This week, we investigate an aspect of accessibility that deserves more attention: writing.

Writing for accessibility

Five ways to craft more genuinely inclusive copy.

Natasha Velkova


Craft & Creativity

7 minute read

Fortunately and unfortunately, ‘accessibility’ has become a bit of a buzzword in the industry. While growing conversation around the term has led to a collective recognition that something needs to change to make communications more inclusive, many of us are simply well-meaning head nodders. That is, we don’t have the detailed understanding needed to action this change at a meaningful level.

In short
  • We need to push accessibility beyond buzzword status, particularly when it comes to writing.
  • Familiarise yourself with screen readers and other adaptive tech to understand the end goal of accessible writing.
  • Learn about techniques like writing descriptive links and creating a meaningful hierarchy.

This is where my journey through the volumes of Google to become a genuinely more inclusive writer began. Don’t get me wrong, I did attempt to locate legitimate courses on the topic for writers, but these were almost impossible to find. Coding for accessibility? Yes. Designing for accessibility? You bet. Then I stumbled on the following and knew I wasn’t alone:

‘Although content is such a big part of what makes an experience accessible or not, it’s often overlooked in the publishing process. People often become copywriters through fields like marketing or sales, where opportunities to learn about accessibility are scarce.’1 

But before digging into the detail of accessible writing, let’s start with the basics.

What is accessibility?

The overarching purpose of accessibility is to give all users the best experience regardless of limitations or disabilities2 – with ‘experience’ largely referring, but not limited to, the digital. Meaning that a vision-impaired person and someone with 20/20 eyesight should be able to draw equal meaning from your brand’s website, app or communication, no matter their ability - nor the adaptive technology with which they navigate it.

“While growing conversation around accessibility has led to a collective recognition that something needs to change, many of us are simply well-meaning head nodders.”

Why is accessibility so important?

As of 2022, roughly one in six Australians experience disability – equating to around 4.4 million people.3 This includes people experiencing anything from sensory disabilities like those impacting sight, hearing and speech, to psychosocial conditions impacting mental health, social function and behaviour.3 But accessible writing and design can assist more than just these groups.

Source: Inclusive – A Microsoft Design Toolkit.

Microsoft’s Persona Spectrum4 plots four categories of sensory challenges – touch, sight, hearing, and speech – across an axis of temporality ranging from conditions that are permanently experienced, to those that are situational only. An example of this is someone who has one arm (permanent), someone who has an injured arm (temporary), and someone who is a new parent and consistently holding their child (situational). By writing and designing for the permanent disability, you’re actually improving the experience of your content for more people than you might think.

Five ways to write more accessible copy

Before actioning anything covered here, it’s worthwhile familiarising yourself with how people with varying abilities might experience your content. While there are obvious limitations to doing this for every disability, watching videos of people using screen readers and other adaptive tech is a great way to situate your understanding of the tips I’ll cover.

1. Use plain language

To improve the experience of your content for people with a mental disability, those who use English as a second language, or just value simplicity (most of us), be sure to:

  • Avoid jargon and colloquial phrases
  • Keep metaphors to a minimum
  • Write in simple, short sentences.1,5    

To assist others who may experience a sensory disability like blindness:

  • Be explicit at functional touchpoints including error, sign-up, login or checkout pages6
  • Avoid verbs that could potentially exclude how different users navigate – like ‘tap’ and ‘click’.

This swimming school’s loading page shows the percentage complete followed by the words ‘Diving in soon…’. To someone listening via screen reader, the more conceptual language could prevent the page’s purpose and action from being immediately clear.

Source: Invision Inside Design.

2. Think top-down, left-right

Adaptive technologies like screen readers will usually read out page information in the order it appears, making it vital that you:

  • Put information that is essential to an action prior to it6
  • Use bulleted lists as information will not be interpreted across an axis5
  • Avoid directional language like ‘click the button below’.7    

To minimise frustration for screen reader users, Facebook places a small tool tip containing any input requirements before a text field, so they’re less likely to experience repeat rejection because of information they haven’t been told yet.    

Source: Invision Inside Design.

3. Create a meaningful hierarchy

Screen readers have the option to navigate a page via heading levels, tagged from 1-6 in terms of ‘importance’. This provides users with a blueprint of content that they can selectively navigate through based on need.5 For this reason, it’s best to:

  • Always use headlines and subheads to telegraph sections to 'chunk' sections of copy longer than 3-4 paragraphs
  • Ensure headlines and subheads accurately represent or summarise the information they’re attached to8
  • Avoid relying on font styles like bolding or italics to emphasise the importance of something, as these will not translate.5  
4. Write descriptive links

Like heading levels, the Links List tool used by screen readers enables users to toggle through all page links without needing to consume surrounding body copy, saving them significant amounts of time.5 Much like someone using their eyes to scan a page for relevant CTAs. For this reason, it’s important to:

  • Write links that clearly describe what a user can expect to find when they select them5
  • Avoid call-to-actions or descriptors that lack context like ‘click here’, ‘read more’ or ‘this link’4
  • Label links driving to the same location consistently
  • Use shorter vanity URLs whenever possible, as these are often read out by screen readers one letter at a time5.
5. Write alt copy for imagery

Great creative can often rely on the relationship between copy and design to convey meaning, but it’s much harder to achieve when writing for accessibility – and can even result in meaning being lost. To make the most of visual elements for all users:

  • Use alternative text to describe imagery that supports your story or message7
  • Avoid writing alt text for decorative elements to spare screen readers listening time5,6,9
  • Don’t start descriptions with ‘Image of’ or ‘Picture of’9
  • Don’t forget infographics and icons, as well as relaying where they’ll take you if selected.5,7,9

Your choice of alt text can drastically impact meaning. Here is an image of two people in a stadium. As alt text, this description would provide little context or justification for the image’s inclusion. However, if this image appeared in an article on running try-outs, I might choose to label it as ‘Empty stadium with two runners bounding up the stairs’ – or for a renovation announcement: ‘Stadium with cracked concrete pillars’.9

Source: Harvard Digital Accessibility.

As evidenced here, writing for accessibility takes thought, but can improve the experience of your content for millions of people. Beyond being more ethical, the inclusivity it supports can translate to added growth for your business by significantly extending your customer base.

While most examples offered here have related to sensory disabilities, if you’re keen to understand how accessible design can help users experiencing mental illness, be sure to check out our article on mindful UX design created in collaboration Batyr.

on Instagram’s accessibility
Instagram’s shift to a video-first platform is making it a less accessible platform for some users. Take captions; they can be filled with errors or entirely absent, affecting D/deaf or blind people. Creating accessible video-first platforms means accessibility must be a key consideration in the design process, rather than a later addition.

Written by Natasha Velkova, editing by Adelaide Anderson, 52 Words by Abby Clark, key visual by Alice Guo, page built by Alice Guo & Adelaide Anderson.
  1. Avo Agency, 5 Tips for Accessible Copywriting (7 September 2020).
  2. Shawn Lawton Henry, Introduction to Web Accessibility (31 March 2022), W3C WAI.
  3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, People with disability in Australia (5 July 2022), Australian Government.
  4. Microsoft Design, Inclusive 101 Toolkit (2016), Microsoft.
  5. Blackboard, Write Accessible Content (2022), Anthology Inc.
  6. Rotem Binheim and Kinneret Yifrah, 7 guidelines for writing accessible microcopy (14 November 2018), Invision.
  7. Mailchimp Content Style Guide, Writing for Accessibility (2022), Mailchimp.
  8. Kevin White, Shadi Abou-Zahra and Shawn Lawton Henry, Writing for Web Accessibility [NV1] (5 August 2022), W3C WAI. 
  9. Harvard University, Write good Alt Text to describe images (date unknown).
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