Let’s make accessibility checking as common as spell checking

Robin Christopherson is Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNetI can't work out why all publishing applications don't have an automatic accessibility checker. Well, actually, I can work it out – most people don't want to be bombarded with messages about not providing alt tags for inserted images or about making headings actual headings (rather than just changing the font to big, bold text) when creating a document. They'd probably find it quite irritating.

But for people with a visual impairment (like myself), as well as many others with differing cognitive or literacy abilities, it makes all the difference to readability when an accessibility check is done on a web page, or on a document - before its emailed around or published online (either as a text document or PDF).

Just like a spell checker

Think of an accessibility checker as the equivalent of a spell checker. Few people would save a document without spell-checking, so why not get into that mindset for accessibility too?

If more people use an accessibility checker when available, it will mean that I'll more often be able to easily jump between headings on a web page or in a document, get a handy overview of its structure and understand what on earth those images scattered all over the place are.

Many checkers also pick up on the contrast between background and text colours for readability, as well as flagging up the fact that full justification, for example, is a no-no for people with dyslexia.

Microsoft is upgrading its accessibility checker

screen shot - Microsoft accessibility checker is buit into PC versions of Microsoft Office

As part of a clutch of accessibility improvements, Microsoft has announced that this year the company will be making it even easier and more effective to use an accessibility checker across a range of applications and devices. This might help to once again bring Microsoft to the forefront of the accessibility field.

The Microsoft Accessibility Checker has until now only been available in Office for PC, but this is to be extended to Office for Mac.

In addition, the Microsoft boffins will be improving the experience of using alt-text in Office Online, building on the current Office Online accessibility features.

I'm closely following the company's recent blogs about a raft of changes and improvements to the accessibility of its products.

I recently blogged, for example, about the huge potential of Microsoft Edge (the new Windows 10 browser) and its up-coming API (Application Programming Interface). The API will speak directly to assistive technologies, which could be a real game changer.

Default accessibility-checking

Many people don't even know that the accessibility checker is available as standard within Office applications. It would be great if after running a spell-check, the accessibility checker could discretely offer its services. Or, on saving a document with accessibility errors, the package would flag up issues and offer the check.

We’d need to avoid resurrecting Clippy, of course! Such prompts could simply be ignored or toggled off in the applications preferences if they weren’t welcome. Crucially, however, having them on by default (just like autocorrect and inline grammar and spelling notifications) would be making a statement about just how important accessibility checking is.

Better SEO results

A properly marked up document can also make it better for search engines to understand content. At the moment, the vast majority of images I encounter on the web are unlabelled and almost all PDFs I download have no accessibility tags.

It would be a rare and exciting day that I visited websites where all images were comprehensible, all headings nicely marked up and all forms well labelled. A rare and exciting day indeed – but I live in hope. And the work that Microsoft is undertaking is bringing that day closer.

Learn more about accessibility

You can read our guide to producing accessible documents for print and web. 

And watch our webinar about the business case for accessibility.