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Accessibility & Inclusive History: Tips & Tricks

From Instagram and Facebook to TikTok and podcasts, people consume content in more ways than ever before. The variety of social media avenues means an easier time of building and engaging with audiences. Conversely, however, the rush to produce content can leave those with visual or audio impairments or other disabilities behind. In many cases, you could accidentally generate feelings of inequality if you don’t factor accessibility into the equation.

So how can one balance maintaining an active social presence while also ensuring everyone, no matter their background, can enjoy one’s content?

The answer isn’t always easy, but you can incorporate a few accessibility practices into your images, videos, and blog posts to help reach a wider audience.

What is Accessibility, and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever used subtitles to watch a show on Netflix in order to better understand the actors? Or, have you ever used the automatic door opener at your favorite store? These are examples of accessible tools that make it easier for people to interact with the world around them.

Stephanie Kingsley excellently summarizes accessibility in Perspectives of History, the magazine of the American Historical Association:

According to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), accessible content is “perceivable” to all users and offers all users the same chance to interact with the content. Accessible content must also be understandable in formats that can be interpreted by assistive technologies (such as a screen reader), and “current and future user agents” (including humans and assistive technologies) must be able to interpret it. Inaccessible digital content, therefore, would include scanned photographs (not perceivable to a blind person) and websites that can’t be navigated by keyboard (which a person who can’t use a mouse wouldn’t be able to interact with).

Stephanie Kingsley, “Making Digital History Accessible,” Perspectives of History, The American Historical Association, May 1, 2017, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2017/making-digital-history-accessible.

To put it succinctly, accessibility removes as many barriers as possible in order for someone to engage with media, tools, buildings, and more. For the purposes of this post, I’m focusing specifically on social media and blogs. However, the tips provided can apply to many scenarios.

Besides utility, why should you consider accessibility in your social media and blogs?

1. Universal Design Considerations

The concept of universal design underlies accessibility. Universal design ensures that the design and composition of an environment or product is usable and/or understood by all people, regardless of their background or any disability, to the greatest extent possible.1Cynthia Falk, “Accessibility,” The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook, April 1, 2019, https://inclusivehistorian.com/accessibility/. 2“What is Universal Design?”. National Disability Authority, https://universaldesign.ie/what-is-universal-design/. In other words, it’s a way of designing for everyone and not just the “average” person.

Keeping universal design in mind when writing blog posts or crafting social media content expands your potential audience.

2. Legal Considerations

Though not the focus of this post, the legal landscape of accessibility should be noted. The U.S. federal government has codified accessibility into law through legislation such as the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, and, perhaps most prominently, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Simply put, these anti-discrimination laws protect people with disabilities. As a result, depending on your place of employment or whom you represent, especially if you work in the public history sector, you may need to comply with such legislation.

Check out the Inclusive Historian Handbook‘s post on accessibility for more information on its legal framework.

George Bush, seated a table in front of a fountain and pond, perhaps in D.C., signs the Americans with Disabilities Act between four other people.
President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo inscribed to Justin Dart, Jr., 1990 | ©National Museum of American History/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

3. Ethical Considerations

Morality and ethics are arguably subjective at best. However, considering accessibility in content creation so almost all people can engage is honestly just the right thing to do.

How Can I Incorporate Accessibility into My Online Content?

Ah, the perennial question. Having worked in IT as long as I have, the question of accessibility plays a role in what I do. From creating instructional videos to writing website content, I must always think about how to make my material accessible. But how?

You might think that incorporating accessibility is difficult and time-consuming. That’s true, to some extent. But a little planning goes a long way. Adding things like headings or alt text to images during the initial content creation process saves you from having to retrofit it later on. Or, speaking clearly and loudly while recording a video means less editing of captions in post-production processing.

Here are a few tips and tricks to increase accessibility in your online content:

Accessibility Tip #1: Organize Your Content with Headings

One trick they teach you in SEO school (does such a thing actually exist?) is to use headings to break up long pieces of content. This enhances the reader’s experience and their likelihood of remaining on your page. But did you know that headings increase accessibility?

Well-organized headings in sequential order (<h1>, <h2>, etc.) allow screen readers to more easily interpret the text on a screen. Berkeley recommends creating a structure for headings using CSS (or cascading style sheets) that automatically applies the structure to all content on your website. Berkeley also advises to “not skip heading levels (e.g., go from an <h1> to an <h3>), as screen reader users will wonder if content is missing.”3“Top 10 Tips for Making Your Website Accessible,” Berkeley Web Access, https://webaccess.berkeley.edu/resources/tips/web-accessibility.

Accessibility Tip #2: Contextualize Images with Alt Text

Alternative text (also colloquially known as “alt text”) is text ‘meant to convey the “why” of an image as it relates to the content of a document or webpage’.4“Write good Alt Text to describe images,” Digital Accessibility, Harvard University, https://accessibility.huit.harvard.edu/describe-content-images. But how does this differ from a caption?

Captions differ from alt text in their purpose. Captions briefly describe an image or graphic – often as a means of attribution or citation – typically without diving into any important context. Think of those featured images you see on your local news website or stock images splashed across a top ten listicle. Image captions may only include some information on what’s being portrayed and the photographer.

Alt text, on the other hand, often contextualizes the image as it relates to the page content. For example, take this image of Dover Castle:

In front is the Church of St. Mary-in-Castro next to the Roman lighthouse. In the background is Dover Castle, one of the largest castles in England. A British flag flies above the castle.
The Church of St. Mary-in-Castro and the Roman pharos. Dover Castle rises in the background | Image taken by author

The caption reads: “The Church of St. Mary-in-Castro and the Roman pharos. Dover Castle rises in the background. Image taken by author.” I’ve added some identifying information as well as the photo attribution.

The alt text for this image, however, reads: “In front is the Church of St. Mary-in-Castro next to the Roman lighthouse. In the background is Dover Castle, one of the largest castles in England. A British flag flies above the castle.” I’ve provided a little more information for anyone who uses a screen reader. Like headings, alt text helps screen readers more effectively navigate content.

What if your image is purely decorative? In that case, you don’t need to add alt text.

Tips for Using Alt Text

  • Write clear and concise alt text.
  • Thoroughly describe the image to accurately present information.
  • Use alt text tools in Microsoft Word, Instagram, your content management system (i.e. blogging or website platform), and other programs.

For more tips on adding alt text in Microsoft Word, check out their resources with an introduction to alternative text and a tutorial for adding alternative text to an image, graphic, or object.

Accessibility Tip #3: Craft Descriptions for Links

If you include links in your online content, craft a unique description to inform readers about where the link takes them. Simply indicating “click here” fails to contextualize the link for screen readers and makes it harder for the tool to navigate. As Berkeley writes:

Just like sighted users scan the page for linked text, visually-impaired users can use their screen readers to scan for links. As a result, screen reader users often do not read the link within the context of the rest of the page. Using descriptive text properly explains the context of links to the screen reader user.

“Top Ten Tips for Making Your Website Accessible,” Berkeley Web Access, https://webaccess.berkeley.edu/resources/tips/web-accessibility.

Instead of using “click here”, consider your link’s purpose in writing descriptive text:

  • Is it informative? For example, I used the description “an introduction to alternative text” to tell readers that the link I shared above leads to an article with more information.
  • Is it a call to action? Are you inviting readers to sign up for a tour at your local museum? Do you want them to attend a lecture from a visiting historian?

The Library of Congress Accessibility page demonstrates excellent examples of link description. In the image below, we see a few different descriptive links as calls-to-action.

A screenshot of the "Accessibility at the Library of Congress" webpage. At the top is a video of someone touching a statue. Beneath that is text for the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. At the bottom is information about the BARD (NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download) app.
The Library of Congress’s Accessibility page displays some excellent examples of descriptive link texts as calls-to-action.

Firstly, we see a link to “Explore the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled” website. It’s a clear indicator that that link directs to that website. Secondly, the BARD Mobile App section provides links to download the app from various digital storefronts alongside news releases and more. On the whole, this page demonstrates how history websites can effectively incorporate descriptive links in their accessibility practices.

Accessibility Tip #4: Ensure Adequate Color Contrast

Do you remember that Space Jam website from the 1990s? A colorful array of planets orbit the Space Jam logo with enough activities to keep millennial children occupied (am I dating myself here?). In terms of accessibility, however, appearances can be deceiving. Look at that bright red text on the black-and-white background! Talk about retro…and not accessible!

The very retro Space Jam movie website from around 1996. Different planets orbit the Space Jam logo.
Space Jam website, c. 1996

When designing websites, keep appropriate and contrasting colors in mind. The bright red text overlaid on the textured black background is hard to see (despite looking funky!).

You can always use a color checker such as the WebAIM Contrast Checker or the a11y Website Contrast Checker to determine color contrast.

Final Thoughts

On the whole, accessibility doesn’t need to a barrier to effectively creating online content. With some preparation, your history content can reach as many people as possible, no matter their backgrounds.

To quote The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook for some final thoughts:

Accessibility is fundamentally about empowerment. For too long society has marginalized those with disabilities. We can reverse that trend by providing accessible spaces and activities, communicating clearly what we offer and where we need help, and bringing the topic of disability from the sidelines to the center. We should be advocates for and models of inclusive design, people-first language, and recognizing the centrality of physical and cognitive limitations to the human experience.

Too often people argue that accessibility is not necessary or important because people with impairments do not visit and costs are too high to make it worthwhile. The reality is that we, as public historians, have to convey to those with disabilities that we have something to offer and we are willing to invest in making sure every experience is complete and meaningful.

“Accessibility,” The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook, https://inclusivehistorian.com/accessibility/.

History should be accessible to everyone. As a result, it’s our task as custodians of history to ensure equitable access as much as possible.

Further Reading & Sources

For more information on history and accessibility, check out these sources:

Featured image: Black History Month celebration of diversity and African culture pride as a multicultural celebration (Getty Images/wildpixel)

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