Significance is Information

Between my job and the websites I manage I write tons of content. One of the consistent challenges I face as a writer is how to convey the significance I attach to a word or words to all of my potential readers.

People unaware of how screen readers actually read content by default usually have no idea of the scope of this challenge. If you are writing with only a sighted audience in mind, you can simply bold, italicize, and underline text to notify readers that you want to call their attention to a word or a string of words and indicate why you are most likely calling their attention to that word or those words. The problem is that by default screen readers do not notify their users that text has been bolded, italicized, or underlined. While it’s true that some screen readers allow you to modify their default behavior to access some formatting changes, accessing that information requires modifying the default behavior of those screen readers and the expectations of screen reader users. On the other hand, people who do not use screen readers have access to formatting changes by default and in all situations. If we believe disability equity matters, we can’t pretend requiring someone to know how to and forcing them to change their screen reader’s default settings to access information the author deems significant.

In developing content for the podcast episodes associated with this website, I have been struggling with this problem. I want to convey to readers the significance of some words or phrases, but if I do that in the visual ways sighted people expect me to draw their attention to what I believe are significant words and phrases will not be communicated to screen reader users, like me. In an attempt to demonstrate some significance for screen reader users, I have been experimenting with putting quotes around important words and phrases. While most screen readers will not, by default, have the quotes read they will hear a pause around the words and phrases I have chosen to place in quotes. The problems with this approach are that I am not really using quotes correctly, what I’m doing does not look as expected, and it is far from esthetically pleasing.

At a minimum, screen reader manufactures should support an easy way for users of screen readers to access the most common types of formatting. Without being able to see and not having access to that information, my hunch is that one reason screen readers don’t usually read that kind of formatting is that most people seriously overuse formatting changes, because they attach way more significance to their writing than is necessary.

As a final part of the puzzle, communicating information only by changing formatting and/or color is a violation of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The interesting part of that is what the creators of WCAG, most of whom do not have disabilities, intend when they say information should not be communicated only by changing color and/or formatting. I strongly believe that when a content author wants a reader to appreciate the significance of a word or phrase that content creator is conveying information. If we took the WCAG guidance seriously, then, using changes in formatting and/or color to communicate significance would be a violation of WCAG. Since WCAG is largely developed without any meaningful input from the disability community, I can’t imagine those running WCAG would agree with my interpretation, even though its logical, because that would prevent them from supporting the kinds of color and formatting changes sighted people expect and sadly need while people like me are continually denied what I believe is important information.

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