What being accessible means
I'd like to share a couple of principles that will help you be more accessible. Being more accessible means:
- Your message reaches more people.
- People feel more welcomed, their needs are met without them (always) needing to ask
First to set the scene, I want to talk about Us and Them. The idea that there is Us and there is Them.
Us and Them
Us, the people doing these professional roles. We create systems, interfaces, content and digital and printed materials.
Them, are the people who may use these materials. Some of them will have access needs. If they tell us about their access needs we may be able to accommodate them. The rest of them meet one size fits all. And one size fits all is one size fits nobody.
So why Us?
I’ve realised over the years that this is one of the big blockers to creating more accessible systems. People don’t realise it’s not Us and Them, it’s only Us. Access needs are part of so many people. You or you when you’re a bit older, your colleagues, your boss and your family. There is no dividing line.
So why is it only us, why is there no them?
Disability rates are high
UK government statistics  from 2021/22 tell us that 24% of the UK population have a disability. 24% is 16 million people.
Many disabilities or access needs are hidden. You may not know someone had a disability or access need unless they choose to tell you.
Using the word disability
There is a move away from the term disability. It actually means not-able so it’s not surprising some people don’t want to use it. Now people often use the term neurodiversity to describe cognitive diversity. Neurodiversity can include a lot of different conditions. Some people have reclaimed the word disability as well. It’s very much personal choice how people choose to describe themselves.
Sharing information about a disability
People may not wish to share information about their disability. This is with good reason, disclosing a disability can stop people getting jobs or promotions.
Scope’s guidance on Recruiting, managing and developing people with a disability or health condition  and Disclosing disability to an employer  go into more detail.
Not being aware of a disability
People may not know they have a disability. 30 or 40 years ago there wasn’t the same understanding of access needs in schools. Children who had ADHD, Dyslexia and autism were often not identified. As a result, these children were often not given the support they needed to do well in school. This still happens sometimes but schools have progressed a lot in identifying and supporting children. Those undiagnosed children from 30 or 40 years ago are your colleagues, friends, family, or you.
Not identifying as having a disability
Some people may not identify as having a disability. This might be a particular mind-set. The Deaf community may describe themselves as a cultural and linguistic minority. Older people may not think of themselves as disabled either. We are only disabled if we don’t have the access we need.
Don’t wait to be asked about access
Hopefully you’re convinced now that there is no Us and Them. Access needs can apply to anyone. It makes it easier for everyone if we make everything we do more accessible. This means people don’t always need to ask for things. Asking can be uncomfortable. This way people who don’t know they have an access need or don’t want to share that information get what they need.
The first two principles
Make everything bigger
I try and make all printed materials font size 16pt or at least 14pt.
For training, workshops and research always have a few larger print copies of materials. I tend to go for font size 22pt. If you print the large print landscape it looks better.
If you are creating online materials you still need to make text larger.
- A lot of people with lower digital skills don’t know how to do things like increase font size.
- And why should people have to follow an extra step to make things readable?
The GOV.UK Design System team are changing their typography (font) scale not to be less than 16px. This is a good standard which Owen Jones explains well in his blog Making the GOV.UK Frontend typography scale more accessible .
Research into online readability . showed that readability increased with font size. All 104 participants in this study were described as having ‘normal or correction to normal vision’.
By the time people get to their 50’s smaller print starts becoming an issue.
Those of us with reading glasses often seem to misplace them. Having something bigger means more people can read it straight away.
Supporting more concise writing
Having a larger font/text size can make you write more concisely which brings us on to the next principle.
Make everything simpler
English can be complex
I love English, it’s a wonderful language, ornate, fluid and inventive. We have so many words for everything. This is the benefit of having grown our language from so many different language roots. But that vast choice and diversity of language is part of the problem. It’s so easy to decorate our sentences with all these fancy words. More often than not, these extra words don’t help us understand what someone means. Still easier said than done. I’ve been working on making my language more accessible for over 25 years and I’m still working on it. So how do you get started?
Lose the complicated words
If you like to use long words think of simpler ones. Sometimes it’s obvious how to say something in a simpler way, sometimes it isn’t. You can use an online thesaurus to find alternatives.
- Don’t ‘extricate yourself from a difficult situation’. Instead ‘get out of a difficult situation’.
- Don’t be ‘temporarily rendered inarticulate’ but ‘lose the power of speech’.
The average reading age in the UK is 9 years old. If you want to know how readable something is, ask your 8 or 9 year old to read it. Get them to underline all the words they don’t understand. Sarah Longfield assures us you can pay your children in cake as long as it’s part of a healthy balanced diet.
Lose the adverbs
Adverbs are the decorative words we sprinkle on everything, often for emphasis. Don’t say ‘It was very good’ but ‘It was good’. Change ‘That was really interesting’ to ‘That was interesting’.
Stick with one subject for each sentence
When you have more than one subject in a sentence you run the risk of people missing some of your meaning.
- For example: ‘The dog chased the deer through the woods and got lost in bracken, he couldn’t find his way back and we had to go out searching.’
To improve the readability, break up this sentence with a full stop.
‘The dog chased the deer through the woods and got lost in bracken. He couldn’t find his way back and we had to go out searching.
Omit needless words
From The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. The basic principle of omitting needless words will improve readability. Read through your text. Is there anything in there that doesn’t provide meaning or value? If so get rid of it.
Further steps for accessible content
There are also a lot of apps that you can use for making your writing clearer. You can start by googling ‘apps for making your writing clearer’. I like the Hemingway app  and use it a lot but it won’t be accessible to everyone.
I hope this blog has given you a few ideas to make your content more accessible. There is lots more you can do to create accessible content but text size and simplifying your language are a great place to start. Do you have any other suggestions?
by Judith Fellowes, January 2024
- Source: UK disability statistics: Prevalence and life experiences https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9602/CBP-9602.pdf
- Recruiting, managing and developing people with a disability or health condition A practical guide for line managers https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5fbe437b8fa8f559e0e5cc61/disability-confident-line-managers-guide.pdf
- Disclosing disability to an employer https://www.scope.org.uk/advice-and-support/disclosing-disability-to-an-employer/
- Making the GOV.UK Frontend typography scale more accessible https://designnotes.blog.gov.uk/2022/12/12/making-the-gov-uk-frontend-typography-scale-more-accessible/
- Make It Big! The Effect of Font Size and Line Spacing on Online Readability. https://pielot.org/pubs/Rello2016-Fontsize.pdf
- Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, 1935 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style
- Plain English Campaign https://www.plainenglish.co.uk
- The A-Z of alternative words https://www.plainenglish.co.uk/files/alternative.pdf
- The Hemingway App https://hemingwayapp.com