Many writing techniques can lead to effective, impactful healthcare content. A great story. Creative word choice. Clear sentences. But what about accessibility?
Accessible language is communication that includes everyone (For example, people with visual impairments, lower reading levels, distractions or different language needs). Writing content that is accessible helps remove barriers, so users, regardless of ability or circumstance, can get the information they need.
Why accessible language matters
I started focusing on accessible language more when I began writing healthcare content for a global audience. I thought about the translation process. Would “under the weather” have the same meaning in Spanish? How would an infographic work in Arabic, which people read from right to left?
Even when you know your audience well, consider asking yourself these questions:
- Can someone with a permanent or temporary disability access the content?
- Can someone with a lower reading level or a different learning preference absorb the content?
- Where and when is the audience digesting the content? Are they stressed? Are they on the bus? Are they stuck at home during a pandemic with a bad internet connection and children home from school?
At WriterGirl, we know we have a responsibility to understand how our audiences consume information in different ways. It’s a big task, but fortunately, making your writing more accessible can also make your writing stronger overall. A lot of accessible language techniques overlap with other writing areas, such as readability, health literacy, plain language and search engine optimization (SEO).
Tips for more accessible writing
Here are 10 ways to make your writing more accessible. You can also download our free accessible language checklist to have available for your next content project.
1. Make the purpose clear
Most people read only the first few words or sentences of content. They decide if the content is for them. If not, they move on to something else. Making the purpose clear not only engages users, but it makes the information more accessible.
2. Remove extra words
An easy way to make your purpose clear is to remove extra words. Words that only take up space — very, seriously, some, just, even or I think — without adding meaning make sentences longer and the message less available to users.
3. Avoid accessibility issues of jargon and idioms when possible
Healthcare professionals may use words like “thrombus,” “screening,” “inpatient,” or “cardiovascular,” but this jargon isn’t always accessible to patients. Simplifying words when you can is helpful for accessibility.
See WriterGirl’s list of other healthcare buzzwords and simpler alternatives.
Idioms also can create confusion. The phrase “out of shape” might only make sense to people who live in your region. It’s important to know your audience and think about the different ways they could interpret your content.
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4. Define acronyms and terms
Sometimes you can’t avoid using complex healthcare terms. There’s also never a shortage of abbreviations and acronyms. The key to making complex words and jargon accessible is to define them. Adding a glossary can help. Or not using an acronym at all. For example, patients likely aren’t as familiar with ED (Emergency Department), so you may want to use the full phrase throughout your content instead of the abbreviation.
5. Stay consistent
Users can get confused when you use different words for the same concept. Even something as simple as “doctor” lowers accessibility if you also use “physician,” “surgeon,” “primary care provider” and “clinician.” Content is easier to understand when there are fewer new terms.
Homographs (words that look the same but have different meanings) can also lower accessibility. For example: “tear” can be a verb (Tear off the bottom of the form) or a noun (Your eyes may make more tears after surgery). Try to avoid using the same word in two different ways within one piece of content.
6. Use active voice
Active voice is clearer, more direct and easier to translate. Using active voice whenever possible is important for accessibility. Instead of saying, “Patients will be contacted by hospital staff to discuss visit details,” say, “Hospital staff will contact patients to discuss visit details.”
7. Organize with headings
Headings outline information for easier skimming. Remember the person accessing your content on the bus? When your content is easier to skim, it is more accessible to them and others.
Applying styles to headers, subheads and body copy that indicates a hierarchy of information can help users find the information they need. Using a standard style sheet and format within a website content management system or word processing program also tags text, which can help other writers if you’re working together, people who use screen readers and search engines.
8. Chunk information
Most people get more out of content when it is in a small section instead of a long paragraph. Limiting paragraphs to one main idea makes content more accessible. Bulleted or numbered lists, where appropriate, also can help.
Translation Tip: if you use bulleted or numbered lists, remember that word order isn’t the same in every language. Using complete sentences to introduce a list makes it easier to translate without re-writing the sentence. For example:
Not as accessible: An incomplete sentence introduces the list.
If you have the condition, you can expect to:
- Experience hot flashes
- Have difficulty sleeping
- Face mood swings
More accessible: A complete sentence introduces the list.
If you have the condition, you may notice these symptoms:
- Hot flashes
- Difficulty sleeping
- Mood swings
9. Add descriptive links
Hyperlinks should make sense out of context. The more descriptive linked text is, the easier it is for people (or screen readers) to understand what they’re clicking. Instead of click here, link text like find out why plain language matters to your message.
10. Remember multimedia
When you can, try not to limit information to words only. If you interview a doctor, adapt the content for multiple formats:
- Include a written summary
- Add an audio clip
- Show a video with a transcript and closed captions
For any images, write descriptive alt text, so that someone can still get value from the visual content even if they can’t see the image.
Did you know? Many programs, including Microsoft Word, have a built-in accessibility checker.
Accessible content is better for all users
Writing accessible language is a way to improve your content overall. Healthcare audiences come in all shapes and sizes and consume content in many ways. When you consider accessibility, you broaden your scope for who can receive your message.
Other accessibility resources
For more information on accessibility, look at these resources:
- 5 free tools for easy-to-read content
- Designing for screen readers
- How to make your website content accessible to everyone
- Website Content Accessibility Guidelines
- Website accessibility evaluation tool
- Digital accessibility benefits everyone
Lean on WriterGirl for your accessible language needs. Our team of skilled healthcare writers are experts in plain language and accessible writing best practices. Reach out to learn how we can help your team achieve content success.