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Event Review: An Introduction to Editing for Accessibility

Written by Ritu Guglani; copy edited by Maggie Clark

Iva Cheung, a certified editing professional and member of Editors BC, spoke to a room full of eager participants at Editors BC’s January 2018 meeting. Her presentation topic was editing for accessibility. While editors live in a world of nuances and judgment calls, Iva re-affirmed that it is always a good idea to use the basic principles of plain language to remove communication barriers for people with disabilities.

I learned three eye-opening Canadian statistics about disabilities from Iva that day: about 10% of Canadians have print disabilities, another 10% are linguistically or culturally deaf, and 8% of males of Northern European descent have red-green colour-blindness. Therefore, all communications meant for the general public must be fine-tuned so that people with disabilities can access them.

As editors, we strive to make our communication easy to understand, read, acquire, and discover. However, the user first needs to discover and acquire our communication before focusing on being able to read and understand it. Iva explained this concept with a clear illustration, showing how good, effective communication needs to be worked at backwards, keeping usability at the forefront.

As Iva explained, according to cognitive load theory, our working memory can hold only four items at any given time. This piece of information is important for communicators to keep in mind as they simplify their communications for usability. (When I learned this information, I was secretly quite comforted—there’s a reason for my attention deficiency moments…minutes…hours!)

Without getting too much more into Iva’s detailed presentation, I’ll share some of Iva’s tips on editing for accessibility that I took home:

  1. Supply audiovisual material with transcripts and captions.
  2. Give digital images alternative text.
  3. Write headings that describe the main messages in your communications.
  4. Format your headings as headings to optimize your communications for search engines.
  5. Avoid creating landing pages that have no meaningful use.
  6. Encourage clients to get an ISBN/ISSN number to increase their publication’s circulation.
  7. Avoid visually dense text.
  8. Always proofread the final medium, which if it involves a screen reader (i.e., a voice-over), proofreading it can include reviewing how it sounds.
  9. Create accurate, grammatically correct, and clear captions.
  10. Avoid nominalizing verbs.
  11. Write in active voice.
  12. Arrange sentences positively instead of negatively.
  13. Avoid interrupting the core of your sentences, so add any extra information to the end of them.
  14. Use words that are short and common to most readers.
  15. Use a term consistently after it’s been introduced.
  16. Leave out unnecessary words and syllables.

Editing with accessibility in mind removes barriers and helps people acquire the information they need. Iva’s presentation was a gentle nudge to Editors BC that full accessibility isn’t feasible, as it would mean offering the material in all known formats in all languages. However, we, as editors, can start simply (for example, with alternative text) and most importantly, advocate for accessibility with publishers.


Ritu loves plain language, and her work as a freelance author, editor, and medical technical writer reflects her personality – it engages and informs her readers while respecting their time and intelligence. She loves to bring a story alive. A proud member of the Editors Association of Canada (BC Branch), Ritu is committed to building a stronger community of writing professionals. Contact Ritu at guglaniritu6@gmail.com.

Maggie Clark is a post-secondary student and copywriting specialist whose goal in life is to work as a professional editor. On her way to achieving that goal, she has earned a Professional Writing Diploma from Douglas College and a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communication from Royal Roads University. Her next step is to complete her studies in SFU’s Editing Certificate program.

Image by Pixabay.

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