Accessibility on the OpenLab

Writing for Accessibility

Readability is an important part of making a web document accessible to all users. Many of the following tips are adapted from the Town of Whitby Guide to Accessible Documents pdf. This document also includes market research done by the Nielsen Norman Group, as well as another article by Nielsen Norman Group.

The OpenLab Help post Making your Work Accessible has more information on best practices for accessibility.

I. Use Plain Language

Plain language is text that the reader can understand the first time they read it. Text that is clear and easy to read benefits site visitors with learning disabilities and low literacy skills. It improves comprehension for all users and allows for easy adaption to other formats.

Writing material in plain language helps your audience to:

  • find what they need
  • understand what they find; and
  • use what they find to meet their needs

When writing in plain language, remember to:

  • keep your intended audience in mind
  • use an active voice, where it’s clear who or what is performing an action
  • shorten sentences
  • use common everyday words
  • eliminate jargon and unnecessary words
  • use simple sentence structure and grammar
Example of Plain Language


When the process of freeing a vehicle that has been stuck results in ruts or holes, the operator will fill the rut or hole created by such activity before removing the vehicle from the immediate area.


If you make a hole while freeing a stuck vehicle, you must fill the hole before you drive away.

II. Writing Styles that Help Comprehension

The writer’s tone can aid reader comprehension.

Build Credibility

Avoid language that tries to add too much excitement. (“This will be the best tool ever for your classroom!”). Site visitors want to get the straight facts. Also, credibility suffers when users perceive that the author exaggerates.

The use of external site links can help site credibility. Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites.

Help Boost Memory with Metaphors

Reduce the need for readers to remember things from one part of text to another by creating a metaphor or comparison which helps the reader visualize what you are describing.

III. Organize Information to be Scannable

Research on how people read websites found that 79 percent of test users scanned web pages; only 16 percent read word-by-word. As a result, Web pages should use scannable text. In general, use half the word count (or less) than conventional writing, especially when writing for mobile users.

Highlight Keywords and Subheadings

Hypertext links can be one form of highlighting keywords; others include typeface variations and color. When you choose a highlight color, make sure that it creates a high contrast with the background so that it can be easily seen. You can use an online tool to check color contrast, such as the WebAIM Color Contrast Checker.

Subheadings, or section titles, throughout the page help orient the reader. Choose subheadings that are understandable and descriptive of the content, rather “clever” or complicated.  Headings and subheadings should clearly contrast with the rest of the text (by being bolder, larger, etc).

Chunking Text

Presenting content in chunks makes scanning easier for users and can improve their ability to comprehend and remember.

The key to effectively chunking content is to keep related items close together and aligned. White space and line breaks between chunks of content will separate one section from another.

Some methods of chunking text content are:

  • Bullet point summaries
  • Ample line breaks (“white space”) between paragraphs
  • A horizontal line (“horizontal rule”) between long sections of text
  • Short lines of text (around 50-75 characters)
  • Distinct grouping in strings of letters and numbers. For example, write a phone number as (973) 555-1234 instead of as 9735551234
Organized Paragraphs

Organize the structure of paragraphs to help users scan through the text.

  • Use one idea per paragraph. Readers will often skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph.
  • Start paragraphs with the most important point. Each paragraph should use an inverted-pyramid writing style: start with an overview of the main point. People relate better to secondary points when they already know the basics.

IV. Avoid Italics and Underlining, to Improve Readability

  • Italic fonts are more difficult to read than regular fonts and should be avoided when possible
  • Underlining interferes with lower case letters and should be avoided for emphasis. It can also be confused with hyperlinks
  • Only use underlining for links, to web pages and email addresses
  • Use bold for emphasis, not italics or underlining

V. Avoid Sentences in all UPPERCASE Letters

A sentence written with a combination of upper and lower case letters is easier to read. The word shape provides mental reading clues to speed up the process of reading.

It may make sense to use all uppercase in some instances, such as short headings, titles with a maximum of two words, or when text is used as a graphic image. However, uppercase can give the impression of shouting at the reader and therefore should be avoided where possible.

If the intent is to convey a shout, an exclamation point may be better. Screen readers generally do not read text differently if it is in all upper case letters, so listeners will not know that the author is shouting. Screen readers do change the voice inflection with exclamation points.

Also, upper case acronyms should have periods to allow screen readers to properly interpret the text as an acronym and not a word. For example, A.O.D.A. is more accessible than AODA.

VI. Explain Graphics, Tables, Charts and Maps Using Text

All graphic elements that contain information relevant to the document require a text explanation. The explanation needs to be written by the same person responsible for writing the document. Having someone else describe the graphic elements may provide an incorrect interpretation.

When explaining complicated visuals, be sure to identify the type of visual (chart, graph, map, etc.) along with the title, purpose, and the meaning of the data.

The text explanation can be provided in the text of the document or in a caption.

VII. Design and Visual Legibility

Detailed instructions for design and style choices can be found on the OpenLab blog post Making your Work Accessible.

Legibility tips from that document include :

  • Use pre-set heading styles to create a clear visual hierarchy:
    • H1 for page titles
    • H2 for subtitles
    • H3 for section titles
  • Use informative and specific wording for links
  • Use common, recognizable fonts and avoid small font sizes
  • Avoid low-contrast fonts
  • Include alternative text (“alt text”) for all images