Let’s Make Genealogy Accessible

I’ll start today with a minor confession. Microfiche readers pose a big problem for me. Not because of their mechanics or the often poor visibility, but because of the intense backlight used to illuminate the film. Unfortunately I suffer from an aggressive form of migraine which presents exactly like a stroke (paralysis, loss of vision, hearing, speech), and – most unfortunately – is triggered by bright lights. Most of the time I have no choice but to avoid bright lights…and the fiche reader.

A tiling of images to reflect a range of disabilities: a hearing aid, a wheelchair logo, a Braille machine and a colour blindness test card
Accessible family history content asks us for a small amount of time and effort to make our work and communications suitable for users with a range of disabilities. This could range from blind or deaf users, to the mobility-impaired, to those with colour-blindness or neurological barriers to perceiving information. Image credits: Ishihara card from the Wellcome Collection, CC-BY 4.0; Wheelchair by Marianne Bos via Unsplash; Hearing Aid by Mark Paton via Unsplash.

Thankfully, the majority of archives have been incredibly supportive when I’ve mentioned it, and do their best to permit access to the original records if they’re able to. These small adaptations make the world of difference. But please don’t mistake this for a call for sympathy on my part, because this article isn’t about me (and in any case, I’m already getting the adaptations I need). I’ve benefitted on so many occasions from those small adjustments made by thoughtful archivists, so I’d like to think about how we can all make the genealogy world – including the online one – a more accessible place, particularly for researchers with disabilities.

Pause and think for a moment about how much genealogy content you access online, when doing family history research or interacting on social media. Nurturing a more accessible community means opening our eyes to how we deliver our messages, photos, images, Tweets, talk slides, teaching materials and other content in our genealogy life – and how, with a little thought, small changes can make the world of difference to fellow researchers who are navigating a particular disability. Loathe those migraines though I do, they’ve given me invaluable insights into how organisations and individuals are able to adapt what they’re doing to ensure I can still access resources on a level with others.

silhouette of a woman shouting through a megaphone
Can you help me make a noise about accessibility in the genealogy world? Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash.

So can I get YOU on board with doing your bit towards a more accessible, disability-friendly family history world? That’s what I want to talk about today.

Accessibility Matters: let’s get started

We’re fortunate to enjoy a strong sense of community in many quarters of the genealogy and heritage world. Forums such as Ancestry Hour, House History Hour and Genealogy Stack Exchange see people connecting with and helping one another, and the Federation of Family History Societies lists countless local family history groups where researchers discuss their work. The necessary conversation circles and the willingness to help others in the genealogy world already exist – our next step is to build an even kinder, more welcoming community by making our content accessible to disabled users.

Improving Access for Different Types of Disability

Disabilities can take a range of forms. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of some major categories, with suggestions for how you might be able to improve accessibility in your online and offline presence. A more comprehensive discussion can be found on the Web Accessibility Initiative site.

  • visual impairments which affect sight, including blind and partially sighted users as well as those with colour-blindness. We can assist this group of genealogists by including image descriptions, writing hashtags appropriately and taking care with our colour schemes;
  • auditory impairments which affect hearing, including deaf or hard-of-hearing users. We can improve access for these researchers by providing captions or transcripts when we produce movies or auditory podcasts;
  • physical impairments including joint and mobility problems which prevent someone from using a traditional keyboard and mouse, or which make travelling to archives difficult. Maintaining good online access (including for meetings and conferences) can aid these genealogists;
  • neurological conditions which affect the parsing of visual information, such as dyslexia. Careful attention to colour schemes in your visual content can improve access for these researchers.

If you’re not used to planning accessible content, then this might feel like a lot to take on. But don’t worry! Learn and implement a little at a time and things will soon start to feel familiar. I’m still learning all the time too. My main advice would be not to treat accessibility as an afterthought that gets tagged on to your project at the end. Weave accessible approaches into your planning and design from the start and they become an automatic way of working.

Here are six suggestions to get you started: they’re only the tip of the iceberg but I think they’re a good place to begin. Learn about one of these each week and you’ll be really confident with all of them before 2021 is out!

1. Learn how to use ALT descriptors

If you spend any time on social media, you’ve probably noticed the term ALT in capital letters appearing on some images in your feed. ALT stands for Alternative Text and it’s a written description which you add to images to explain their content. You should be writing an ALT description whenever you post an image on a webpage to convey information. This could be an image on your blog, or perhaps a picture you’re posting on a social media account such as Twitter or Instagram.

Pause for a moment now and consider how you would interact with that visual content if you were a blind or partially sighted Internet user. You might not be able to see the images, but whenever you reach an image on a page, special screen reader software can access an ALT description if one has been provided, and read it out as an audio stream instead. This ensures that those with visual disabilities – or neurological disabilities that prohibit screen use – can access information from the image too. Without the ALT description, the screen reader can’t tell the user what’s in the image.

So – how do you add ALT? Social media platforms provide you with the option to add an ALT description whenever you upload an image. The example I’ve shown below is from Twitter.

Demonstration of how to add ALT text in Twitter: click on Add Descriptoin, fill in the text field and save it before posting your Tweet

…and you can also add ALT descriptors within the WordPress interface. My block editor for The Parchment Rustler allows me to add ALT text by clicking on an image block and adding a description under image settings:

Demonstration of how to add ALT descriptions in the WordPress interface: use the panel at the right hand side of the block interface to add ALT text.

Writing good ALT descriptions is a skill and one which I’m still honing every time I post an image online. Some basic tips include:

  • Keep it short. Wordy descriptions take ages for a screen-reader to narrate. Be brief and to the point, unless you’re presenting a complex graph or diagram where a longer description is needed.
  • Be clear. Don’t go into too much detail: ask yourself what purpose the image serves and make sure you convey that.
  • Don’t include ALT for purely decorative images.
  • Try reading your description aloud once you’ve written it – if it takes you a long while to read or sounds confusing, then it needs editing.

To this I would also add: don’t feel overwhelmed! The more you practice using ALT descriptors, the better you’ll get at writing them. Just get started and over time you’ll find yourself developing more of a feel for how to write image descriptions. The accessibility training courses I’ve highlighted below provide advice on implementing ALT too.

Four steps to adding alt descriptions. Upload your image, add a short clear description, read it out aloud and check it makes sense, then save your changes and post
Four steps to ALT – alternative descriptions – in the images you post online. Schematic (C) Sophie Kay 2021.

If you’d like to learn more about ALT descriptions, then this page from the Web Accessibility Initiative will tell you more about the different types of image and how to write appropriate ALT text for them. Keen social media users should check out these Help Centre articles from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

2. Saddle up your camel!

Keen user of social media? Then it’s time to ready your camels for some work….

If you post on platforms like Twitter or Facebook fairly regularly, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a “hashtag”. This is a word or phrase written without spaces and preceded by the hash character #. Hashtags identify your message as belonging to a particular theme and help other people to find your content if they like the same things as you (for example, typing the hashtag #genealogy into the Twitter search field will return lots of Tweets that include this tag, even from people whose content you don’t follow).

A camel in the desert, saddled up and ready for a journey
Remember this camel whenever you make a social media post, and hopefully it’ll remind you to make your hashtags accessible to those using screen readers. Photograph by Yana Yuzvenko via Unsplash.

But we need to think carefully about how we type our hashtags. If we type the entire tag in lower-case, the lack of spaces means that multi-word phrases get squashed together, such as #familyhistory. If you’re a sighted individual and read this, it might take some time to puzzle out a particular phrase, but if you’re using a screen reader, lower-case hashtags can make social media a pretty hostile environment.

To help screen readers distinguish the separate words in a hashtag phrase, you need to capitalise every word of the phrase – otherwise known as Camel Case, because the resulting phrase has humps in the middle, rather like a camel! (If we’re really nitpicking, capitalising the first word in the phrase as well as the later ones is known as Pascal Case, but you may sometimes see camel case used to describe this too. I prefer the term camel case because it’s descriptive and sticks in the mind – I have zero time for naming purism when the real issue is encouraging people to write in a disability-friendly way).

When you write hashtags using camel case, the screen reader can detect the start of each new word and knows what to read out to the user. Take a look at some of the examples below and you’ll see what I mean…

Examples of hashtags and how to write them using camel case, where each word is capitalised. Left side says "do this" and shows FridayFamilyHistory, AncestryHour, AccessibilityMatters and OccupationOfTheDay written in camel case. On the left, Not This is written and is followed by the same hashtags all in lower case
Examples of how to and how not write a hashtag for accessibility. The examples on the left are written in “Camel Case”, where each word is capitalised. This helps screen readers to distinguish between words within the non-spaced phrase. By contrast, the examples on the right do not use camel case and a screen reader might struggle to pronounce them.

Be vigilant when you add a popular hashtag to a social media post. On realising you’re typing a popular tag, many browsers or apps will offer to autofill the rest of the characters to save you the typing. Unfortunately, autofill always suggests the dominant version. If most people aren’t using camel case hashtags, the “suggested version” is most likely a lower-case, disability-unfriendly version. If you encounter this, reject the autofill option and continue typing your own Camel Case version instead.

3. When it comes to colours, don’t be caught red-handed

Colours can be an eye-catching and efficient way of conveying information – but we need to be careful when choosing the colours of our text, background and images. Around 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women suffer from some form of colour blindness, which occurs when cone cells in the retina at the back of the eye struggle to detect particular shades of light. Generally a colour blind person will have one or more shades of colour which they can’t detect or find more difficult to discern. Whether they find red, green or blue light problematic – or a combination of those – will vary.

Can you make out the numbers in the Ishihara charts shown above? If not, then you may have a form of colour blindness; red-green colour blindness is the most common form. People with protanomaly have problems detecting red light, whilst those with deuteranomaly have lower sensitivity to green light. Blue colour blindness, or tritanomaly, is pretty rare. Want to test your colour vision? Enchroma provide a free online tool, and you can get your results on-screen without submitting your email address.

If, like me, you have good colour vision, then it’s probably difficult for you to appreciate how a colour-blind person interacts with your materials, or how you should choose colours to aid accessibility. To get started, try the following tips when creating visual content for websites, presentations, blogs and social media posts…

  1. Avoid using red shades where possible;
  2. Don’t use colour as the sole way to convey information. Where appropriate, use dashed or dotted lines, symbols or numbers on images to help identify different components;
  3. Make sure there’s good contrast between text and background.
Six coloured hats on a black background
Six Thinking Hats – the accessible version! I swap the traditional red hat for a magenta one instead to help with colour blindness issues.

Current awareness of the condition suggests that many colour-blind individuals who find red problematic, actually find magenta to be less of a problem. Making small tweaks in talk slides or images to change red elements to magenta may help. Any of you who have heard me talk about the Six Thinking Hats method in genealogy may have noticed that I replace the traditional “red hat” with a magenta one instead!

If you’d like to read more about technical approaches to disability-friendly colour design, particularly colour blindness, I can highly recommend the recent article “Colour Me Better” published in Nature’s online blog.

How can I check my colour images?

The guidelines I’ve listed above should prove a good start to designing colour-friendly images. If you’d like an external check on your material, you can upload image files to Coblis, a colour blindness simulator. This fantastic online tool takes your original image and filters out particular colour ranges to show you how it will appear to users with various types of colour blindness.

The above screenshot shows the Coblis tool in action. I’ve uploaded an image with a bright yellow background and asked Coblis to show me how my image appears to users with various types of colour blindness. The tool shows me that the yellow background might not always show up, but the information I’m presenting is clearly visible in all cases. This means that my image should be OK to use!

Palettes for Dyslexia

Colour blindness isn’t the only condition that benefits from careful colour choices in visual materials. Dyslexic users can also be impacted by poor colour selections. The Dyslexia Style Guide from the British Dyslexia Organisation suggests using a plain coloured background with dark text. Pale backgrounds such as cream or pastel colours are often preferred to white, although the specific colour preferred can vary from person to person.

4. Don’t overuse emojis

When it comes to expressing your feelings or personality on social media without overshooting that dreaded character limit, emojis might tempt you with their space-saving, expressive options. But if you use a screen reader, you’ll most probably feel very differently.

Smiley face, crying with laughter and starry eyed emojis
Grinning Face, Rolling On Floor Laughing and Starstruck: they might look cute or expressive if you can see them, but if you had to listen to them being narrated by a screen reader, their appeal would fade very quickly.

Although one or two emojis in a post are fine, more than that can make social media almost unusable for those who rely on screen readers. How so? A screen reader works its way through the objects and text on the screen and reads out precisely what’s there, including verbal descriptions of each emoji. You’ve put 20 smileys at the end of your message? It’ll read them out one at a time. What might seem like a “cute addition” from a sighted perspective quickly becomes an unwieldy nuisance when you render the message as an audio description.

To give you an idea of what this is like, Twitter user @pyyrhl has kindly allowed me to post their example of how a screen reader interprets emojis (thank you!). The MTV tweet below shows moderate “emoji overload”, but if you follow through to @pyyrhl’s original Tweet and play the video, you’ll hear the screen reader audio that accompanies this Tweet – and it’ll give you an insight into how emojis can make social media an unwelcoming place for users of assistive technologies.

Tweet from Twitter user pyyrhl, showcasing an example of excessive use of emojis in a Tweet from MTV, which includes seven red flags at the end
Excessive emoji use can render social media almost unusable if you rely on audio narration of the webpage. When a screen reader narrates this Tweet, it says, “MTV I don’t keep up with pop music triangular flag on post triangular flag on post triangular flag on post triangular flag on post triangular flag on post triangular flag on post triangular flag on post.” Would you want to face this kind of narration every time you interacted with social media? My thanks to The Ghost of Pyrrhls Past @pyrrhl for permission to reproduce their Tweet and transcript.

Why not spend a minute right now giving your social media screen name that today an accessible refresh, and make your corner of social media that bit better? If you have multiple emojis in your social media username, perhaps rethink whether you could get by without them, or with fewer. You may also want to consider removing any non-standard fonts from your screen name, as these can also cause problems for screen reader software.

If you tend to use a lot of emojis in your Tweets, aim to develop new habits: be mindful of how many emojis you’re using and aim to use only one or two in a message in future.

5. It’s time to make a noise about captions

Perhaps you produce a regular family history podcast, or maintain a YouTube channel where you share genealogy-themed videos? It’s a rapidly growing corner of the genealogy world and a great way to connect with other researchers and share ideas and experiences. You can help foster an inclusive community around your audio-centred content by providing transcripts or captions for D/deaf and hearing impaired users.

Headphones ready for use, resting on a yellow background
If you’re producing audio-rich genealogy content, have you thought about how you can welcome the D/deaf community to your work? Image by C D-X on Unsplash.

Let’s take a look at some key definitions…

  • The term D/deaf encompasses two distinct communities: fully deaf individuals who communicate with sign language (D) and those who are partially deaf or hard-of-hearing and who may lipread or rely on a hearing aid (d);
  • A transcript is a full-text rendering of the spoken words in an audio presentation;
  • Captions display the spoken words on the screen alongside the visual images using the same language. Don’t confuse these with subtitles, which translate the audio into a different language.

The YouTube help pages provide a step-by-step guide to adding captions to your video. Although I can’t yet provide recommendations for free transcript generating software, I’m currently looking into Descript. Paid-for solutions such as Panopto exist, so if you have the budget to spare, it might be worth investigating your options.

Whether you provide a transcript or captions, a quick check helps before you post your content. Temporarily mute your movie once you’ve uploaded it and see if you’re able to follow along using the text you’ve provided. Experiencing the content in this way will alert you to any deficiencies in your audio accessibility. If you’d like to think about captioning in more depth, then you can find out more at the Web Accessibility Initiative.

6. Perform an accessibility scan of your website

If you run a genealogy business or you’re an active blogger (professional or amateur), then you probably maintain a website in some form. How easily can disabled users navigate your site and access the content? Inclusive, accessible web design is a huge topic in itself, and one which I can’t pretend to do justice to in a few simple paragraphs. But I would recommend going to the web accessibility evaluation tool WAVE, developed by a team at Utah State University, and pop in the URL of your site to perform a free website scan to detect any accessibility problems.

Accessibility scan being performed using the WAVE tool, on Sophie's professional website at Khronicle. 1 error has been found, and some instances of justified text need changing.
Using the WAVE tool to assess my professional website over at Khronicle. The report is generally positive, but it’s detected one error and a handful of justified text alerts which I need to follow up on.

You can see the WAVE interface above. The right-hand view shows my pro website over at Khronicle, which I’ve asked it to scan. The left-hand panel shows the results: mostly good news, but the system has flagged several instances of justified text which I need to change.

I’d also advise running an accessibility scan every time you update your website’s look. Theme updates on blog platforms may overwrite your carefully-planned accessible design, so a quick check can flag the aspects you need to look at. Writing this article has been a welcome nudge for me to re-scan my websites and I now have a few to-dos I’m working through to improve things.

What can I do next?

Recent data from the Office of National Statistics indicates that in 2020, 81% of the disabled population of the UK were Internet users – that’s over 11 million people and 16% of the UK population. Growing a friendly, welcoming and thriving community can only happen if we’re willing to make sure everyone is included in that. Getting to grips with the six steps above is a great start. Once you’re confident with those, it’s time to keep learning.

Blind user of a Braille-adapted keyboard
Photo: Braille-reading device c/o Sigmund on Unsplash.

Free Courses on Web Accessibility

Some fantastic, free online courses are available if you’re keen to learn more about online accessibility. If you have time to study for a few hours a week, why not sign up for the edX MOOC, Introduction to Web Accessibility which is running through to December 2021? And if you’re a fan of FutureLearn, keep an eye out for their digital accessibility course, run in collaboration with the University of Southampton. Although it’s not clear when the next iteration of the course will happen, its Key Principles for Creating Accessible Web Content are available on the FutureLearn site.

…and a Checklist to get you started!

The ideas I’ve mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of making your corner of the Internet disability-friendly: I won’t pretend that this is anything like a complete guide to online accessibility. But if you’re willing to implement these steps from today, then you’ll be making the genealogy world a better place. Why not save the checklist below and try to form some new habits today?

Using Camel Case in social media hashtags and adding ALT descriptions to images can help those using screen readers to access content. Transcripts and captions for audio and video items ensures that d/Deaf users can interact with your material. Even simple colour choices, such as using high-contrast backgrounds and thinking carefully about your colour palette can help readers who have dyslexia and colour blindness.
My checklist for making your online genealogy postings more accessible.

I’ve tried to draw on opinions from a range of people in putting this article together, including those who use particular adaptations in their working methods. If you use adaptive technology to support working around a disability, I’d love to hear your perspective on how we can make the genealogy world a more accessible place. Please add a comment below if there’s something you’d like to share. Thank you!

Author’s Note: Speak to a range of people with disabilities and you’ll find a variety of opinions about the language we use to discuss disability and accessibility. Given my own experience of mobility and neurological impairments, I’ve chosen to use “disability” and “disabled” in this article, as these are the terms I use when describing my own situation.

6 thoughts on “Let’s Make Genealogy Accessible

  1. Genealogy can pose a problem for those of us with dyscalculia reading census data, dates themselves can easily be transposed , working out how old someone was or when they were born to name just a few “little” things which can affect us and any profiles we might produce . This can be made worse if your dyslexia is coupled with Irlen syndrome and many sites are stark black and white with difficult serif fonts

    Thank you for the article – interesting
    Chris Sharkey

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