Writing has always come naturally to me. Growing up, it was not only a hobby but a necessity. Like many young girls, documenting my thoughts and experiences in my diary was cathartic. It was my way of understanding the world and who I was becoming.
I took this natural inclination to write as a sign that I should be a writer. So, I followed that dream until I ended up studying Journalism.
Eventually, I landed a job at one of Australia’s oldest newspapers working as a Producer for the iPad. I loved this job. I could write pun-y headlines and cute stand-firsts. But it was a scary time and like many in the industry, there wasn’t a lot of work for writers.
Then I took a job as a writer for a not for profit organisation. Their mission was to make digital media (including web content) accessible to people with a disability. I thought I’d be writing content for their website and covering consumer technology news but it involved so much more than simply writing. I learnt about the possibilities that the internet provided to people with a disability, as well as the barriers. The internet enabled independence but we, as publishers and content creators, needed to make it inclusive.
What is a screen reader?
A screen reader is a type of assistive technology that blind or visually impaired people can use to ‘read’ content on the web via text-to-speech. To make content accessible to them, you must make content ‘readable’ by a screen reader. This involves marking up content with the appropriate HTML tags (among many things) so that the structure, non-text content and links on the webpage are conveyed to the screen reader user.
Getting to know the screen reader and how it interacts with words on a webpage completely changed the way I thought about writing. Before this, I was writing with a clear audience in mind, targeting news values and worthiness. Now, the screen reader was my guide.
Writing for screen readers is good for everyone and SEO
In the process of learning about web accessibility, I realised that by making my content accessible to screen readers, I was optimising the structure, clarity and even helping to surface content on search engine results pages (hello, SEO). This was a rewarding journey because I realised that the practice of making your content accessible enhanced the usefulness and relevance of the words I published online.
There are many resources available to writers who want to make their words more accessible to people using a screen reader (I recommend becoming familiar with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1)) and many simple techniques to help you achieve this.
Simple techniques you can apply to your content right now
1. Content hierarchy and page structure
Applying the correct heading level tags e.g <h1>to <h6> is important for conveying page structure to screen readers. Yoast published a very helpful article describing the importance of headings for showing structure. Carefully applying HTML tags improves the page for accessibility, SEO and structure.
2. Make your headings descriptive
Similar to the way sighted users scan a webpage, screen reader users rely on headings to be able to ‘scan’ the page for information that’s relevant to them. The more descriptive our headings are, the easier it is for everyone (screen reader and sighted users) to navigate the page.
3. Make your links meaningful. Don’t use ‘click here’
This guideline is oft-cited by SEO-ers and accessibility experts alike. This W3C guideline provides clear points on what you should consider instead. Personally, it was the ‘gateway rule’ that really shifted my thinking.
Instead of using ‘click here’ for link text, consider using something more meaningful and descriptive. The goal is to help users understand what will follow once they click on the link. Sometimes, it takes a bit more time to craft your sentence around a link in order to make it more accessible. But if done well, it can greatly enhance your sentence structure and the overall usability of your content.
4. Provide alternative text for non-text content such as images
Most CMSs provide the option to add alternative text descriptions for images. Screen reader users can access this information through the alt attribute which you can include in the <img> tag. For e.g <img src=”hellodoggo.gif” alt=”Puppy sitting peacefully on the couch”>.
This means any non-text content is conveyed to screen reader users. The bonus is that this gives more visibility to your page for relevant keywords on search results pages.
5. Have meaningful page titles
Are you currently browsing with multiple tabs open? Me too.
Sighted users can easily identify which tab they need to return to by scanning for a familiar logo etc. Descriptive page titles enable screen readers to navigate between tabs too. You can add your descriptive page title within the <title> tag. These should be descriptive and succinct. For e.g. <title>Hooked rug patterns — Rugs R Us</title>.
6. Know your CMS
Lastly, every CMS is different. By this I mean that some CMSs will automatically use the first few words of your paragraph as the page title or the <h1>. If that is the case, it’s important to know this so that you can optimise content to work for screen reader users. Get to know your CMS to fully reap the benefits of optimising your content for a larger audience.
Let the screen reader be your guide
In an age where so many essential services and information is available to us through a web browser, it’s not enough to just write. For me, the screen reader is my guide. By doing this, I am naturally improving the overall usability of my content.