Writing to be read… by a screen reader

Screen readers? What?

If you’ve heard anything about web accessibility, you’ve probably heard of screen readers – devices that allow blind or vision-disabled people to access websites by listening to a speech synthesizer or, in some cases, via a braille display. There are a number of different screen readers; this recent review of three popular screen readers is interesting – the comments in particular illustrate that “accessibility” is different for different users with different needs, an important thing to keep in mind.

If you’ve never seen a screen reader in use, by the way, there are some good videos out there. I like the one embedded below; using JAWS – one of the more popular screen readers – the narrator goes through the BBC website and shows you how it works. Pay particular attention to how the screen reader handles links and headings, and you’ll understand why we always say that you should use heading tags when your page has sections rather than just making the section title bold and why we always say that your links should be semantically meaningful rather than just saying “click here.”

WebAIM, a great source for web accessibility information in general, has an extensive overview of how screen readers work and how to design for them. One of the most important points they make is that, while sighted users tend to quickly scan the entire screen and focus on what stands out as looking important to them, screen readers present content in a linear fashion. (Another “what it’s like to use a screen reader” video I found mentions that in another context: if a student receives a lengthy email from an instructor, they  have to go through the entire email and remember what they have to do or respond to once they’re finished, or even literally take notes on the email as they listen – they can’t just scan the email or easily go back and forth between the email and the response they are composing.)

But I’m not a web designer. Should I care?

What does this mean for those of us who don’t design entire websites, but who do write and publish content on the web? Well, for one thing, a giant block of text is going to be a huge pain for someone using a screen reader. Since they can’t quickly scan to figure out what the most important points are, they are going to have to sit and listen to the entire block of text. It would be much easier for these users to break up your content into smaller portions, using heading tags to separate them.

You’re not breaking it up at random, of course – more than just controlling font size and weight (for sighted readers), heading tags describe how your content is structured. Think of how an outline works – you have section I, and below that sub-sections A, B, C – then section II, and so on. Headings work the same way. H1 is generally your title, then H2, then on down as far as H4 if your content is that complex – then back to another H2, and so on. Or, think about a book with sections and chapters – or even feature story in the newspaper, which may have a headline and multiple sections, each with its own smaller title or headline.

This post, for example, uses heading tags instead of just rambling on and on nonstop. Ta-da!

Great news: Structuring your content using these semantically meaningful, well-organized heading tags also makes it easier for sighted users to scan your page and quickly spot the content they are looking for.

Accessibility benefits everyone.

This is a recurring theme that you find once you start learning about accessibility: many of the measures you take to make your website usable for disabled users are actually usability improvements for most of your users. This is true of accessibility features in the offline world, too – the button that lets someone using a wheelchair open a door is also helpful for a non-disabled (I love the term “temporarily able-bodied“) person whose arms are full of packages.

"Accessible" painted on pavement
flickr: Jonathan Moore CC BY-NC 2.0

The thoughtful folks over at GOV.UK (run by the Government Digital Service, the group responsible for designing digital services for the UK government) recently published a great post, “How to create content that works well with screen readers.” They don’t offer a bulleted to-do list, but rather discuss how screen readers work and some of the potential implications for writers of web content. For example, it’s useful to think about how screen readers interpret acronyms. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that this article concludes that writing content that works well for everyone will benefit screen reader users. Proofreading your content to make sure words are spelled correctly and using consistent standards for how you deploy acronyms and abbreviations, for example, will benefit everyone.

Of course, blind and vision-disabled users aren’t the only people with disabilities who use the web. People with color-blindness, deaf or hard-of-hearing people, people with limited fine motor control or who have difficulty using a mouse, and people with cognitive or memory disabilities can all have a better experience on the web if content is thoughtfully designed.

Captioning your videos will make them usable not only by deaf users but also by those who may want to watch your video in a public place but don’t have a pair of headphones handy. Plain language helps dyslexic users, those for whom English is a second language, and people who are in a hurry. And breaking up those intimidatingly huge blocks of text into more manageable chunks helps pretty much everybody. Making your web content accessible isn’t about providing “special” access to a few users – it’s about providing good access to ALL users, including those with disabilities, while remembering that for some users it means the difference between being able to access your content and being told “no, this content is not for you.” (Besides being a violation of the ADA, that’s just plain rude.)

Want to learn more?

If you find yourself intrigued by these issues, WebAIM’s Introduction to Web Accessibility is a great place to start. For IU-specific accessibility information and some great resources to help you create accessible content, visit Accessibility at IU. The UITS Assistive Technology & Accessibility Center, conveniently located in the Wells Library, has tremendous expertise in web accessibility and is available for consultations, trainings, and presentations.  And we in DUX are always happy to answer – or find an answer to – any specific questions you might have!

Author- Anne Haines

Web Content Specialist in the Discovery & User Experience Department, IU Libraries. I've spoken at events including edUi, Confab Central, Confab Higher Ed, IOLUG, ILF, the IU Libraries' Digital Library Brown Bag series, and the Libraries' In-House Institute. You can find me hanging out at the intersection of content strategy and librarianship, singing a doo-wop song under the streetlight. Follow me on Twitter: @annehaines

3 thoughts on “Writing to be read… by a screen reader”

  1. Note that captioning your video content doesn’t have to be hard or even done by you! YouTube has built-in crowd-sourcing capabilities for this; I myself have entered the captions for many videos, including but not limited to my favorite vlog, SciShow.

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