Content Accessibility Highlights

February 2006

P.J. Gardner, founder of Boston-IA, delivered a presentation called "Highlights of Acccessibility Issues for Editors" at a joint meeting of Boston-IA and the Technical Editing Special Interest Group of the Society for Technical Commmunication (STC) on February 8, 2006. This talk focused on how editors and content producers can make Web content more accessible for people with disabilities and the aging population.

P.J. is president of Gardner Information Design, Inc., which provides consulting, contracting, and training services for businesses and organizations that want to create more usable and accessible Web sites. She specializes in evaluating, designing, and converting Web sites for compliance with U.S. Section 508 and World Wide Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Topic: "Highlights of Acccessibility Issues for Editors"

Date: February 8, 2006

Speaker: P.J. Gardner

Location: Lexington Sheraton Inn
Lexington, Massachusetts

Goals for Editors

When reading online, people scan rather than reading linearly. Editors should ensure the information that people are looking for is present and is not too long, or users get frustrated.

Information should be clear, concise, and make sense as if read over the phone. This is ostensibly what happens when people who are blind or have low vision use a screen reader (a device that orally reads Web site text and alt text, which is specially entered text used to describe images users can't see).

When you access a page using a screen reader, the first thing it tells you is how many links there are on the page. If there are hundreds, navigation is daunting. Create a navigational hierarchy and divide long content into separate pages.

Ensure people can access content despite physical impairments, technological barriers, or "being outside the imagined target audience." Support users who are colorblind, have mobility impairments (must tab or point to text), hearing impairments, learning disabilities, or are non-native speakers of English.

Technology can Impair Accessibility

When people have old equipment or software that doesn't support the latest accessibility features.

Even some current technologies can prevent accessibility if they are not created with care, for example content management systems (CMS) or PDF (portable document format).

[My notes don't cover why, or what people should do about these issues. Maybe you could add that?]

What Editors Can Do

Content editors can make a difference, if they pay attention to items such as these:

  • Ensure text is text, and not embedded in an image.
  • Check that navigation makes information easy to get to.
  • Suggest standard terms to replace jargon and culturally biased terminology.
  • Increase internal consistency.
  • Provide a logical structure for the document.
  • Put key terms at the beginnings of headings. People using screen readers can rapidly scan through headings.
  • Ensure that headings begin with a variety of different letters to facilitate skimming by screen readers.
  • Use multiple keywords within text for search optimization.
  • Ensure the document functions well in alternative environments (older equipment, poor lighting, Macintosh and Unix computers).
  • Start new paragraphs after a couple of sentences for optimum online reading.
  • Avoid alphabetization as the primary organizing principle for lists and menus: initial letters will be different when translated into other languages.
  • Organize tables from left to right and ensure that they have clear headings, preferably for both columns and rows.
  • Avoid "cute" uses of quotation marks (like this example).
  • Do not use characters such as curly quotes and em-dashes that are platform-specific (for example, for Windows but not Macintosh or Unix). Unicode supports the characters of all the world's languages.

For more information, refer to the presentation and handouts listat the end of this article.

Converting Text

P.J. suggests using Notepad for small-scale text conversions. It removes platform-specific formatting and identifies special characters. It also displays the text in the order that a screen reader will read it. Ensure that the HTML order matches the reading order.

Side-by-side text can confuse users if the page contains multiple columns and the text is read across instead of down the columns, or if there are nested tables.

Do not use the "Save as HTML" features found in most Microsoft Office products. The code contains HTML syntax errors. It might be better to learn to read HTML and insert correct tags on plain text rather than having to remove Microsoft's bloated style information.

Web Coding for Accessibility

If you are responsible for supplying any HTML, follow W3C and Section 508 coding standards carefully and you will be well on the way to making your content accessible. If possible, use XHTML rather than HTML to code new pages or convert existing ones.

Use semantic markup: tags that identify the purpose of elements, not what they should look like.


How do you know when your content is accessible? You can use the accessibility testing tools, but it is also a good idea to test with people with disabilities, if possible. The ultimate goal is that people with disabilities and special access needs should be able to access as much information as anyone else.

More Accessibility Guidelines

See the Boston-IA Resources page and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for more information. You can also order a small card with 10 accessibility tips to to carry with you at Quick Tips to Make Accessible Web Sites.


  • Presentation Slides
  • Text-Alternative


  • Accessibility Testing
  • Special Characters
  • Modular XHTML
  • XHTML Cheat Sheet

Valerie Rushanan is a member of Boston-IA, the Society for Technical Communications (STC), BostonCHI, and International Society For Performance Improvement (ISPI). She is Principal ABREVE Analyst at ArchiText Inc. where she streamlines content destined for localization. She is also music director of the BossTunes, the STC Boston Chapter group of singing technical writers.

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