If our content’s not accessible it’s not usable

Digital officer Charlotte Brewer on why accessibility in web content should never be an afterthought.

It’s really easy to create content, but it’s also really easy to create content that’s hard to use.  

It is easy to assume if I can use it, it’s fine.  

This assumption ignores the fact that other people may not be fine with your content. It ignores people with a disability or cognitive condition who might struggle to use your content.  

This is why accessibility is so important. Put simply, accessibility is about making sure everyone can use the content you create.  

When I first started my career, I honestly didn’t think about accessibility. I am a native English speaker, with no disabilities or diagnosed learning conditions. The thought that anyone might struggle with the content I created didn’t cross my mind.  

My eyes were opened by a colleague who championed accessibility. Now I read as much as I can about it, think about it and spread the message. Recently I read a study and it inspired me to write a blog post.  

According to the study, there are 8.6 million Internet users with a disability in the UK alone. 6.1 million people say they have access needs when using websites.  

Access needs

While the experiences of people vary, there are basic access needs that websites should meet in order to be accessible. These needs are often grouped into a set of principles, known as POUR.

  • Perceive – know that there is content on the page 
  • Operate – use the content 
  • Understand – know what they need to do 
  • Robust – engage with the content when they use adaptive technology.  

In order to achieve this, we need to understand the problems and barriers our users face.


There are a huge number of reasons why people might not be able to use a page. Here at Bristol we’re trying to understand what these are and how we can help.

Visual problems

In the UK, 360,000 people are registered blind or partially sighted. Globally, 216.6 million people have moderate to severe vision impairment. Many more people have some form of sight impairment.  

People with visual problems can struggle to engage with websites. Many people use screen readers, which read out the content of a webpage. These screen readers, however, rely on a page being well designed and its content being written for the web. 

Colour blindness  

Colour perception in different types of colour blindness
Perception of colour by subjects affected by different types of colour blindness.

One in 12 men have colour blindness. This means they struggle to distinguish between different colours and shades. This can lead to a range of problems if a page hasn’t been designed with this in mind. For example, if instructions use colour alone in their directions, people may not be able to complete their task. 

Hearing loss 

11 million people have a form of hearing loss in the UK, including 500,000 children. There should be an alternative format provided for audio or video content, such as captions or transcripts.  

Cognitive problems

There are a range of learning conditions and other cognitive disorders that can make it hard for people to engage with a web page.  

People with dyslexia or ADHD, for example, may struggle to read large paragraphs of text. They may miss important information, or misunderstand what they need to do.  

Common mistakes on the web

When creating content, it’s easy not to think about access needs or barriers some people face. This creates big problems for users. Many studies have looked into this and the Click Away Pound study found some of the biggest problems. 

1) Crowded pages 

67% of respondents found crowded pages a barrier to engaging with content. Both screen readers and people can struggle with pages that are very busy.  

2) Links 

61% said links were a barrier to engaging with a page. For the respondents who used screen readers, links were their number one issue. Many screen readers will read link text out of context. Often they will read out all the links in a page as a single list. If the link text is “Click here” the person will have no idea what they are clicking or why they should click it. Instead, link text should be meaningful. People should know what to expect if they follow the link, just by the link text itself. 

3) Filling in forms 

58% respondents highlighted form filling as a problem.  

Forms can have several problems that prevent people from successfully completing them. 

The size of the clickable options need to be large enough to allow users to select them. Some users, for example may have mobility issues or hand tremors that make accurate clicking hard. 

Using colour to reinforce selected answers or to mark required fields can also cause problems.  

Options also need to be accessible and not provided as an image so screen readers are able to read them out.  

If people struggle to fill in a form, they probably won’t try for long.  

4) Distracting graphics 

44% of respondents complained about moving or distracting graphics. Constant animation or motion can be distracting to people, resulting in people missing key information. Some people may experience dizziness and motion sickness. If it is too much many people will click away. 

5) Poor legibility 

44% found legibility a problem when visiting websites. Legibility includes things like font, font sizing, spacing and colour. Text needs to be easy to read. Often users will zoom into the page, or increase the text size, or change the colour of the page to try. The content needs to still be perceivable and usable when people do this.  

There’s more to it

This blog post just starts to cover the basics, but there’s so much more. There are more issues to be aware of. We need more understanding of what technology and techniques people use to try and overcome barriers they face.  There’s always something to learn.

What we’re trying to do

We’ve designed our templates with accessibility in mind. Our font, text size and colour palette have been chosen to be perceived and to be robust. Ultimately, however, creating accessible content is in the hands of our publishers around the University. We are creating guidance and training materials to help them make their content accessible.  

We’re also exploring opportunities to set up user testing that includes people with access needs so we can learn in more detail about how we can help our users.

Why we care 

The study shows the huge number of people in the UK with access needs. It shows that 71% will leave a website that’s inaccessible to them.  

Proportionally, these figures will include a sizable percentage of our target market. Another study found 1 in 5 students use assistive technology. Potential students, potential colleagues, potential partners could all turn away from us if our website isn’t accessible. Current students’ experiences might also be affected if we don’t consider accessibility.  

A new EU directive is also making accessibility a legal matter.  

However there’s a much more important reason than just business, or complying with the law. Simply, we shouldn’t exclude anyone from using our site. We should want to make sure our content is accessible to everyone. It’s just the decent thing to do.  

How you can help 

If you’ve visited our site and experienced an accessibility problem, we’d love to hear from you. Our pages have a ‘feedback’ link at the bottom. This will open up a form so you can tell us about the problem. You can also leave us a comment on this blog post.

Follow Charlotte on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “If our content’s not accessible it’s not usable

  1. Hi, Thanks for the comment. I realise I haven’t included what should be done. The advice for link text is to use meaningful words. Visitors should be able to know what to expect from the link, just by reading the link text itself. For example, if I wanted to add a link to our training guidance to this blog I would make “guidance and training materials” the link text. I wouldn’t add a line saying “Visit our website to read them”.
    Meaningful link text actually benefits everyone, as many visitors will scan a page before deciding if it is useful to them. If they see meaningful words as link text, this will help them decide. Hope this helps, Charlotte

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