Before the pandemic disrupted travel, I had the honor of transcribing live events for Haben Girma—a renowned disability rights lawyer, author, and speaker—whenever she visited New York for a speaking engagement. Haben is the first Deaf-Blind person to graduate from Harvard Law School. Today, she’s one of the world’s leading voices in accessibility advocacy.
During these events, Haben would set up an ingenious system wherein anyone could type on a wireless keyboard and their messages would pulse into her fingers via a braille device. My job as a sighted, hearing person was to type supplementary audio and visual descriptions so that she could have more access to the folks in the room.
Through Haben, I learned about the importance of digital accessibility. So have many others who have been moved by her story. Still, much of the world hasn’t caught on. In April 2021, nonprofit WebAIM reported that 97.4 percent of homepages featured detectable accessibility failures based on the international guidelines set by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This marked a small improvement from 98.1 percent in 2020.
As writers of website copy, video scripts, articles, and other forms of digital content, we have an opportunity—some would argue an obligation—to improve these dismal statistics.
Common accessibility pitfalls
Haben has difficulties accessing digital content every day. People with disabilities often depend on text transmitted to a screen reader. Anything that’s strictly audio or visual with no textual context is out of Haben’s reach as a Deaf-Blind person. This means when she clicks on an image without an alternate description or tries to watch a video without text transcription, she’s not able to experience the content.
The frustration that people with disabilities feel in these instances is palpable, in part because accessibility issues are not very difficult to fix.
“It’s not hard if you bake it into your content process,” said Chancey Fleet, a library assistive technology coordinator who is Blind. “If you use the right techniques, it doesn’t have to be costly and time-consuming. But it’s much easier if you consider it a part of the process, rather than going back and doing it [retroactively].”
“[Priorizing accessibility] is not hard if you bake it into your content process.”
Fleet added that even if nobody is raising complaints about a website or publication, it doesn’t mean that inclusivity issues aren’t there.
“If you’re not hearing from an audience, it’s because that audience is feeling alienated, fatigued, and doubtful that reaching out would help—even the subset of us that have the time and can find the means to reach out,” Fleet said. “Conversely, if your alternative text and transcripts are good, you may not know how many folks are benefiting.”
The basics of creating accessible content
Websites and blogs can be created with an accessible CMS, noted Samantha Evans, certification manager at the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP). It’s much easier to have an accessible website if you launch with an accessible template. Such guides are available for sites like Drupal and WordPress. Squarespace also offers accessibility features, but I found that I couldn’t make my existing Squarespace site completely accessible without asking for outside help.
Karl Groves, founder of accessibility consultant company Tenon.io, said there’s a “fundamental ignorance problem” when it comes to accessibility—and it runs deep, down to the level of the software developers who create digital platforms. He outlined a few common issues in website and blog accessibility, including color contrast: If a site is low-contrast—which is a popular trend on design websites—it’s only accessible to people with strong vision. Sites should also be navigable with a keyboard, since not everyone can use a mouse.
When it comes to written content, articles and site navigation should have a clear structure, Evans noted. Things like “Header 1” and “Header 2” in articles, as well as tiered navigation bars on websites, act as a roadmap for many individuals with disabilities.
The use of labeling is also important. Adding alt text—a written description of what’s in a thumbnail image or social media post—is helpful to people who use assistive technologies to view or read content online. Being unambiguous about URLs and CTAs is another best practice. Language like “read my blog post on vacationing in Jamaica” is clearer than a simple “click here.”
For video, text transcriptions and subtitles are critical. Fleet noted that audio-description tracks on videos can help Blind people follow along during dialogue-free moments.
Audio-description tracks on videos can help Blind people follow along during dialogue-free moments.
Many major publishing platforms offer features that make adding subtitles to videos simple via SubRip Subtitle (SRT) files. These plain-text files contain data points about the content of your video, including start and end timecodes, which ensure that the text and the audio sync up. You can create your own SRT files manually using Notepad or TextEdit. It’s also possible to create and edit SRT files for free using YouTube’s Video Creator.
It’s worth mentioning that these features benefit non-disabled audiences, too. In 2019, Verizon and Publicis found that 80 percent of people who use captions aren’t Deaf or hard of hearing. You may also get an SEO boost by including SRT files in your videos: When you upload SRT files to platforms like Facebook or Instagram, it allows Google to crawl them for keyword phrases, which may help your content stand out in searches.
Beware of “quick fixes”
Services that position themselves as “all-in-one accessibility solutions” may be too good to be true. Often, publishers opt for transcriptions done by artificial intelligence (AI), or they buy AI-based packages from firms that claim to make websites accessible with a single line of code. But these services aren’t good enough—at least not yet, Haben said. Human oversight is still required to cover all the bases.
“Artificial intelligence only works in limited situations and is nowhere near the point where we can rely on it for all our accessibility needs,” she wrote in a recent blog, detailing a list of services to avoid including AccessiBe, AudioEye, EqualWeb, User1st, and UserWay.
“Artificial intelligence is nowhere near the point where we can rely on it for all our accessibility needs.”
Individuals and businesses can run tests on their websites by using services listed on the Web Accessibility Initiative—but these tests don’t cover everything. Again, there’s not yet a viable substitute for human input. Unfortunately, hiring a reputable consulting firm like Tenon.io can get expensive for small businesses. One alternative is to take an ADA basics web course for free, or to become officially certified by the IAAP for a few hundred dollars.
Finally, if writers are working for a client or employer, it’s important to advocate for accessibility wherever possible. Fleet offered some tips: “Approach the employer or the organization directly and share what you know about best practices for accessibility, and make the case,” she said. “Ask for an organizational commitment. If you’re not making headway, tip off folks in the disability community who are readers. Sometimes a push from outside can accomplish [things] when you’re being blocked from within.”
If an ethical appeal fails, there’s always the business angle, Haben noted.
“Frame accessibility in terms of your company’s interests,” she said. “There are over 61 million disabled Americans and over a billion disabled people worldwide… If your content is inaccessible, is it any surprise you’re missing out on the disabled market?”
More international guidelines for accessibility standards can be found at the Web Accessibility Initiative, the ADA, and the International Association of Accessibility Professionals.