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Tali Ijack

Editing for Accessibility: Basic Best Practices

A computer icon showing a wrench and screwdriver on the screen is surrounded by icons representing accessibility and EDI: an ear, an eye, a lightbulb with a brain inside, and two hands forming a heart as they shake.

Accessibility is the lack of obstacles to obtaining, attaining or retaining something. The Accessible Canada Act, established in 2019, aims to identify, remove and prevent barriers that cause the exclusion of all persons, especially disabled persons, from various necessary aspects of life. Information and communication technologies have been identified as areas that need to meet accessibility standards. The ultimate goal is to create a Canada without barriers by January 1, 2040.

In tandem with the Accessible Canada Act, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), established in 2005, requires all organizations in the public and private sectors to meet accessibility standards by June 2024. 

Where does the editing profession fit into creating an accessible and barrier-free Canada?

Information and communication are crucial areas where editors can make a real impact on accessibility. As editors help shape written material and strive to reach wider audiences, they must consider various aspects of accessibility. Whether someone has a visible or hidden barrier to accessing materials, it is an editor’s job to ensure readers have a clear path to the information they need. 

Here are some basic best practices for editors to consider in three key areas of accessibility.

Plain language

Using plain language is beneficial for people with various levels of English proficiency, literacy, experience, education, learning ability and comprehension. It helps ensure that a clear, concise and direct message is communicated to any reader. Since audiences can vary greatly, it is important to gear text to its target audience and consider what would be plain language for them.

Plain language editing isn’t about simplifying words; it’s about simplifying the message. Editors need to focus on the reader and consider sentence structure and vocabulary.

Sentence Structure

  • Stick to one idea per sentence.
  • Stay on point and avoid extra information.
  • Use active voice.
  • Avoid negative construction.
  • Avoid ambiguous sentence structure.

Vocabulary

  • Use positive terms that are familiar to the target audience.
  • Avoid idioms, references, jargon, figures of speech and expressions.
  • Break up noun chains.
  • Use direct verbs and avoid nominalization.
  • Remove ambiguity.

Layout and design

Whether editing for print or digital, editors should ensure materials employ layouts and designs that take into consideration readers who have reading and attention disorders, different learning styles or disabilities, low vision or colour-blindness, as well as those who use magnification software or screen readers.

Accessible layout and design ensures that content can be easily followed and absorbed.

Layout

  • Use headings, lists and short paragraphs.
  • Prioritize the most important information and ideas.
  • Employ typography to help draw focus (e.g., boldface, font changes, text boxes), but avoid too many emphases at once.
  • Use point form whenever possible.
  • Left-align text to maintain consistent character and word spacing.

Legibility

  • Select easy-to-read, sans-serif fonts.
  • Limit the number of fonts per page.
  • Use 14-point font for printed text whenever possible.
  • Use 16-point font for web text.
  • Ensure that line spacing is at least 25 to 30 per cent greater than the font size.
  • Keep a wide space between letters and avoid overcrowding text.
  • Choose fonts with medium weight rather than “light” versions.
  • Avoid italics.
  • Separate text into columns whenever possible.
  • Use flat pages in print whenever possible.
  • Print on matte or non-glossy-finish paper and avoid watermarks or background designs.
  • Add image descriptions (alt text) to photos and graphics.

Colour and contrast

  • Use colour palettes that are “colour-blind safe” for all types of colour-blindness.
  • Avoid conveying important information or emphasis through colour.
  • Use colours sparingly.

Equity, diversity and inclusion

Editors act as advocates for the reader. All readers deserve to be represented and included in the materials they consume — and, at the very least, they should not be harmed by them.

Editing for equity, diversity and inclusion puts the reader’s experience at the forefront, providing a wide audience with more relatability and opportunities for understanding.

Equity

  • Prioritize the voices of the people who are being written about.
  • Seek authenticity readers.
  • Employ plain language standards.
  • Adhere to optimal layout and design.
  • Keep to the point and be straightforward.
  • Use person-first or identity-first language in accordance with each individual’s wishes.
  • Provide context for any structural inequity.
  • Eliminate use of stereotypes and stigma.
  • Be specific and avoid generalizations.
  • Avoid lumping people into large identity groups.
  • Encourage well-rounded, unbiased research.

Diversity

  • Ensure that the writing is understandable and acceptable to all kinds of people.
  • Be genuine and avoid tokenism.
  • Check for consistency in the ways different people are being described or written about.
  • Eliminate use of stereotypes and clichés.
  • Focus on the message, not on highlighting diversity for diversity’s sake.
  • Highlight opportunities to increase meaningful representation.

Inclusion

  • Employ conscious and inclusive language.
  • Change gendered terms.
  • Think of conscious language as a form of harm reduction rather than a way to avoid offence.
  • Eliminate ableist, racist or othering language.
  • Challenge biased narratives.

Learn more

These basics should become part of an editor’s best practices and be applied for every edit, whether it is for the screen or in print, and regardless of the subject matter. 

In addition to accessibility in writing and design, there are many ways to make materials accessible using technology. It is good practice to ensure that all materials being published are compatible with assistive technology and formatted to be accessible through various programs.

Editors should continue to stay informed on developments in accessibility standards and practices. There are many courses, seminars, webinars and websites that editors can use to help increase their knowledge and expertise in this area as we work towards a barrier-free Canada.

Resources

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act

Editors Canada recorded webinars

Editors Canada plain design series

George Brown College: Creating Accessible Documents course

International Plain Language Federation

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Previous post from Tali Ijack: What Role Can Editors Play in the Conscious Language Debate?

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2 Comments on “Editing for Accessibility: Basic Best Practices”

  • These are fantastic tips on such an important issue! I’m also a big fan of all the resources created by the Accessible Publishing Learning Network (apln-dot-ca).

  • Thank you so much for this overview, Tali. Much appreciated!

    There is one point under Layout / Legibility that I did not understand. When you say “use flat pages in print,” is that a reference to non-glossy paper? or are you referring to paper size?

    Many thanks for any clarification you can provide.

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