Accessible Information: why it matters

What is accessible information? There are many definitions that suit different peoples’ agendas. For a blind user, it might be publications in Braille. For someone with learning difficulties, it could be publications using Widgit Rebus symbols. It could be information provided in your native language, in print or on the web.

A universal definition might go something like this: accessible information is information that is presented in a format that is easily used and understood by its intended audience.

Importantly, accessible information is not simplified or “dumbed down”. It is not patronizing, and does not cater to the "lowest common denominator". Accessible information could equally outline the philosophy of Plato or explain how to set your video recorder (and a prize for the first person who makes an accessible manual for that!).

In some ways the World Wide Web has brought the issue of accessible information to the notice of everyone, with a string of high profile court cases such as the Sydney Olympics web site. While this has undoubtedly helped raise conciousness of the issues, there is a tendency, because of the medium, to concentrate on the technical or coding aspects of web accessibility. There’s all sorts of code that can (and should) be written to assist visually impaired people and those with motor difficulties navigate the World Wide Web, but the best code in the world won't help a web site if the designers fail to take into account two much bigger issues: clarity of layout and language.

Consider a guidance system repair manual written for engineers at NASA. It’s a huge document that deals with a complex subject. But it’s clearly laid out, with an explanatory table of contents at the front so you know exactly what the book covers; clear, numbered section headings so you can find your way about quickly; and a good index at the back to locate specific things easily. The pages use a lot of white space in their design and the font has been chosen so the text is easy to read, The diagrams are well drawn and clearly labeled. Even though most of us would struggle to understand it (because it is rocket science), this is accessible information – for the intended audience – and no one could accuse it of being patronizing.

Now imagine the Encyclopedia Britannica (you might as well imagine the full leather bound set as it’s not going to cost you), but instead of the entries sorted alphabetically, they're sorted by the order in which the editors draw them out of a big felt hat. Volume 1: Zombie to Fish. Usable? Accessible? No doubt someone would spend two years memorizing the order of the words, and would probably appear on Blue Peter, or a local news programme, but for the rest of us, alphabetically is simply easier to use. We all need some level of accessible information.

Many people use language for reasons other than communication. Language can be used to confuse, to obscure true meaning, to distract from lack of real content, to show off or simply to lie. Language is used to entertain.

This isn't to suggest that the English language should be stripped of its character. Far from it: the curlicues and embellishments that make the language live should be celebrated. But sometimes we need to impart information that is important to our intended audience. Then we should strip out the confusing, the pompous, the florid and the ambiguous.

Regardless of the technology - web sites or books or wooden signs - the first and greatest change we can make to everything we say and write is to say what we mean: simply and directly.

Further information