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Basic Principles

Digital content (documents, websites, videos, audio, etc.) is accessible if it is created in a way that people experiencing an impairment or disability—whether permanent, temporary or situational—can use it. When content is accessible it works with assistive technologies like screen readers, personal voice assistants (e.g. Siri, Alexa, etc.), speech to text, screen magnifiers, braille displays, keyboards, switches, etc. When you design materials with accessibility in mind, they work better for everyone.

Understanding the Principles 

This section outlines basic principles that can easily be incorporated into your digital documents and course materials. Following these strategies will help you prevent the most common barriers to access. 

Identify Content Types—Headings, subheadings, paragraphs and lists

We all browse content to see if the article or material is what we really want. We browse using headings, links, lists, etc. Some people use visual cues to guide them through documents. Others use text-based cues that are auditory (such as when listening to a screen reader) or tactile (when using Braille). These types of cues rely on content being properly identified.

Properly identifying content refers to how each piece of content is tagged, for example, headings, subheadings, paragraphs, lists, etc. Using the styles tools available in the software to identify pieces of content attaches an appropriate tag that is used by assistive technology. Simply increasing the font size, changing the color, or making the text visually different does not allow assistive technology to differentiate the text.

In most software, the default content type is a paragraph. Choose the content type that most accurately describes the content you have included—avoid the temptation to choose based on appearance (in most cases the visual style of a content type, like a subheading, can be changed in the software. Details on how to do this can be found in our software-specific tutorials page). Imagine your document or content in an outline format, and assign headings that are appropriate to that format.

  • Use headings. There are up to six heading levels available (heading 1, heading 2, etc.). In most cases, a document will only have one main heading or heading 1. If a document has subheadings (heading 2) then it likely has multiple subheadings of equal importance. For example, on this page Creating Accessible Content is a heading 1, Accessibility Principles is a subheading or heading 2, and Properly Structured Content Types is a heading 3. 
  • Use lists. Consider readability—if it would be easier to read a list, use a list. For example, formatting requirements for a written assignment would be easiest to read as an unordered (bulleted) list. When sequence matters (e.g. directions), be sure to use an ordered (numbered) list.
  • Use tables only for tabular data. If you need to display a data set, a table is likely the way to go. Avoid the temptation to use a table as a convenient way to layout or organize other types of information. Doing so disrupts the reading order for people using assistive technology and the content will no longer make sense.
Provide Text Equivalents—Alt text, transcripts, and captions

Any element in your document that is not text-based should have the same content communicated in a text format. Non-text elements include images, videos, audio, figures, multimedia, etc. Text equivalents are provided in the form of alternative text, also called alt text, captions, and transcripts. This helps to make sure that people who can’t see or hear your content get the same information as those who can.

Every non-text element should have a purpose of some kind. As the content creator, you are the best person to determine that purpose and therefore the best person to provide the text equivalent. If an element has no purpose, or provides no additional meaning, consider removing it.

  • Write alternative (or alt) text for images. This includes photos, charts, graphs, animated gifs, comics, and other figures. Avoid the temptation to simply describe what is in the image. Alt text is a description of the image that conveys the meaning of it. So, someone who cannot see the image can still understand what it represents. 
  • Provide captions for video and multimedia. Captions provide synchronous text for all auditory content, including sounds that are not words, like laughter and sound effects. Captions help people who are deaf or hard of hearing, non-native English speakers, and people who may be in a noisy environment. Captions are usually auto generated by platforms such as YouTube, but should be manually edited for correct wording, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. If you have a video file with no sound, a note should indicate that “No sound is used in this clip”. 
  • Provide transcripts for audio (and video) content. Transcripts should be provided for all audio content. Transcripts are text equivalents to what is said, seen, heard, etc. They include descriptions of things like laughter or music. Transcripts primarily help people who are deaf or hard of hearing but may also be used by screen-reader users or people who just want to skim the content. An additional benefit of transcripts is that they make multimedia content searchable. Transcripts are generally documents that are separate from the audio or media file.
Use Color Carefully

Color consists of the hue (what we think of as red, purple, green, etc.), the intensity (or how vibrant it is), and the tone (how dark or light it is). All of these factors impact readability and can impact perceivability of content. Aging eyes, poor lighting conditions, or bright light that may cause a glare on the screen are also all factors that may impact how someone perceives color. People with low vision or color blindness may have difficulty distinguishing between colors.

  • Don’t rely on color alone to communicate information. A second indicator should also be used. Combinations of red and green can be particularly problematic, as they are both perceived as brown by those with the most common form of color blindness. This is the reason traffic lights always have red on top and green on the bottom—the position, in addition to color, indicates whether to stop or go. An outline, highlight, shape association, pattern, page placement, bold, and italics are examples of a second indicator. 
  • Use high color contrast. Color contrast refers to the contrast ratio between the text (or foreground) color and the page (or background) color. The best solution is dark text on a light background or light text on a dark background. Avoid vibrant and intense colors for the body text. Use a tool like the TPGi Color Contrast Analyzer or the WebAim Color Contrast checker to double-check your choices. Accessibility standards state that the contrast for body text should be 4.5:1 and for large text, 3:1. Large text is 18pt and larger, or 14pt bold and larger. A good rule of thumb is that the text should be easy to read if it was converted to grayscale (which you can often check in a print preview with the grayscale setting turned on). 
Provide Descriptive Hyperlinks

Like headings, hyperlinks are another key way individuals skim documents looking for relevant sections or content. It is important to note that when a URL is written out, assistive technology will read it in its entirety. Therefore, URLs should be embedded within the text.

  • Use specific, concise wording for hyperlinks. Be sure the linked text is short and concisely describes where the hyperlink goes. Avoid using full sentences, as that can be cumbersome and confusing for an assistive technology user to listen to. 
  • Avoid vague phrases. Those who are blind or visually impaired can browse hyperlinks using a screen reader. This means that links are provided without the surrounding text. Avoid using vague phrases such as “click here,” “learn more,” etc. Assistive technology users should be able to easily determine where the link goes. 

For example, the best way to direct someone to this accessibility website would be to include something like: “Visit our accessibility website to learn more about making your documents accessible.” You’ll notice the text that describes where the link will take you is the clickable URL. You’ll also notice the link text starts with “accessibility” rather than “our.” This is an important detail because some screen reader users browse links alphabetically, so they likely wouldn’t be looking for accessibility under the letter “O.”

Use Clear Language

Using plain, clear language means communicating so that your audience will understand things the first time they see or hear them. Text directions, assignment instructions, syllabi, general correspondence, etc. should be written at the lower secondary (middle school) level. Keeping this type of content clear and concise helps readers save time by making sure they are in the correct place and know what the expectations are. Plain language helps people with cognitive disabilities, people with a high cognitive load, individuals whose primary language is not English, etc.

This is not to suggest that we don’t ask our students to read and analyze complex texts. Content that is disciplinary (like a course reading, rather than the instructions for an assignment) can and should be written at a higher level. 

  • Limit jargon, specialized terminology, and idioms. When providing general communications like emails, instructions on a test, or summary content on a website it is best to avoid hard to interpret language—this will help ensure that everyone gets the same information. Save industry terminology for documents where experts or experts-in-training are the target audience.
  • Be clear and concise. When safety, grades or other mission-critical situations arise, write clearly and concisely. Limit complex sentence structures and eliminate any erroneous information.

Download or print a PDF copy of these principles to use as a quick and easy checklist. 

Accessibility Principles PDF

Next Steps: Applying the Principles

Once you understand the basics, the next step is to apply those principles to your materials. Many of the principles outlined above can be incorporated fairly easily. Content creators are encouraged to review the written or video tutorials and make these principles everyday practices. 

Written and Video Tutorials

Step-by-step written tutorials with screenshots explain how to apply the accessibility principles listed above. We cover a variety of software applications, including Microsoft, Google, Adobe Acrobat, and others.

The Creating Accessible Digital Documents video series is an all-inclusive YouTube playlist of short videos explaining the basics of accessibility for various software applications. Each video outlines a basic aspect of accessibility that can easily be incorporated into your digital documents and materials. Most of the videos are less than 5 minutes long. These videos are presented by the SUNY Oswego Workgroup on Accessibility Practices.

Additional Resources

Members of the Workgroup on Accessibility Practices have collaborated to create a list of additional resources, websites, and articles to help further your understanding of accessibility. These can be found on the software-specific tutorials pages.

Additional training courses and tutorials are also available through a partnership with Deque University.