By Will Robinson, on Feb 4, 2020

How Contentful helps create accessible digital experiences

Featured image with illustrations of eye, letters, glasses, microphone, closed captioning, and looking glass.

It’s as simple as this: doing the work to make your website or digital experience accessible for people with disabilities is not a choice, it’s compulsory. It’s a necessary part of your design and creation process and not an extra feature or act of kindness. Being online is no longer a luxury or a source of entertainment, it’s how people pay their bills, take part in their governments and receive information.

You’ll find there is also a strong business case for creating an accessible digital experience. The global market for people with disabilities is also estimated at over 1 billion people with a spending power of more than $6 trillion. Inclusion and diversity efforts are strongly regarded in the market, with more consumers choosing loyalty to brands that show commitment to accessibility.

If that doesn’t convince you, avoiding a lawsuit might. Many countries have laws requiring digital accessibility that leave you open to prosecution. The number of website-access lawsuits served to businesses have more than tripled in the last two years. Whether you run an art gallery or a moving company, having a web presence that discriminates against people with disabilities could get you in big trouble.

So, where do you start? If you’re building an accessible website or digital experience with Contentful, there are a few built-in features to help you on your way.

Modeling your content for accessibility

Accessibility starts with your content model. For a webpage, there is a close relationship between the code, your content model, the browser and assistive technology like screen readers. Your content model is more than behind-the-scenes content types and entries, it’s also how assistive technology (and therefore your user) navigates through your page or website. Your content model needs to be structured with your non-visual users in mind. When users are interacting with your website with assistive technology, the information given back to them is using context and functions taken from your code and content model.

The way content is structured in Contentful is conducive to this process from the get-go. Instead of a blob of copy, it’s a field with an identifier (for example body text, header, image description). This isn’t something you have to add-on or create, it’s automatic. The result is that users can skip sections or regions on the site, navigate through headers, and help overall navigation, allowing people with disabilities to choose the content they’re interested in. Imagine having to sit through a screen reader that reads an entire page, when all you’re interested in is the text in the footer. Working with fields and identifiers allows people to navigate more easily.

Contentful thinks about content in a structured way, which ties well into thinking about content semantically. Screen readers (and most accessibility tech) need a semantic understanding of your content to read it. When we talk about semantics in this context, it refers to imbuing elements with meaning. Instead of having generic HTML tags, you use tags that describe more precisely what the content is. For example, elements like <header>, <footer>, <article> and <section>.

This is possible with a version of HTML called HTML5. When assistive technology sees these tags, it can read it and pass on context to the audience. With Contentful, developers can match their HTML 5 tags to field or content types. HTML elements can have a huge impact on the accessibility of a site; it’s important to keep them in mind when you’re creating your digital experience.

Content for all types of digital experiences

From the beginning, Contentful thinks about sending content to different channels. It’s a huge step in the right direction to doing accessibility right. Whereas the purpose of legacy CMSes was to deliver content to websites, Contentful is built to seamlessly deliver content to all digital experiences including devices like Google Home, Alexa and mobile apps on IOS and Android.

Contentful makes content agnostic, meaning you can publish the same content in different formats for differently-abled people. No matter the channel, you can use the same content. This is because unlike legacy CMSes, Contentful separates the content from it’s presentation layer. These are tools used to make homes smarter for people living with disabilities, giving them more independence and control over their lives. As voice user interface technology improves, it is being used for a significant range of things. Alexa can read the news, do your shopping for you and control elements of your home like the lights and thermostat.

Google Assistant can read and respond to text messages, set important dates into your calendar and give you reminders for events like doctor’s appointments –– all without touching or seeing a screen. With so much tech and more on its way, delivering enough content doesn’t have to be a headache.

Contentful allows editors to manage voice content in the web app, push out live updates, and iterate painlessly without needing constant help from development. This all contributes to a simple truth: when you make work easier, work is more likely to happen.

Further resources and reading

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is the only international standard on the topic.

The World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) section on accessibility can also help you learn about the standards and strategies for an accessible web.

Will Robinson

Services manager of EMEA at Contentful with fourteen years of experience designing, building and deploying a range of digital projects. As part of the customer success department, he manages a team of solution delivery managers and solution architects that provide technical guidance and implementation support to Contentful enterprise customers.