In January, Intercom–the magazine for the Society for Technical Communication—provided an excellent issue on all things web content accessibility, including articles on “Accessibility 101 for Technical Writers,” “Captioning Videos on YouTube,”and an “Alternative to Universal Design in Mainstream Video Games.”
Minor Accommodations, Major Impact
The article made me recall a few contracts back, when I was working as a technical writer, in a government setting. For the first time in my fifteen-year career, due to government mandates, an accessibility check was a required part of the documentation’s production process.
At the time, I remember being surprised at how relatively painless most of the accessibility guidelines were to implement—simple changes at the markup level, including alt tags, page titles, headings, and lists, which were only time-consuming if they had to be revised globally, as opposed to correctly implementing them the first time.
For print documents, I implemented these additional accessibility guidelines: providing alt text for embedded images, making sure to include an alternative format (.txt, .doc, or .xsl) for PDFs, keeping file sizes down to less than 5 megabytes, and adding electronic titles to Microsoft Office documents.
Whether for print or online documentation, I learned the cardinal rule of accessibility: Content needs structure.
Optimizing our Process
Some of the accessibility principles were not so straightforward, especially structuring content. However, information design is part of many technical writers’ standard practice. Others were not difficult to incorporate into my writing routine, once they had been pointed out to me.
Given how much of an impact these relatively minor accommodations can make for a more accessible Web–and how a simple style sheet could remind writers to more seamlessly incorporate many accessibility best practices across their content–it seems almost impossible to me, that this government contract was one of the few times I have formally encountered best practices for web content accessibility.
Convergence: Web Content Accessibility and the Mobile Web
With the rise of the mobile web, we may finally see more mainstream settings start addressing accessibility. As it turns out, what’s good for designing for people with disabilities is also good for designing mobile content. (For more on these best practices and for resources on web content accessibility, stay on the lookout next week, for Part II of this post.)
Questions and a Call to Action
In the meantime, for technical writers especially, how much has web content accessibility been a part of your job? How does accessibility apply to user assistance and structured authoring?
And I’d like to conclude here, with a call to action mainly to myself, to do a better job incorporating alt tags for the images, in my blog posts, especially the retroactive ones, where I wasn’t following the practice. In the end, accessibility is about taking the time to do the little things–many times also the right things (both for our disabled users, and in the case of mobile content, our bottom lines)–consistently.