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An Accessible Internet: How Web Users with Sensory Impairments Experience Digital Content

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Before you continue to read this article, let’s try a brief exercise. Choose one sense that you use to interact with the Internet—take your hand off your phone or mouse, maybe close your eyes—and try to devise a way to finish this article. This might be more or less difficult depending on which sense you chose, but no matter the case, it is likely difficult. And for the many web users with sensory or physical impairments, difficulties accessing content aren’t a matter of choice.

I remember once, when I first started creating content, being told by a marketer that I should just fill alt text fields on images with the piece’s keywords. “Not like anyone other than a Google spider is ever going to read it.” Sadly, it was a habit that was marked all my early content, up until a kind but pointed email from an editor reminded me: “There are devices that have to read this stuff, even if their Internet is working just fine.”

This was a sobering moment in my career, but one that also sparked some curiosity. How could I be sure I was making the best content possible if I wasn’t certain it could be fully experienced by any member of my audience? To answers these questions, I dove into some of the amazing tech that’s helping all users enjoy the Internet today—and took a chance on seeing the Internet in a new way.

Image of a woman on a beach with a blindfold being blown around her head.

Image attribution: Oscar Keys

The Wonders and Limits of New Tech

Thankfully, the world is full of brilliant and empathetic engineers who have been tackling accessible content issues for some time, and the solutions they’re able to devise are keeping the Internet moving in a fully functioning and inclusive direction.

Some solutions haven’t required too much lift, except to think about the Internet from a slightly different perspective. In these cases, we’ve seen a rise in software solutions that help users interpret web content.

Perhaps the most familiar development in this arena has been YouTube’s seven-year-old auto-captioning feature, which aimed to bridge the gap between the small population of properly captioned content and YouTube’s larger library. The scale of the problem (more than 300 hours of content uploaded every minute!) continues to slightly outstrip Google’s ability to generate accurate captions—and in this we have a rather good depiction of the ongoing race for accessibility that necessarily leaves innovators a reactive fraction of a step behind.

For brands that create video content, this presents a clear and easy path to making content more accessible: Upload a custom-built caption file on all video content. This is an easy step that benefits everyone involved—users have access to clear and accurate subtitles, while the brand can avoid embarrassing snafus with auto captions and reap the benefits of increased search visibility on YouTube.

Moving from audible accessibility to visual, screen-reading continues to be the central practice by which visually impaired users are given access to web content. The premise is simple: Shouldn’t conveying information from a web page be as simple as creating software that reads the page back to users? Seems simple enough.

This is a space in which content accessibility requirements can seem low due to the sophistication of the tech available today. From a slew of free screen reading solutions available for desktop users, to the accessibility features that were designed into iPhones from the start, to incredible hardware that is able to turn page content into physical braille for users to read, it can seem like a solved issue for content creators—no additional action needed here.

But as the web continues to develop into an ever more multimedia-driven space, screen-reading becomes a more complex ordeal. Text on a page is simple, but what about an infographic that’s embedded as an image, text hidden behind interactive elements, or gifs and animations that don’t utilize sound?

Image of a laptop with crumpled sticky notes around it in frustration.

For content marketers, this presents an opportunity to make accessible content without too much work. These tactics can help you overcome screen-reading challenges, as well as make your site more accessible as a whole.

Make Information (Somewhat) Redundant

Tools like images, infographics, animations, and more can all help illustrate your content points effectively. But to ensure that your content is always fully accessible, try to minimize or eliminate any information that is only conveyed through one medium. Describe or explain graphics, provide text-only versions of interactive content, and just ultimately try to imagine interacting with your content if one or more element types weren’t usable.

Utilize Metadata

Learn from my mistakes: Don’t just drop keywords or lackluster description into metadata. Take the time to actually examine if your metadata is accurate, informative, and accessible for devices that may utilize it.

Think About Voice

Voice-activated devices and web navigation are becoming more of a norm for broad consumer audiences, but is already vitally important for users who have to account for some physical impairment when surfing the web. Optimizing your site for voice search is a powerful way to not only improve your SEO but also better serve an underserved audience.

As the Internet continues to move and develop, I’m excited to see the ways that tech innovators continue to improve accessible solutions for all audiences. But marketers should remember that we’re often the front line for experiences and searchable content, and that means much of the Internet’s accommodation lands on us. Help your brand live up to this challenge to both support a better Internet and take advantage of ever-emerging SEO opportunities.

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Featured image attribution: Janko Ferlič

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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