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Accessible Documentation

August 8, 2016

Accessibility is the ability to do things differently! As the world moves toward assistive technology, one principle that has gained prominence is accessibility. With billions of users taking advantage of technology, it is imperative that technology be accessible to all. This is the basic idea from which the concept of accessibility has originated and the reason why assistive technology is gaining prominence.

Accessibility refers to the idea of creating a product with the intention that people with various disabilities can use it. The term disability encompasses different kinds of impairments that arise from physical, cognitive, visual, auditory, and neurological challenges. The American Psychological Association defines disability as a “functional limitation that affects an individual’s ability to perform certain functions.” Technology can play a huge role in helping people to overcome their disabilities to a great extent. Accessibility strives to make information and technology usable for disabled users.

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Regulations

With the continuous growth of information and assistive technologies, nations across the world are focusing on accessibility issues and are encouraging the implementation of accessibility through legislation. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for Accessible Design states that all forms of information technology must be accessible to people with disabilities. In addition, section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 aims to provide opportunities for all people to use the Internet. Other countries like the UK, Sweden, Japan, and Norway have taken positive steps to legislate accessibility in an attempt to make technology accessible to all. In fact, reference materials are available that help federal agencies to determine whether a product or service is complaint with accessibility standards—for example, the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) in the United States. Private-sector companies can also utilize such helpful resources in evaluating the accessibility of their products.

Accessibility Tools

Today, we have advanced assistive tools that aid people with disabilities in using technology comfortably and optimally. Some popular and effective accessibility tools and devices include the following:

  • screen readers—These advanced accessibility programs for the visually impaired are built into computing systems. They convert the text that appears on a computer display into voice output, Braille, or audio signals. A screen reader can detect and read all kinds of text on a computer screen—for example, text in dialog boxes, values in text boxes and lists, icon labels, and commands on menus.
  • text-to-speech features—Most word-processing software provides a text-to-speech feature to facilitate accessibility. This software converts text to speech, reading the text to the user using a speech synthesizer. Text-to-speech features are very helpful to users who are visually impaired.
  • closed captioning—This capability provides a text view of the audio portion of a video or of a sound clip. It helps users with hearing impairments and can provide translations.
  • chart-retrieval systems—Users with motor disabilities can use such systems to enter a message by selecting words from the choices that are presented in a chart.
  • mouth sticks—These revolutionary accessibility devices enable users with physical disabilities to control computer input using a stick that is placed in the mouth. A blow suck tube is a form of mouth stick and can be used along with a tongue-activated joystick to move a pointer.
  • chording keyboards—These advanced devices let users push multiple keys simultaneously in different patterns to type text or issue commands. In fact, they allow users to type faster than conventional keyboards do.
  • sticky keys—This assistive feature lets users apply modifier keys such as the Shift, Control, Command, and Alt or Option keys to the next keystroke.
  • reminder systems—These common systems alert users about important events.

In addition to these tools, there are quite a few other assistive tools that help users who have repetitive-stress injuries such as cumulative-trauma disorder or carpal-tunnel syndrome. Such tools include dictation systems.

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The Need for Accessible Documentation

Documentation is an important channel for effectively imparting information to users, but people with disabilities face challenges in accessing it. In an endeavor to promote maximum reach for and receptivity to documentation, organizations are putting much importance on its accessibility, so users with disabilities can also benefit from the documentation.

Make Documentation Easy to Read

First, documentation should be easy to read. It is always advisable to use plain, simple language that communicates clearly.

  • Avoid indicating directions in instructions or language that may require the user to see the design or layout of a page or screen.
  • Avoid using jargon or providing unnecessary detail.
  • Keep your sentences concise. Avoid writing run-on sentences that require overly complex punctuation.
  • If you are writing for users with learning disabilities, use digits instead of spelling out numbers—for example, use 3 instead of three.

Present Information with Clarity

The way in which we present information is an important factor in making our documentation accessible. Always ensure that your page layout and typefaces are easy to perceive and understand.

  • Whenever possible, use a larger typeface, because this helps people with learning and vision impairments. Ideally, a print typeface should be a minimum of 12 points. Also, use clear fonts such as Arial or Times New Roman. Animated or fancy display fonts usually don’t comply with accessibility standards.
  • Avoid using all capital letters, italics, or block text unless absolutely necessary. Use title case for titles and subheadings; sentence case for paragraphs. Highlight important points with boldface type.
  • Structure your documentation well. Use subheadings to differentiate sections, and break the text into short, logical chunks that are separated by considerable whitespace.
  • Whenever possible, use bullet points to make your individual points clear, instead of long or highly stylized sentences.
  • Use descriptive link text that provides information about their destination. Do not use ambiguous phrases such as Learn more or Click here.
  • Try to use the larger A3 page format, because it enables you to use larger fonts and images.

Use Supporting Images

Supporting simple language with easy-to-understand images is one of the best ways to make your documentation attractive and accessible.

  • Ensure that you use high-contrast themes with good value contrast between the background and font colors. Dim font colors are very difficult to read for people who have low vision, which impairs their ability to read.
  • Choose images, photos, or symbols that best explain the text. Do not use ambiguous or stylized images that are difficult to comprehend.
  • Do not use complex symbols that might confuse users. If necessary, use easy-to-understand symbols.
  • Include alt text for all images on the Web. This is easy to do and provides a basic description of each image to the visually impaired. The descriptions should be short and must clearly define the purpose of each image.

Employ Assistive Features and Tools

Implementing assistive features and tools is essential to making your documentation accessible.

  • In addition to writing documents, try recording demonstrations, the minutes of meetings, or important events as video or audio. Such recordings can be very useful for users with learning disabilities or, in the latter case, those with vision impairments.
  • Provide adequate accessibility tools such as screen readers and joy sticks for disabled users whenever they are taking part in any discussion. They are helpful for any users who cannot use technology or access information in the best possible manner. It is important to keep accessibility in mind whenever you impart information.

Summary

Ultimately, users’ preferences matter most when choosing any form of assistive technology. Accessibility plays a key role in enhancing people’s experience of technology. However, it is very difficult to fully meet accessibility standards. Whether you are writing documentation, creating any form of user assistance, or presenting information, implementing at least basic accessibility factors can go a long way toward ensuring that anyone and everyone can avail themselves of your content. 

References

MailChimp. “Writing for Accessibility.” MailChimp Content Style Guide, undated. Retrieved June 6, 2016.

Interactive Accessibility. “ADA Compliance.” Interactive Accessibility, undated. Retrieved June 6, 2016.

Wikipedia. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.” Wikipedia, undated. Retrieved June 6, 2016.

508Checker. “What Is 508 Compliance?508Checker, undated. Retrieved June 6, 2016.

WebAIM. “Writing Clearly and Simply.” WebAIM, undated. Retrieved June 6, 2016.

Associate at Cognizant Technology Solutions

Calcutta, West Bengal, India

Abhishek GangulyAbhishek has over seven years of experience as a technical writer, working in domains such as retail, banking and financial services, manufacturing and logistics, and healthcare. He has a Bachelor’s degree in English from Kolkata University and a post-graduate degree in mass communications from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.  Read More

Sr. Technical Writer at ServiceNow

Hyderabad, India

Samiksha ChaudhuriWith more than ten years of experience in the field of technical communication, Samiksha has developed a wide range of product documentation, including user’s guides, online Help systems, API guides, simulations, and process models. She has developed content for various business domains, including telecommunications, media and entertainment, banking and financial services, information technology (IT), and healthcare. Samiksha holds a Master’s degree in Computer Science.  Read More

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