio of:

  • 4.5:1 for normal text
  • 3:1 for large text and graphical objects

Don’t worry, there are tools to calculate the contrast.

Screenshot of WebAIM's colour contrast checker showing red text on a white background failing accessibility standards for normal sized text.

WebAIM contrast checker

Always check you have enough contrast when:

  • creating content for websites, presentations, posters, leaflets and so on
  • putting text on an image, graphic, button or coloured background
  • changing the colour of your text against a white page, like changing text to red in an email

You should also avoid using colour to convey information. For example, green and red buttons to convey start and stop.

Add labelling, patterns or textures, or alternative formats of the information. If you’ve used colour to highlight a link, you should also add underline for anyone who cannot see the colour.

Coblis colour blindness simulator

Some users will change the colours on a website or change the background. Like using dark mode or high contrast modes. It’s important to make sure your content is still visible and usable when changed this way.

How users change colours on websites (GOV blog)

High contrast Chrome browser extension

Images

Image accessibility is something many organisations struggle with. Particularly getting the alt-text descriptions right.

For example, adding alt-text descriptions with too much unnecessary detail. Or not giving people enough detail, like not describing the slogan written on a product.

How to write better alt-text descriptions for accessibility

Avoid these common alt-text mistakes

Alt-text is just one (very important) part. But there are other things you need to think about for image accessibility:

  • Can you still read text when it’s on a textured background, like in a photograph? Does the background interfere with the text?
  • Do you have too many images on your page?
  • Can you explain complex content or data using an image? Like graphs or flow charts. You must still have a text version.
  • Can text on an image still be read when zoomed to 200 per cent?

Many people do not consider these things when using images.

Accessible Images (WebAIM)

Pdfs

Pdfs are not designed to be flexible so they can cause accessibility barriers. And because of the way pdfs are formatted, there is little people can do to make it accessible.

In general, pdfs do not always work well with:

  • assistive tech, like screen readers
  • magnifiers
  • resizing text, changing font or colours
  • mobile or tablet

Try to use a document format that will be accessible to most users. This is usually an HTML web page. On a web page, there are ways to customise the page to meet your needs. For example, changing the background or text colour, font or text size.

If you have a downloadable document, give people a flexible format. Like Word or PowerPoint. Or provide multiple formats so the user can choose the one most accessible to them.

We never recommend only offering people a pdf document. If you must do this, make sure people have an easy way to ask for an accessible alternative. The contact information should not be at the end of the pdf document. Or available through an inaccessible web form.

Link text

Your link text must tell people where they are going. What content will they go to if they click the link?

For example, do not use link text that says:

‘the website’

If you’re linking to a page about the social model of disability on the Scope website.

Write ‘the social model of disability’.

So it’s important to be descriptive and avoid generic phrases. For example, the website, click here or read more.

Do not use a URL as link text. They’re difficult to read and a screen reader will read the whole thing out. This is important for emails, team chats, documents as well as websites.

You probably know that the person you’re sending a link to doesn’t use a screen reader. But you do not know if that email might get shared with others and if they might use a screen reader. Searching chats for the right SharePoint link is also harder without descriptive links.

If your document is designed for print and digital, make sure the URLs are short. This helps make it easier to copy from paper to the search bar. Make sure the URL is linked if you have an online pdf version. Ideally, the digital version will not be a pdf.

Aim to have an accessible alternative instead. Like Word or a web page that uses descriptive link text.

Does your organisation need support with content accessibility? Sign up for one of our content accessibility training days with Scope experts.