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The Accessibility of Language

Posted December 19, 2022


Posted December 19, 2022

A stylized newsletter with error icons across the page. In the background are words like "jargon," accessibility," and "language."
A stylized newsletter with error icons across the page. In the background are words like "jargon," accessibility," and "language."

Learn how the best practices of copywriting — from clear value props to short, scannable blocks of content — overlap with the best practices of digital accessibility.

It’s funny how your understanding of a word can change.

Before joining AudioEye, I thought about accessibility a lot. But it was usually related to my work as a copywriter, looking for the right combination of words that everyone could understand and be inspired by.

My guiding principle was something a professor told me: In the olden days, when newspapers were thriving, The New York Times had three people go through each article and cross out any jargon. That way, by the time an article was “fit to print,” there wouldn’t be anything in it that would exclude people.

(For the record: “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is the Times’ slogan. Riffing on it in the sentence above is the exact kind of insider term an editor at the Times would have cut!)

I’m not sure anyone has the luxury of three editors these days, but I’ve always tried to follow the Times’ lead when it came to writing: No jargon, no exceptions.

If you’d asked me six months ago, that’s how I would have defined accessibility.

Now that I’ve had a chance to learn from my co-workers and AudioEye’s A11iance team, my definition has changed. I’ve learned that accessibility — especially on the internet — is more than just word choice or sentence structure.

With that in mind, here are three places where the best practices of copywriting and digital accessibility collide — and how you can adopt them for your own business:

A magnifying glass hovering over a block of content on a webpage.

1. Make Sure Your Site Is Scannable

As a copywriter, you’re often given character limits that can feel challenging — if not outright impossible. For the subject line of an email, you might get 65 characters. For the headline of a display ad, you might only get 25.

Restrictions like this force you to be ruthless with every keystroke, and prioritize the words that pack the biggest punch. With the way most users read the internet (hint: they don’t), you need to make sure they can scan your page and pick out the most important ideas.

That mentality is also important for digital accessibility — the practice of designing and developing websites, tools, and technologies in a way that people with disabilities can use them.

In a recent post, AudioEye A11iance Advocate Charles Hiser shared an inside look at how screen reader users typically navigate a website. According to Charles, many screen reader users will go through the entire page on their first visit, using their keyboard to jump between HTML headers and get a sense of what each section covers.

If your headers aren’t descriptive — or if you don’t use headers to separate ideas and break up large sections of text — it can be hard for a screen reader user to skim your page and decide if they want to read more.

Learn more about accessible page headings, typography, and layouts

A stylized image of a mountain, next to an alt text that simply reads "<alt text> mountain.jpg"

2. Details Matter, But Focus On the Right Ones

For marketers, it can be tempting to try and stuff multiple value props into every headline or ad.

It takes a lot of restraint to only focus on what customers need to know about your business. But having that discipline — not to mention the ability to recognize what information matters most — is an important skill, whether you’re trying to write ad copy or image alternative text (alt text).

Alt text is a written description of an image that screen readers can read out loud — or convert to Braille — for people with visual impairments, sensory processing disorders, or learning disorders.

Done right, alt text can help paint a fuller picture of your products and services for people who cannot perceive images visually. Unfortunately, alt text can also go wrong in a number of ways.

  • It can be forgotten entirely.
  • It can lack sufficient detail (for example: alt text that simply says “size chart” for an image of a clothing size chart).
  • It can be weighed down by so much information that a screen reader user doesn’t know where to focus.

The best version of alt text is one that leads with the most important information, without adding too many extraneous details.

For example, instead of simply describing a stuffed animal of a turtle as “image of stuffed animal,” you could write “A large stuffed animal of a smiling turtle. It is soft and fuzzy, with light green skin and a brown shell.”

For people who cannot perceive images visually, not only will they know what kind of animal they’re looking at, but they’ll have important contextual details about its look and feel.

Want more alt text tips? Learn how the design team at AudioEye uses AI image generators to check their alt text, or discover what the wine industry can teach us about writing effective alt text.

Two blocks of content. One is short with a checkmark beneath it, the other is longer with an 'x' icon beneath it.

3. Clear, Descriptive Content Is Good for Everyone

The World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Supplemental Guidance to WCAG 2 includes best practices for clear and understandable content, such as:

  • Use active rather than passive voice: Speaking directly to the user in an active voice can help with comprehension, especially for people with dyslexia and other language impairments. For example, more people will understand “press the button” than “the ‘on’ button should be pressed.”
  • Avoid double negatives or nested clauses: Clear, simple language can help people with dyslexia and other language impairments understand a page — and any key actions they should take. For example, “Time is limited” is clearer than “Time is not unlimited.”
  • Be concise and avoid long, dense paragraphs: Use short sentences with one point per sentence. Try to insert the key takeaway or objective at the start of the paragraph. When possible, use bulleted or numbered lists.

Of course, each of these recommendations could also be considered a general writing best practice.

Digital Accessibility Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated

I mentioned earlier that I’m relatively new to the digital accessibility space. But now that I know the best practices of digital accessibility, it’s hard not to notice how often they overlap with “good” writing or design.

Want to get more tips on how you can provide accessible online experiences? Subscribe to AudioEye’s newsletter to get the latest accessibility news and tips delivered to your inbox.


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