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Describing Document Text For Accessibility

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Tim Roberts

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User since: 18 Aug 2002

Articles written: 3

A key focus of accessible web site design is providing equivalent

alternatives to auditory and visual content. This is normally the task of providing

alternative text for images, sounds and any client-side scripts that appear

in the content. One of the reasons for this focus is to assist screen-reading

software to render the content in a coherent format. This enables a variety

of users who cannot rely on visual presentation alone, better access to the

content of your site.

However, because it is generally assumed that the raw text in a web document

literally speaks for itself, it is often overlooked in accessibility checks.

Although it is not dangerous to assume your text will be fine, it is worthwhile

going the extra mile and adding a few behind the scenes touches that will enhance

your site's accessibility.

The Document Title

The title tag in HTML, is often not used to its full capability. A well implemented document title not only adds to its accessibility, but also the usability and promotion of the site. A good format for a document title is:

Site Name: A tag line about your site.

The first thing a screen-reader often does is read aloud the document title. Using

special symbols, a meaningless combination of characters to create a pretty

title bar or writing something abstract can only serve to confuse the user.

A good yet simple tag line also helps the user identify your document purpose.

Tell people what your document (or site) is about clearly and concisely.

A site title should also begin with the name of your site. When your site is book

marked it is added to the users list alphabetically. If your title begins with

the actual name of your site, a user will be able to locate by scanning a list

of bookmarks much quicker. It also helps to instill your identity. Avoid using

words such as "Welcome to" or "The". Look at The MSN site for an example of

a bad title (MSN filed under "W").

Document Language

Defining the natural language of a document is a requirement of WAI

AAA compliance. The html tag can take a lang attribute which defines

the main language of the document. The attribute value takes the value of a

two letter language code. Here is an example of a document declared as English


<html lang="EN">

There are several reasons for specifying the language of a document, but from

an accessibility view it assists speech software in accent and pronunciation

of the document. A document's natural language may also change momentarily,

and because of this the lang attribute is also available for just

about all elements in HTML4.0

/ XHTML1.0

tags. An example of a change in a document's language could be a quote (use

the lang attribute in the blockquote) or a more common

incidence would be the use of a foreign phrase that has crept into the english

language like so:

So I said to her, "<span lang="FR">C'est la vie<span>".

Comprehensive list of ISO 639 language codes.

Dealing with Acronyms and Abbreviations.

Acronyms and abbreviations can create problems for a screen reader's pronunciation,

dyslexics and anybody who hasn't got clue what they stand for. When they released

HTML4.0, the W3 Consortium

sought to remedy this with the introduction of special and ingeniously named

acronym and abbr tags. These tags are used along with

the title attribute:

<acronym title="Automobile Association">AA<acronym>

<abbr title="Constant">Const.<abbr>

If you are using Internet Explorer, hold your mouse cursor over the following

acronym to see the meaning manifested: WAI.

You can also try it on other acronyms that appear throughout this page. To a

screen reader, the letters would be ignored and the whole meaning would be read


A Final Word: On Words.

As with most of the things you need to describe in your web documents, try to keep your writing as crisp and concise as possible. Read your document out aloud and note how it flows, or even better test it with a screen-reader browser such as pwWebSpeak, or IBM's Home Page Reader.

However, don't stifle your style. If your document is meant to be creatively verbose, then so be it. Take notice of other styles on the web. Note the differences between news sites, web-logs, technical articles or whatever you read. Note what makes them difficult to understand and what makes them better. To a disabled person, little details like these can make all the difference.

Writing is a very personal thing and can only be cultivated with practice,

but most of the things I have written about in this article can enhance the

accessibility of any type of textual content.

Tim Roberts runs a personal site devoted to accessible web design and other day to day issues called WiseGuysOnly.

He is originally from the rainy North of England, but now lives under the Sunshine of Spain's Costa del Sol. In his spare time he works as Senior Developer for Reliant Webs, looks at the stars and watches lots of videos.

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