Web Accessibility for Writers

Ashlee Phillips (that’s me) striking a confident pose on stage at AirBnB as she delivers her talk on web accessibility.
Photo credit: Brian Phillips

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the Content Strategy SF Bay Area Meetup at Airbnb.

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone, regardless of disability, is an essential aspect.

This is a quote from Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web. His vision is both accessible and inclusive. Everyone — no matter their language, location, ability, or device — should be able to use the Web.

In my experience, we discuss how to add accessibility features after the fact. How can we go back and incorporate accessibility? What we’re really asking is how can get back to what we lost, and in the worst case, how can we fix what we broke? With Berners-Lee’s vision in mind, accessibility isn’t a feature of the Web but fundamental.

Web accessibility is not a feature; it’s fundamental.

A developer named Barry Smith built a website in response to the trends he was witnessing in 2012. Developers and designers were loading websites down with graphics, animations, and bloated code. His site is lightweight, responsive, and accessible. Yes, it’s also satirical, but Smith proves his and Berners-Lee’s point: the Web is accessible. We’re the ones that break it.

It’s quite profane.

When I look at his website, the first thing I notice is it’s 100% text, nary an image in sight. It’s there in black and white: text. We were right, writers. Words matter. Content and communication, it matters. And not as something that’s nice to have, content — like accessibility — should be considered from the beginning.

How do we write for web accessibility?

Real talk: I didn’t know I had a role to play with web accessibility as a writer. I thought that was for developers to bake in or QA to check for. Then I read the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) anyway. There are over 80 checklist items; they’re dense and difficult to read. But as I trudged through them, I found a recurring theme: be a good writer.

Our craft prepared us for web accessibility. With our observation skills, empathetic tendencies, and a knack for storytelling, we can have one of the biggest impacts on web accessibility because that is web accessibility.

There are other tools that writers can add to their arsenal, though. Tools that are unique to the web: alt text and link text.

What is alt text?

Alternative text (or alt text) are the words that appear in place of an image on a webpage. If a user’s browser doesn’t load an image, or a person is using a screen reader, alt text replaces the visuals (and a screen reader reads it aloud). Good alt text conveys the mood of the image and allows a user to walk away from the webpage with the same information.

It tells a story.

Effective alt text in action

<img src=“escalator.jpg” alt=“man on escalator”>

<img src=“escalator.jpg” alt=“man walking on escalator”>

<img src=“escalator.jpg” alt=“A man wearing a black backpack is walking down an escalator.”>

Alt text best practices

  • Keep alt text short and succinct (125 characters max)
  • Use punctuation
  • Begin with “Image of” or “Picture of”

What is link text?

Link text is the visible, clickable text on a webpage. Typically, it’s a different color and/or underlined.

What makes link text descriptive?

When taken out of context, descriptive link text explains where you’ll end up (or what you can expect to find) when you click on the link. If we remove all the other content and all that remains is the link text, we’d still have enough information to move forward.

Link text can be short, but avoid “click here,” “learn more,” and “read more” link text like the plague. (We should be scrub it from the Web entirely); they’re inaccessible, vague, and not an economic use of words.

Descriptive link text best practices

  • Keep it around 125 characters
  • Begin with prepositions or articles

Why does this matter?

We know that web accessibility matters. It’s good for business — a bigger audience means more potential customers — but most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

With Berners-Lee’s vision for the Web in mind, writing for web accessibility is how we build an inclusive culture for users. It’s how we invite people into the fold and let them know they matter, that what we built was created with them in mind, from the beginning as a feature and not as an afterthought.

Content designer, etc.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store