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Optimizing Online Content for Students who use Screen Readers

World Braille Day is January 4, because this is the birthday of Louis Braille, credited as the creator of this language in the 19th century. For blind and visually impaired individuals, braille can offer an opportunity to access information and knowledge.

But millions of individuals worldwide who are blind, have visual impairments, or cognitive challenges access information through other methods, including screen magnification and screen readers.

Screen readers are software programs that assist blind or visibly impaired individuals to read the text displayed on a computer or mobile device (afb.org) For these individuals, it is important to evaluate how documents, emails, web pages, and other content formats are structured, as these can significantly affect the user experience. User experience is especially vital within classroom settings where academic success is dependent on the students’ ability to access online material.

Screen readers are not only used by adults, but students as well. If lesson plans and activities are offered on an online platform in your classroom, keep an eye out for any digital content that may not be accessible via a screen reader, or for email content that may be challenging. Web pages have many different elements to them, including links.

It is necessary to be mindful of how links are designed and set up because screen readers only read out what is directly written on a page and do not provide meaning or context.

For example, we’ve all seen is the classic “Click Here” link. A sighted individual can quickly read the text around the link to determine where that “Click Here” is going to take them, so there’s no problem determining the meaning or purpose of the link. It’s when someone is using the Tab key to navigate a page and landing only on interactive elements, like links, that things become challenging. This is common for users of screen readers who generally don’t use a mouse and instead rely on the keyboard for navigation. In a simulation of visually “skimming” a page, they may tab through it, noting headings and any interactive elements like editable fields, menus, and links. Imagine just hearing repeated Click Here’s and Learn More’s and More Abouts with no context or additional information. Would you click here?

When crafting content to make it accessible to the widest audience, there are a variety of things to consider, but one that’s easily incorporated across formats is accessible link language. Often, it’s a matter of slightly reworking text already provided. For example (note: none of the “links” are real in these examples):

 

Inaccessible link: Read about possible career opportunities by clicking here.

Accessible link: Read about possible career opportunities.

 

Inaccessible link: Strident Corporation has a wealth of multimedia resources. Learn more.

Accessible link: Learn more about Strident Corporation’s wealth of multimedia resources.

 

Inaccessible link: Find out how to become a better you.

Accessible link: Find out how to become a better you.

 

Inaccessible link: Here is where the action is.

Accessible link: Discover where the action is.

 

Inaccessible link: Register at https://www.120GravyCreations4309Nutmeglogs$#&458.com

Accessible link: Register at Showy.events.

 

You’ll notice that the accessible links are much more descriptive without changing the desired intent of the link. And they’re usually longer, which means they’re easier to access on a touch screen, either on a mobile device or the touch screen of a laptop. This benefits all users, but especially those with mobility issues, for whom selecting a tiny, single word to activate a link may be challenging.

To test if link language is helpful, it’s easiest to have a screen reader like JAWS, NVDA, or VoiceOver and tab through content, landing only on interactive elements to hear how useful they are when read without surrounding context. Close your eyes or turn off your screen when doing this to gain the full experience. If you discover that any of your online learning portals or platforms contain inaccessible links, add additional language to provide context of where that link will go. While https:// links are accessible in that a user theoretically knows where they’re going, as the provided example shows, that link language still may not always be useful. And consider that a screen reader is going to read each character out to the user—but unless one has an exceptional memory, it’s going to be nearly impossible to remember that URL.

You can still review your link language for accessibility without a screen reader. Write your email or other document and then read through it, writing down only the links on a separate sheet. Then go back and read the links on that separate page. If you didn’t know where they were taking you, if you were reading the content for the first time with no other context, would you know where you were going if you activated the link? What if you were tired? Or distracted? Would you still know? If you gave the list to a friend or colleague, would they know?

Creating accessible link language is a muscle that gets stronger with every use. Although it is an extra step when preparing lesson plans, homework, and activities, it is a necessary process that will benefit thousands of students in their everyday classroom experience.

Louis Braille opened the world of knowledge to millions. In our own small way, we can each do the same. All students deserve to have an equitable experience when learning. The purpose of this blog is to bring awareness to the issue of accessibility for students who require accommodations to thrive in a learning environment. Additional resources on this topic are linked below:

Click here for how to preparing a low vision student to use screen reader

Click here for more on screen readers from the American Foundation for the Blind

Click here for more on screen readers from the UCI Disability Services Center

Written by

Lorna Notsch is a senior content management analyst at SAGE Publishing who focuses on digital accessibility. She likes to say that everyone is only an injury or illness away from needing assistance to access content online. When not testing SAGE products for accessibility, she enjoys tending her many houseplants, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling.

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