Key takeaways in this post:

  • Using accessible language ensures tha content is comprehensible to a diverse audience, including those with disabilities, limited literacy, or non-native language proficiency.
  • Simplifying language and avoiding jargon enhances clarity and comprehension.
  • Adhering to accessibility standards ensures compliance with legal requirements and also reflects ethical responsibility in promoting equal access to information.

Author: Hannah Barker
Last updated: 02/02/22

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, it includes people with visual impairments, lower reading levels, distractions or different language needs. Writing content that’s accessible helps remove barriers. This allows people to get the information they need no matter their ability or circumstance.

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?

Consider asking 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 WG Content, we’re responsible for understanding how our audiences consume information in different ways. It’s a big task, but fortunately, making your writing more accessible can make it stronger overall. Many accessible language techniques overlap with other writing areas, such as readability, health literacy, plain language and search engine optimization (SEO).

Here are 10 ways to make your writing more accessible. You can also download our free accessible language checklist 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 engages users and makes the information more accessible.

2. Remove extra words

An easy way to make your purpose clear is to remove extra words. They take up space without adding meaning.

The following words make sentences longer and the message less available to users.

  • Very
  • Seriously
  • Some
  • Just
  • Even
  • I think

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 WG Content’s list of other healthcare buzzwords and simpler alternatives.

Idioms can also create confusion. The phrase “out of shape” might only make sense to people who live in your region.

It’s essential to know your audience and consider how they could interpret your content.

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. 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 can also lower accessibility. These are words that look the same but have different meanings.
For example, “tear” can be a verb (Tear off the bottom of the form). Or it can be 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. Use active voice when you can. Here are three accessible language examples:

Not accessible: Patients will be contacted by hospital staff to discuss visit details.
Accessible: Hospital staff will contact patients to discuss visit details.

Not accessible: Patients are asked to arrive 15 minutes early.
Accessible: Please arrive 15 minutes early.

Not accessible: The medication should be taken with food.
Accessible: Take this medication with food.

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. Apply styles to headers, subheads and body text. The styles should show a hierarchy of information. This can help users find what they need.

Use a standard style sheet and format in a website content management system or word processor. This 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 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. Use complete sentences to introduce a list. This makes it easier to translate. You don’t have to rewrite the sentence.

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 the linked text is, the easier 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.

Writing accessible language is a way to improve your content overall. Healthcare audiences come in all shapes or sizes and consume content in many ways.

When considering accessibility, you broaden your scope for who can receive your message.

Download the accessible language checklist

For more accessibility information, look at these resources:

Our 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.

Accessible language means writing in a way that everyone can understand. It uses clear, simple words to make sure everyone can easily get the message.

Use tools like readability checkers and screen readers. Think about who will read your writing and make it easy for them. Be open to changing things to help more people understand

It includes the following types of language:

  • Biased words
  • Complex words
  • Jargon
  • Long sentences
  • Words that might offend people

Also, using formats like PDFs without making them easy to use can make it hard for people to get information.

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