Digital accessibility can start with small steps


Figuring out how to make the web content we produce more accessible for people with a wide variety of disabilities “can feel overwhelming at first,” says Angie Bedford-Jack, Pitt’s digital accessibility coordinator. “What I’ve seen people do is not do anything until they think they know everything.” Instead, she recommends: “Just take one step every day.”

Bedford-Jack outlined some relatively easy steps to take in a talk July 16 at the O’Hara Student Center, sponsored by Staff Council

She pointed out that disabilities affecting our capacity to take in words and photos, charts and graphs, range from major to minor and from temporary to permanent — from autism to color blindness, and from cerebral palsy to broken fingers. “But when it does happen to us, we want the web to work for us.”

Among those single steps Bedford-Jack says are quick to accomplish:

Use more specific texts for images: Screen readers, which speak websites aloud for those with visual impairments, need to be able to describe images fully and accurately. Without image descriptions, screen readers may only read the useless file name accompanying every picture. These texts should communicate context and function, she says: “What you are not doing is (describing) what the picture looks like. You are describing the information it is trying to convey … the shorter the better.” If the photo has a function — as a hyperlink, for instance — that should be noted in the image text as well.

Make hyperlinks specific: “They are really foundational to the way we navigate around the web,” she notes. In fact, people with screen readers may browse pages by first looking at the list of hyperlinks. So “Click here” on “Learn more” are useless hyperlink labels, as are the simple arrows that, only visually, tell readers where to click to proceed. “Go to next page” or “Read chapter two here” are much clearer. In particular, you should avoid including the full URL for the hyperlink, which the screen reader will read aloud — one painful letter, number and symbol at a time.

Use Word’s headings and styles: Visually unimpaired website creators tend to indicate headings simply through font size and boldface type, but those visual distinctions can’t be read by screen readers. Instead, use heading styles in Word, available via Word’s home tab, which label headings as “Heading 1,” Heading 2,” etc.

Code data tables so that screen readers can read the table by rows or by columns.

Use highly contrasting dark and light colors to create sufficient visual distinctions between text and background — or “just use white and black or white and navy blue,” she says, to make the contrast ultra-clear.

Don’t depend on color to create meaning: Those with color blindness can’t pick out the correct lines or bars to read charts and graphs properly, for instance, if color is the only differentiator.

Use captioning, transcripts and audio descriptions for videos: Pitt is not ready to offer captioning help University-wide yet, she says, but YouTube will auto-caption with about 70 percent accuracy. “It doesn’t do well if the sound quality is poor,” she says. “It doesn’t do well with people who have accents.” To achieve 100 percent accuracy, you should download and correct their file manually, she advises.

Soon, Pitt employees can expect to see from Bedford-Jack’s office more advice on making web content, and documents in general, more accessible, she says. Also in the offing is the University’s digital accessibility policy — which has been in preparation “a ridiculously long time,” she says, at least since 2015. “We’re hopeful that it will get leadership approval by mid-fall.

“There’s so much focus on what are the laws, what are the technical standards,” she says. “We kind of lose sight: the reason we do this is for people.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.