Hands up if you’d like more people to read your writing. I’m sure that’s most of you. You can put your hands down now. Who doesn’t want more readers? However, if you stop and think about my question, you might notice that it wasn’t particularly inclusive. Not everyone can raise their hand. That could be due to a permanent or temporary physical disability or a medical condition.
Accessibility is something many of us fail to consider, especially if we don’t experience accessibility issues on a daily basis. In 2016, I nearly lost the sight in one eye when I experienced the start of a retinal detachment. Thanks to the wonderful NHS, they saved my sight. But for the four months post-surgery, I struggled to look at computer screens, electronic devices, and even some printed books. You could say the experience was eye-opening.
It’s not until something like this happens that you think about others with similar conditions. Could we be doing more to make our work accessible? The more accessible our work is, the more readers we might attract.
Technology can help a little with some of this responsibility. During my temporary sight impairment, I found my eReader made things much easier because I could increase the text’s font size. Sometimes, I found listening to material more comfortable than struggling to read it.
Jeff Adams and Michele Lucchini are co-authors of Content for Everyone, (check out their blog at https://contentforeveryone.info/content-for-everyone-blog/) a practical guide to help writers make more of their work accessible. Both have a day job working for UsableNet, a company that helps businesses make their websites, apps, and other digital content more accessible. Jeff also writes romance and young adult fiction with queer characters. With the explosion in self-publishing in recent years, he realised many authors were excluding readers because they weren’t making their work as accessible as possible. Often, this is because we simply don’t know how.
‘Consider that around the world, between one-in-four and one-in-six people have some form of permanent disability—whether it’s a visual, auditory, cognitive, and/or a mobility impairment,’ says Michele. ‘If you add into that people who have a disability that’s temporary (perhaps a broken arm that restricts mobility), is situational (a glare across a screen), or episodic (a migraine), the number is considered to increase to as many as one-in-two people with some form of impairment in a given moment. That’s a lot of people (more than a billion worldwide) who might not be able to engage with your content if you’re not making it accessible.’
As co-author Jeff explains, a lot of the time, content isn’t accessible simply because we don’t consider this requirement, or believe we need to think about it.
‘It’s a matter of you don’t know what you don’t know. Talking about digital accessibility isn’t something that’s done enough in any industry, and it’s not something that’s widely taught in school for those taking design, or coding courses. It’s also not information the individual platforms authors use for their websites, emails, social media, or other platforms put in front of their users. It’s one of the reasons we wrote Content for Everyone, because I saw among fellow authors that so often content is not made accessible.’
It’s easy to become overwhelmed when we start thinking about accessibility, but as Michele suggests, making our work more accessible isn’t about doing everything. Nor do we have to do it all at once.
‘The first thing to do is learn what it means to create accessible content. We wrote Content for Everyone to help authors and creatives who have little technical skill, beyond working with the platforms they use, to be able to understand why they had to do this and how to do it.’
‘Some of the key areas are making sure that images have meaningful alternative text, use colours that meet colour contrast standards, always provide correctly edited transcripts for audio programs and captions for videos, that link text is meaningful and clear about where the link goes, and that fonts are easy to read.’
Meaningful link text is a great example of a simple step we can all take to make our websites more usable. A common accessibility error is to use a phrase like To buy my book, click here, where the phrase click here is the hyperlink to one of the many book-selling platforms. For people without any eyesight issues, they can see where to click to be taken to the right place on the internet.
People with visual difficulties may use a screen reader utility, which turns text into audio, and it reads out the content to the user. These say the text out loud, not the hyperlink, so “click here” is what the potential reader hears, not “amazon.co.uk” for example. If you have several of these on one webpage, perhaps one for each different book, to each of the various platforms, a user reliant upon a screen reader will struggle to know which hyperlink is right for them.
Whereas a hyperlink that reads Visit amazon.co.uk to buy my book in audio, large print, or ebook formats will be better understood by anyone reliant upon a screen reader.
Alt Text Advice
Similarly, alternative text is another simple step we can take to improve our work’s accessibility, without needing to learn any complicated skills. How many of us have uploaded a cover of our books when posting on social media, such as Twitter/X, or on our websites? When we upload images anywhere, it’s possible to add some additional text in the Alternative Text field, as part of the upload process. This text should describe the image.
Screen readers will draw upon this text when reaching an image. (And should the image ever fail to download to the webpage properly, it’s this alt text that is displayed on the screen, so everyone will see what should be there.)
For example, the front cover image of Peter Benchley’s famous novel, Jaws could have an alternative text description of A young woman is swimming breaststroke on the surface of the sea, while an open-mouthed, great white shark rises from the depths towards her.
Self-published authors are encouraged to collect readers’ email addresses to build a mailing list. A common way of capturing this data is to have a pop-up window appear on the screen. However, screen readers aren’t always aware that this pop-up has taken the screen’s focus, which means until the pop-up is acknowledged or dismissed, anyone using a screen reader will struggle to navigate any further with the website.
It’s daunting when we think about all the different accessibility issues people might have with our websites, social media posts, and even our emails. Making these changes could involve a lot of work. But don’t panic. Just being aware is a major step forward in itself.
‘Probably the simplest thing an author can do is to decide that they are going to take the steps to become increasingly accessible,’ says Michele. ‘That can start by realizing that the way that they interact with digital content is likely different from the way that someone else interacts.’
What’s great about Content for Everyone is that each chapter focuses on one accessibility aspect, and then explains how people will benefit from any changes you make, depending upon whether their impairment is visual, motor, or cognitive. Interestingly, everyone benefits from these small accessibility changes we make, not just those with impairments.
‘It’s important to know that you don’t have to do everything all at once,’ Michele reminds us. ‘In accessibility, the concept of “progress over perfection” is important. If you start learning and start implementing accessible content, you’re doing the right thing. You might only do it on content you create going forward. You may decide to update key pages on your website, like the home page and pages about your books, while leaving other pages, such as older blog posts, unchanged. Over time, as your knowledge increases and it becomes a habit to create accessible content, it will get easier.’
Artificial intelligence could make this easier for us in the future. But it’s still in its infancy.
‘AI is doing so many tasks these days,’ Jeff acknowledges. ‘Where accessibility is concerned, it’s still very early days, though. I have to believe that AI will be able to assist authors with making their work accessible, but I don’t believe that’s possible currently. Part of the problem that AI can have with this is that accessibility is often context driven.’
‘For example, if you consider alternative text for images, it’s rare that meaningful alternative text is the actual description of the image, but instead the text should be the information that someone needs based on the information that’s around it on the page. To that end, the same image might have different alternative text each time it appears on a site. This is a topic we are keeping up to date on, and we look forward to seeing what AI may do to help authors and creatives in their accessible content journey.’
Already, AI services from Google and Apple are making it easier for self-published authors to convert their eBooks into audiobooks at a much lower cost. Some platforms, like Medium.com, use AI to narrate their articles, without users needing separate screen reading software.
There’s still a need for traditional accessibility options, like large print books, which are popular with library borrowers who don’t have, or don’t like using, an eReader.
Ultimately, though, the more accessible our writing is, the more readers and fans we’re likely to have. So it’s in everyone’s interest to think about making all of our content more accessible. Surely, that’s a win-win situation all writers should be striving for, isn’t it?
How To Add ALT Text When Uploading Images To Social Media:
Content for Everyone by Jeff Adams and Michele Lucchini
Content for Everyone Blog: https://contentforeveryone.info/content-for-everyone-blog/
© Simon Whaley