Accessibility in SharePoint: Screen readers

While WCAG (the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) was created well over a decade ago, many organisations are either not aware of how to comply with them, or don’t understand why the guidelines are applicable to their business.

But here’s some food for thought.

If you have only ONE visitor to your site who requires accessibility features to access your content, you are obligated to provide it. If you have only ONE team member who needs accessible content on your intranet, you are obligated to provide them with one. It’s not just best practice, it’s a major part of inclusive design. Accessibility in SharePoint and SharePoint Online is encouraged and promoted with native functionality.

We’re proud to work with a product that takes every single one of it’s users into account when designing a modern intranet. This blog series focuses on ways that SharePoint supports best practice when it comes to creating accessible sites and online experiences.

So, let’s talk screen readers.

an infographic briefly describing the dos and don't of designing for users of screenreaders
The dos and don'ts of designing for users of screenreaders - provided by UK Home Office

What is a screen reader?

A screen reader is a form of assistive technology that renders text and image content as speech or braille output. Screen readers are not just for those who are visually impaired. They can also assist people with disabilities in learning and information processing, as well as those with low grade reading level ability.

Screen readers help people locate information, access services, and work every single day. Even entertainment can be accessed online more easily for a person who requires the assistance of a screen reader. So, what are some accessibility tools in SharePoint that support screen reader technology?

Describe images and provide transcripts for videos

Online experiences are highly visual. From the words on the page, through to diagrams, images and videos, you’re starting on the back foot if you are a person who lives with any of the above mentioned scenarios. Images will often provide further context to written copy. And videos with no closed captioning are of no use to a visually impaired person.

This is where alt text comes in. When an image, diagram, animation or video contains detailed alt text, the screen reader will read it aloud to the user. An example might be something like this:

A person holds a mobile phone with a coffee next to it and scrolls through a website

If there is no alt text attached to this image, a screen reader might simply say ‘image’, leaving the user wondering what they’re missing, or if associated text might make more sense if they could see the image below it.

Instead, opt for highly descriptive alt text. Let’s say this image is used in a blog post about office workers accessing their intranet outside of work. The alt text could read, ‘A person holds a mobile phone with a coffee next to it and scrolls through a website.’ If the image is decorative only, it’s still polite to provide users with a description, such as, ‘Browse your intranet via the mobile, and more. Push important notices directly to mobile phone.’ You can use a combination of alt text and a caption as well, to make the intent of the image super clear.

A person holds a mobile phone with a coffee next to it and scrolls through a website
Browse your intranet via the mobile, and more. Push important notices directly to mobile phone

SharePoint encourages content creators to support alt text, using AI to suggest a caption. It will prompt the creator to either modify the suggestion or add something completely different, before the image is published. Videos can also be embedded in SharePoint (Stream, YouTube, Vimeo etc) with alt text and closed captions added.

Good alt text descriptions also make your content more appealing to search engines, so in all cases, it’s the best way to treat visual content on your website or intranet.

Follow a linear, logical layout

Websites come in all shapes and sizes when it comes to their designs. No matter what your website is for, good user experience is paramount. This may seem as though it limits creativity, but we can promise you that user experience surpasses the desire for pretty but ineffective features.

A screen reader takes people through a web page in the order they appear in the HTML code. This might not be the same as how they appear visually on the page. Screen readers work best with linear content because it is easy for them to follow text and images that follow a straight path. Busy designs such as news sites make it difficult for the screen reader to follow a logical progression down the page.

An example of a webpage that does not follow a linear layout and makes it difficult for a screen reader to follow logically
News websites often need to include a lot of content on their homepage, making it a non linear reading experience.

News websites often need to include a lot of content on their homepage, making it a non linear reading experience.

SharePoint naturally adheres to this best practice and keeps text and images in the middle of the page, with plenty of white space. This provides a far less confusing experience to the end user, meaning they can consume information more easily. In some cases, such as when accessing services, this could be the difference between a visually impaired person receiving assistance they urgently need, or not.

Build for keyboard use only

The majority of people who need the help of a screen reader can not see a mouse pointer. They use the keyboard and its various shortcuts to navigate around the webpage and site. This means that all the actions needed to be performed on any given page, including closing notifications, getting help, controlling videos and submitting forms, must be able to be initiated from the keyboard.

The Microsoft productivity suite supports accessibility in SharePoint, enabling tabbing across content, making it compatible with screen readers. Additionally, Microsoft’s PowerApps display an error if you try and publish a custom app without a tab order to control the experience purely through keyboard.

Write descriptive links and headings

Headings and links need to make sense out of context, because a screen reader can be used to navigate through web pages by reading out a list of all their head­ing tags (h1–h6). These heading tags must be meaningful when they appear alone.

A more recent trend in establishing links on web pages has been to ditch the ‘click here’ and ‘read more’ for links that sit amongst text.

This page gives good examples of descriptive link text. See what we did there? Or if the link is an action button, it’s best to describe the action. In place of ‘click here’, you could say ‘make a reservation’ or ‘send me a registration email’, or whatever else describes the action.

SharePoint will automatically generate description text for news article links based on what’s written on the page that can be adjusted if it’s not quite right.

SharePoint's accessibility tools build content for everyone

It is almost unthinkable that as a society we would ever provide an amenity that isn’t accessible to every member of the public. It really doesn’t matter what your industry or who your audience is, building accessible websites and intranets should be a high priority. After all, whether you are a government agency, private enterprise or a B2B company, you’re providing a public service.

Achieving level AAA WCAG compliance is no easy task. However, building as many best practice elements into your design will mean you minimise or even remove the risk of alienating visitors and staff. Accessibility in SharePoint is not just supported, it’s actively encouraged and promoted.

Achieving level AAA WCAG compliance is no easy task. However, building as many best practice elements into your design will mean you minimise or even remove the risk of alienating visitors and staff. Accessibility in SharePoint is not just supported, it’s actively encouraged and promoted.

Want some expert assistance to improve the accessibility on your SharePoint site? Chat to our Microsoft 365 experts. Let’s get the conversation started today.