Accessibility Matters: How to make your work more accessible

To me, one of the biggest frustrations in doing research is that it is usually very poorly communicated, both in how/where/to whom it is communicated (i.e. academic jargon in a niche paywalled journal – if it’s even published at all), and in the manner and style it is communicated (i.e. in a format that others can’t access).

This means a couple of different things. The first is that you end up inadvertently replicating someone’s work because you didn’t know it has been done already. The second is that to build on your research you generally need to prove there’s a need. Your prior research already proved that, but to apply for funding or let your participants know, you need to be able to communicate it. Additionally, we arguably have an ethical responsibility to communicate our research the best that we can. After all, we didn’t do the research alone; so why should we be the sole beneficiary of it (Taylor)?

This blog post will focus on the first issue of communicating your research – making it accessible.

Icon representing impairments to vision, hearing, cognitive function, and motor function.

Wikipedia defines web accessibility as ‘the inclusive practice of ensuring there are no barriers that prevent interaction with, or access to, websites on the World Wide Web by people with physical disabilities, situational disabilities, and socio-economic restrictions on bandwidth and speed. When sites are correctly designed, developed and edited, generally all users have equal access to information and functionality.’

This covers aspects such as:

  • Visual – including blindness, low vision, colour blindness
  • Motor/mobility – difficulty or inability to use the hands
  • Auditory – Deafness
  • Seizures – photo epileptic seizures by visual strobe or flashing effects
  • Cognitive and intellectual – developmental disabilities, learning difficulties, and cognitive disabilities

One of the hats I wear is as the Graduate Research School’s Health, Safety, and Wellbeing Coordinator, so I spend a lot of time thinking about these and trying to find good ways to make things accessible. Let’s work through some ways that you could work on these in your work online (how you get it online is a whole other blogpost!) or in PowerPoint presentations. We’ll start with a couple of the simplest solutions for publications or data gathering (e.g. online survey).

All of this also applies if you are doing online data collection (e.g. a survey). In the case of surveys, you will also need to ensure that users can navigate the form and content without having to use a mouse. Most online survey and data collection tools allow you to specify how this is to be done, and the order in which fields appear (moving from one field to another is usually done by using tab or enter).

Any audio element in your research should have a text equivalent. So this means transcripts for audio files, captions for videos, and descriptions of anything not already covered. This will allow Deaf people to still be able to engage with your work. It also works for anyone in an open plan area!

If you have elements in your work that move or change, ensure that they don’t visually strobe or release flashing effects. Ever since the problematic cartoon videos in the 1990s we’ve seen less of these, but it’s worth taking into consideration.

If you are providing things that people need to click on, make links as big and clear as possible. Consider making the link a different colour, making it more than a single word, and away from other links. A large image is a good source for a link. A good rule of thumb is to try to see if you can click on the link using your non-dominant hand from your cellphone. It’s a smaller surface area, and your motor skills in your non-dominant hand are usually less refined (shout out to all the musicians out there!).

If you include images and figures, include alt text for each one. In PowerPoint, there’s an option for this, which means that if someone is viewing your document and using the Microsoft Speak or Read Aloud tools, a description of the image will be read to them. You can ask it to autogenerate a description, but I generally find these aren’t the most helpful. This isn’t just the caption copied and pasted by the way, it needs to be helpful and explanative. There is also an option to specify that an object is decorative only and not essential to the rest of the content.

Alt text also provides a description of the image should it fail to load. Below is such an example! If alt text wasn’t provided, it would probably say something like: “image20200324_file_final_final_4_for_web” which is helpful for exactly no-one.

An image of how alt text could describe a photo of a green plant.

Choose your colours carefully. Colour blindness doesn’t affect all people the same, and different people are affected by different colours. The rule of thumb is to ensure that text stands out against the background. Usually this means a dark colour against a light one, and making sure they don’t bleed into each other (however, this doesn’t mean pure black (#000000) on pure white (#FFFFFF) because many people are sensitive to stark contrasts, think dark grey against off-white – you’ll notice ThesisLink isn’t black on white!). [1]

There are plenty of online tools for finding and testing colour combos. WebAIM has one, and Contrast Checker is pretty cool because it gives you a score in real-time. It also enables you to switch to monochrome to get a rough idea of how effective any given combination is. This also applies to your figures and graphs. For the love of all things, no matter how tempting it is, don’t make all your graphic elements 50 different shades of grey (ha) – they’ll just morph into one. If using Microsoft, they have a range of palettes with varying colours.

One of the last things that we can do (which we can also do when communicating our research on paper) is to think about the font used, spacing and kerning, and font size. Spacing and kerning are the process of adjusting the spacing between characters. You can adjust this manually in software like Microsoft Word to make text easier to read. Font size can also contribute. Online you can use a scalable font (most are these days) that will allow readers to zoom the page to suit their visual requirements without distortion. When printing physically, you may wish to move away from the standard 11 pt used, and consider something like a 12 or 14. If you’ve ever seen a photograph of a politician presenting at a press conference, you’ll see their notes are generally in a huge font. This allows for maximum readability while under stress. [2]

Font choice itself is also important. Scientists appear to be at odds over whether serif or sans serif fonts are the best for readability. The major message appears to be that sans serif are best for screens, and serif best for text. Dyslexic fonts are ones that have slight weightings and thicknesses to help you visually decipher a letter, and help people with dyslexia to comprehend your message quicker and easier. Around 10% of people have dyslexia, so this is very much worth checking out. According to a 2013 study, the best fonts that are commonly available are Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana, and Computer Modern Uni-code (Rello and Baeza-Yates). However, also available is an open font called OpenDyslexic, which is available for download and use.


Footnotes

[1] A friend of mine at high school used to wear pastel yellow glasses in class. These made the white paper appear yellow, reducing the contrast between the text and the background, making it easier for her to read text. We have much more control, however, so don’t need to force our readers to wear glasses just to understand our writing!

[2] There is a very good recent image that’s been shared but I haven’t shared it here due to the xenophobic nature of that politician’s speech.


References

Rello, Luz, and Ricardo Baeza-Yates. Good Fonts for Dyslexia. Proceedings of the 15th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on computers and accessibility, 2013.

Taylor, Jeremy. “Reporting Research Findings to Participants is an Ethical Imperative.” British Medical Journal 367 (2019): l6324. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6324.

About Scott Pilkington

Scott is a Postgraduate Coordinator and Health, Safety & Wellbeing rep at the Graduate Research School. His hobbies include museums, campanology, history, anthropology, cats, dance, fibre crafts, science communication, and gin. He’s a graduate of University of Auckland, University of Otago, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, and of course AUT. His current research projects include how we use museums to communicate science, and the form and function of doctoral academic dress at New Zealand universities. Past research includes the Albert Park tunnels, taphonomy of burnt human skeletal remains, and the sex-politics-law dynamics of 13th C England. He is weirdly passionate about palaeoecology and urban spaces. He uses the pronouns he/him. You can often see him at GRS events being our resident photographer.

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