Accessible Content Guidelines

How to create content for everyone, including people with disabilities.

What is accessible content?

At Harvard Library we’ve built a website that’s designed and developed with accessibility in mind. But accessibility extends beyond designers and developers. It’s the responsibility of content editors to create and maintain content that’s inclusive and accessible to all users. 

These five guidelines are a tool for staff to use when creating content on library.harvard.edu or any other Harvard Library website.

This guide focuses on accessible content only. Refer to the Online Accessibility website from Harvard IT for more details on web design and markup. If you have questions about this guide, contact Amy Deschenes who created and maintains it.

Structure

Web content needs an easy-to-follow structure that’s not dependent on visual presentation. Research has established that users rarely read a webpage from top to bottom, but rather they scan headings to find the section they need. Content must support online reading habits, no matter how it is delivered.

Provide structured content that includes:

  • an accurate page title
  • descriptive headings
  • defined sections

Why structure is important for accessibility

Some users may modify how a browser presents content (for example, by magnifying the text) or use a screen reader to have the content read to them. 

View an example of good content structure from Perkins School for the Blind.

Activity: Turn off CSS in your browser using the Web Developer browser extension to make sure your content follows a logical outline and is structured appropriately.  

Language

When writing web content, consider the user’s needs first and organize accordingly. Write in clear, concise sentences that are grouped into short sections. 

Make sure your tone aligns with the Harvard Library writing guide and is consistent throughout. 

Use plain language whenever possible and avoid exclusive or ableist terms. Read more about best practices for inclusive language.

Language to use when talking about disabilities

When talking about people with disabilities, use language that appropriately describes them. For example: 

  • People with disabilities
  • People who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • People who are blind or have low vision
  • Wheelchair users
  • People with mobility impairments
  • People with cognitive disabilities or people with mental illness
  • People with learning disabilities
  • Use non-disabled users when the distinction is necessary

Language to use when talking about accommodations

Use the word accommodations, not exceptions or special treatment. If there is inaccessible software or another service that requires mediation for someone with a disability or who is using an assistive device, use "reasonable accommodations." See an example of reasonable accommodation language on the Harvard Careers site.

Why language is important for accessibility

Plain language and well-organized writing benefits all users, but especially those with cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia and ADHD. 

View an example of well-organized, plain language from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

Activity: Review your content for compliance with this checklist for plain language.

Meaningful Headings & Links

Always use the built-in options for styling headings, links, tables, and lists. Avoid using these structural elements for anything other than their intended use. 

Write link text that clearly explains its purpose. Avoid using the same link text in a page for multiple links that lead to different destinations. Refrain from using ambiguous phrases like “click here”, “learn more”, or “more info”. Instead, use phrases like “use Zotero” or “learn more about Borrow Direct” or “More info on the media studios”. 

If a link leads to an attachment, rather than another webpage, explain that in the link text. For example, “Widener Call Numbers PDF”.

Why headings and links are important for accessibility 

People who use screen readers depend on headings to find relevant content. Screen reader users may navigate using lists of headings and links so those elements need to make sense out of context. 

Example of meaningful headings & links from Mass.gov

Activities: Check your alt text and headings with the Web Developer browser extension

Image alternatives

Use ALT text to provide a short description of meaningful images. However, you should avoid including ALT text when an image, like an icon, is decorative. As long as the image does not provide additional information or meaning it can be considered decorative. If you’re not sure if your image is decorative or not, check out this ALT text decision tree.

If you are including a data visualization such as an infographic or chart you may want to provide a text alternative or a link to the underlying data. 

Why image alternatives are important for accessibility

People who use screen readers need an equitable experience of your content, including graphics. Brief descriptions provide meaning that would otherwise be unapparent to these users.

Example of meaningful alt text from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Activity: Check your alt text with the Web Developer browser extension.

Media alternatives

For audio files 

Provide a transcript of the audio file. 

For video files

Provide at least a transcript of the audio or captions. Ideally, provide the user with the option to read a transcript or use captions. Consider adding descriptions of any visual content such as Powerpoint slides. Automated captioning tools, such as those provided by YouTube, are not sufficient in most cases. Complete details about media alternatives can be found on the Harvard IT online accessibility site

For data visualizations

Provide a description of the conclusions that the visualization explicates in the ALT text. Consider linking to the data that the visualization is based on. If needed, provide a text alternative that gives an in-depth description of the visualization. 

Why media alternatives are important for accessibility

Transcripts and captions must be provided so that those who can't see or hear can still experience your content. 

View an example of a transcript and captions from Lynda.com.

Activities:

  • Check that synchronized captions give a text equivalent for all spoken and key non-spoken audio, or that a transcript of the spoken and key non-spoken audio is available on the same page as the audio.
  • If the video includes important visual information, make sure descriptions are provided in the captions or transcript.