At any given time, my laptop always has tabs of long-form writing open. While this isn’t uncommon, I’ve always struggled to read anything that is longer than the odd 500 to 600 words online.
If a piece is more than 1,000 words, I lose steam by the halfway mark and I find myself needing to copy, paste, and retype sections of important articles to fully make sense of them. Increasingly, I’ve moved towards podcasts and video essays because of how frustrating it’s been to fully internalise news in print, and the lack of audio-recorded articles available.
For Usman Ali, a civil servant who identifies as neurodiverse, his engagement with the media has followed a similar path. “I’ve had to be more resilient to go to the back end of websites to do all the digging that’s needed to make something accessible to me,” he says. “I can’t stand anything that has small text, I don’t look at those websites anymore. Apart from that, I use software like ClaroRead and Grammarly to understand the pieces I read.”
Still, he acknowledges that he has “a lot of privilege that allows me to make content accessible”. I’ve wondered the same thing. If this is already difficult for me — someone who is able-bodied and university-educated — how can we expect our journalism to reach everyone?
Why Is Accessible Content Vital?
How outlets and individuals tell stories has been changing rapidly in the past few years — for the better. Whether it’s through ‘scrolly-telling’ or the rise of TikTok, new tech is helping reporting become more ambitious, creative, and multi-dimensional. However, accessibility remains sidelined. Just think about how long it took Clubhouse to enable transcripts.
Part of what makes accessibility such a tricky issue is that there’s no singular measure of it, both because of the range of disabilities that people experience, as well as how no two disabled people will experience the same condition in the same way.
When I first started this article, my vision of what needed to change was limited to adding alt-text to images and providing transcripts for videos. While those measures are crucial, they’re part of a wider set of adjustments that can be made which make digital content accessible, including easy-to-read designs, simple language, and colour-blind friendly images and graphics.
Jo Crawford (L) and Rachel Charlton-Dailey (R)
Without such changes, the media isn’t open to disabled audiences. It keeps people from engaging with the important issues that influence our lives every day, while creating space for the spread of disinformation. It’s also bound to keep disabled and neurodiverse journalists, who only make up 16 percent of journalists in the industry, from even considering journalism as a possible career path.
That’s how Jo Crawford, a dyslexic YouTube creator who now works at Times Radio, found herself going against the traditional path for journalists and instead striking out on her own. Crawford, who identifies as neurodiverse, describes creating accessible work as a “massive learning process”.
“Neurodiversity is a huge spectrum that affects people in very different ways. For me, it’s about thinking about how I can not just depend on my own experiences to influence my video editing style, but also trying to incorporate other people’s learning styles. So for example, I’m not going to include lots of text, and if I am, I’m not going to make the language overly complicated.”
Apart from individual creators, publications centred around disabled experience, such as The Unwritten, are also shaking things up in the industry. In a media landscape where disabled and neurodiverse people are missing in positions of authority, their lived experiences aren’t factored into major decisions about content creation. Rachel Charlton-Dailey, The Unwritten‘s founding editor, wants to do things differently.
Use The POUR Framework To Make Work Accessible
The POUR framework can be a useful guide for anyone approaching web accessibility for the first time. “I think it’s applicable everywhere”, says Robin Spinks of the Royal National Institute of Blind People. “If people engage with that, they will create more compelling, more engaging content without a shadow of a doubt.” It helps journalists to consider whether their work can be seen and understood easily, as well as how assistive technologies will interact with it.
Perceivable content can be understood through our senses of sight and hearing in multiple ways. For many audiences, visuals and audio aren’t enough. It includes things like captions, colour contrasts, and minimum font sizes.
Operable web design makes content easy to access and navigate in a variety of ways. Users might use voice commands, keyboard shortcuts, or a mouse.
Understandable language aims to be clear and easy to digest, accompanied by alternatives to text: think bright infographics, animations, and videos.
Robust systems can adapt to various devices, operating systems, and assistive technology. It’s the responsibility of publications to ensure that their work supports the users.
The Vox website is a good example. Colour contrast is lower than the black-and-white websites tend to default to, which is difficult for visually impaired readers. It also allows users to zoom in by up to 300 percent and most ads have text descriptions.
She’s also keen to stress that accessibility is a learning process. “I made the mistake of thinking the easiest way to do [a website] would be white background, black text, and I didn’t realise that black text on white backgrounds is quite hard to read for people with dyspraxia and limited sight,” she explains.
For The Unwritten, it’s also important to create journalism that is both readable and engaging. “We didn’t want to feel like we were punching down on people, but we also didn’t want to use too complicated words. Writers have a tendency to impress [with] big, fancy, flourishing words, but as an editor it’s my job to be like ‘Okay, but are people going to understand this?’”
However, for Charlton-Dailey, one publication isn’t enough. “We need disabled editors and sub editors, designers, social media managers. We need them everywhere, not just to write the odd story when it’s an awareness month or [to sell] our trauma for a hundred quid.”
“We need disabled editors and sub editors, designers, social media managers. We need them everywhere, not just to write the odd story when it’s an awareness month.”
Rachel Charlton-Dailey, founding editor of The Unwritten
“Are the teams that create things reflective of society in terms of the personal characteristics that come into play when we talk about diversity and inclusion? With my own team, I’m always trying to do more on that end,” said Spinks. “They’re a great bunch of people, with different disabilities and from different backgrounds. And I love that — that’s what makes it what it is, that’s what gives it the focus and breadth of understanding and insight that it has.”
Fortunately, there’s significant progress being made at some of the world’s biggest publications. Helen Hewitt, head of design operations at Dow Jones, narrows it down to three dimensions on an institutional level: audits, training, and engagement. “The audits were huge for us because everyone knew what needed to be done. We then hired an Accessibility Lead, because we didn’t feel like we had enough technical knowledge.”
As for engagement, Hewitt implemented a working group, quarterly meetings with all staff, and weekly office hours for staff to ask accessibility-related questions. She estimates that some 200 people were trained in accessibility in two months.
How The Industry Can Improve Accessibility
The journey to creating a truly inclusive industry is a long one we must all play a role in. But, as well as remembering what isn’t accessible, it’s important for us to expand our vision of what is possible.
Spinks, a self-confessed “Instagram fan”, posts pictures every other day, thinking creatively about how he can use alt-text for visually impaired friends. “I’m always thinking, how could I describe that? These beautiful lush green fields, framed by dark green trees, set against a pale blue and melting tangerine sunset. And I’ll describe it like that in my alt-text. It’s a bit of fun, but what an easy thing to do! For me, it’s about increasing engagement, because blind people talk to me about my photographs.”
“Imagine how many people out there are visually impaired, and they’ve almost told themselves they couldn’t possibly be interested in photography? I think it’s very easy to see your disability in terms of how other people view it, like you shouldn’t be interested in certain things because of it.”
As journalists, being creative is part of our job. So it’s time to put it to good use, creating stories that everyone can be immersed in and impacted by.
Use A Variety Of Storytelling Methods: “What we need is multimodal information,” says Spinks, where the content can be read in several ways. He points to a lack of descriptions on short-form videos, even when they do have subtitles. He adds: “So many more people could’ve engaged with those pieces if journalists thought in terms of multimodal information.” For example, the Financial Times optimises all of its videos for closed captioning, whilst also providing an accompanying transcript. Utilising at least either audio and text or video and text in each story makes a significant difference in terms of accessibility.
Build Accessibility Into Reporting: As well as centring disabled voices, we also need to be accessible in the reporting process. “The main thing is to be considerate of the needs of your sources: if they have disabilities or need sign language support, you need to make accommodations for that,” says Helen Hewitt, head of design operations at Dow Jones Beyond that, disability shouldn’t just be viewed as a singular ‘beat’, but something that is covered across departments. “For the WSJ, we want to talk about accessibility from a market point of view, a political point of view, in terms of world news. When you’ve got a bunch of different topic areas, you should talk about it in all of [them].”
Hire Disabled People: “You need representation at every level,” Usman Ali, a neurodiverse reader stresses. “You need editors, CEOs, producers. But it’s also not just about getting people through the door, it’s also about when the people are through the door, how do you keep them?” Hewitt emphasises the need to support teams internally: “If you’re not even thinking about it internally, you’re not thinking about it with your customers, I would say.” She also recommends hiring at least one specialist to focus on accessibility, which can be cheaper than using vendors. You can’t ignore it! It feels abstract when it’s not around you, [but] when it’s in front of you you can’t ignore it.”
Part of the Journo Resources fellowship class of 2022, Angbeen Abbas is a final year student at LSE. She is currently the executive editor of The Beaver, LSE’s student newspaper, and has previously produced episodes for and edited its podcast section, Beaver Sound. Originally from Pakistan, she splits her time between London and Lahore.
Angbeen is interested in exploring disability and access in media, and in 2020, her creative nonfiction has been shortlisted for the Zeenat Haroon Writing Prize, a writing prize for Pakistani women’s writing. Her portfolio is available here.