Creating Accessible Web Content

April Speaker Night by Emily Stewart

Understanding audience is essential in editing. It helps us make decisions about word choices, sentence and paragraph lengths, formatting, and more.  Not all people access information on the web in the same way. To introduce us to ways we can make web content more accessible to disabled users, David MacDonald joined us for our April speaker night.

David is president of CanAdapt and a sixteen-year veteran of the WCAG working group, an international initiative. . He was also the WCAG consultant to the Government of Canada for the Accessible Canada Act (Bill C-81). It was exciting to have someone with so much knowledge share it with us.

What Is WCAG?

WCAG is an International standard for web accessibility to help ensure that disabled users can access and understand web information. WCAG considers the ways assistive technologies such as screen readers, interpret web content and ensures that alternative methods of gaining information are available for those who need them (text instead of images, captions instead of audio on a video etc.).

WCAG 2.0, the latest version of WCAG, has thirteen guidelines under four principles:

  1. Perceivable
  2. Operable
  3. Understandable
  4. Robust

David described the guideline (WCAG), implemented in many countries, as one of the most successful standards in history. Canada’s accessibility laws (Bill C-81 and AODA) refer to WCAG. Editors, especially those working with the government, should have some knowledge of these guidelines when working on web content that is required to comply with these laws.

WCAG and Editors

WCAG success criteria, especially those at the A and AA level, are meant to be implemented by web developers and have more to do with the way a web page is coded than the actual words on the page.

Web writers and editors often have more control over the AAA level, which is the highest level and isn’t required by law because the criteria are the hardest to test. For example, readability. In English, we test readability by looking at sentence and word length—a contested method in itself—but sentence and word lengths can change dramatically when translated.

Even though editors may have little control over web page coding and may not be required to implement some of WCAG’s success criteria by law, web accessibility widens the audience of your web content and demonstrates regard for inclusivity.

What Should Editors Look For?

Headings and Titles

Titles and headings break up content into more digestible sections and help users navigate web content. It’s important that headings describe the content that appears under them. They should also be in order.

Page titles should show the topic first, so screen readers don’t have to hear information repeatedly. For example, David said, a page on a University of Ottawa webpage about engineering should be titled “Engineering-uOttawa,” not “uOttawa-Engineering,” because a user probably already knows they’re on the uOttawa website and won’t want to hear “uOttawa” every time they switch pages.


Unusual terms or abbreviations should be defined. This can be as simple as following style guide recommendations to use full terms with abbreviations in parenthesis for first appearance of said abbreviation. Another option is to include a glossary.

Alt Text

Any images that convey information must include alternative text. This text is what a screen reader will read, and it should serve the same purpose as the image itself. David said that when writing alt text, you should ask yourself how you would explain the image to a blind person sitting beside you.

Link Text

Link text should be informative. Text that describes the link’s destination is better than text that doesn’t give any indication of where a link goes, like “click here.”

Audio and Captions

Audio content should be captioned so that d/Deaf or hard of hearing folks can access the information. David advised that captions should not only include all dialogue, but also any relevant descriptions. They should be written like screenplays.

Descriptive Audio

Descriptive audio is another option for making content more accessible for blind or low vision people. David described descriptive audio as an art form, as it requires making decisions on what information is relevant and fitting those descriptions in-between dialogue.

More Information

The information I have included here is by no means exhaustive (speaker night is only so long!). I If you work with web content regularly, you may want to check out these resources.

Finally, I’ll wrap up the same way we did last Wednesday, with the WCAG theme song, written and performed by David himself.


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