1st February 2023
Creating accessible content for neurodiverse audiences
Reaching the overlooked
Cursor Curated Issue 11
When we think about disabilities, our first thought usually concerns individuals with sensory or mobility loss. However, when 15% of the global population is neurodiverse, we need to look at the bigger picture.
The term ‘neurodiverse’ refers to people who think and see the world in different ways from the societal norm. An estimated one in seven people in the UK are neurodiverse. This includes conditions such as:
- Dyslexia – 10% of UK population
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – 8%
- Dyspraxia – 8%
- Dyscalculia – 6%
- Tourette’s – 1%
- Autistic spectrum disorder – 1%
Neurodiverse people are everywhere; they come from all ethnic and social groups, all ages and genders. Sadly, access to diagnosis and medical support can be challenging so this can limit an official diagnosis to those with wealth, social capital and the more ‘classic symptoms’. It is much easier as a white, male child with textbook ADHD to gain a diagnosis than a black, female or transgender person whose symptoms are more complex or overlap with other things.
The difficulty in accessing diagnosis means that many neurodiverse people settle for self-diagnosis - where they identify with a condition but lack the means and the ability to have this confirmed by a medical professional. Many more people, sadly, don’t have the opportunity or knowledge to recognise that they are neurodiverse at all. This can have a lasting impact on life chances, health and well-being, rates of addiction and even rates of criminal behaviour.
Beyond the social implications of the 10 million people with hidden disabilities right here in the UK, the business case to connect with this audience is exceedingly strong. The spending power of people with disabilities amounts to a staggering £274 billion a year, but in order to reach this audience, organisations need to do more to create content that is accessible.
What you should consider when creating accessible content
It's hard to write do’s and don'ts that fit every neurodiverse person's requirements exactly. However, there are consistent themes, such as creating content that ‘means what it says’, without the reader having to understand metaphor or wider contexts.
We can improve content accessibility by focussing our users’ attention on the message and removing unnecessary distractions. Some further examples include
- Explain things clearly. Accessible content is literal, not figurative, and does not use overly complicated jargon.
- Use a logical order and structure. This should include a short overview to introduce the text and visually appealing diagrams or charts at regular intervals.
- Provide options to explore more. Rather than relying on a wall of text, we should point users to read more in-depth.
- Offer multimedia content. Some users may prefer audio to text, for example, so we should include both where possible.
- Give clear instructions. Calls to action must clearly demonstrate the benefit of taking the action, e.g., “download your free brochure”.
- Use ambiguous language. Avoid words with double meanings, sarcasm or jokes.
- Change the subject without signposting. We should never assume that readers know what “this” is.
- Write filler words. Fluffing up content with “actually” or “to be honest” provides no value.
- Make lines of type too long. The ideal character length is 45 characters, and the maximum is 100.
Accessibility for design
While accessible content uses friendlier language, we also need to accommodate design. The UK government offers a free resource for accessible content design, outlining best practices such as:
- Make sure you can navigate your website using the keyboard alone
- Include a link to allow keyboard-only users to ‘skip to content’ and avoid navigation menus
- Use white space to your advantage rather than relying too heavily on images
- Allow video elements to be paused and avoid using auto-play
- Choose an easy to read, sans serif typeface displayed at an appropriate size
- Left justified wherever possible and avoid full justification of blocks of text
- Avoid text over images
- Make sure you have good contrast between text and any background
- Use hierarchy for headings, paragraphs and bullet point lists
- Choose bold rather than italics or underlines for emphasis.
A good source of information is the Government Design Principles which offer links to advice on testing, user needs, design context and more. While the Government’s Digital Service is making great strides in design, its copy still needs a lot of work. Take a look at the example on the Crown Commercial Service here – note the sporadic capitals (highlighted in red) that make everything difficult to read.
By following the guidelines above, this content would be much more accessible to everyone – not just those with additional needs.
Final thoughts for content accessibility
Based on government guidelines and accessible design principles, we need to create content with the user experience in mind. This means all users – including a diverse range of users with huge spending power.
Of course, when designing, we should always consult our users for their feedback. This is something we’ve even taken on board ourselves. For example, you might notice that the title format of this newsletter has changed. Our users noted that the use of English idioms such as ‘cut a long story short, or ‘all hands on deck’, could be lost on international users as well as neurodiverse readers. So we changed it.
This was a simple change but it will have a far-reaching and tangible impact on user understanding. Our readers now tell us that the new titles make a lot more sense. Content accessibility is an iterative process and we’re always learning – so you should too!
Making these changes does not always have to take up massive amounts of resources or time. All it needs is empathy and the ability to consider user experience from every angle. And that’s what we should all be doing, regardless.