Promoting accessibility in editorial businesses

Web Accessibility Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

By Christine Albert

As a student enrolled in an editing program, I’m often asked to reflect on issues that may arise when working with clients. The discussion and module notes invariably focus on respect, clear communications, and diplomacy—about how the language of our queries and comments can affect authors. Yet, accessibility is rarely discussed, and few resources from professional associations or courses exist on how to make editorial businesses inclusive and accessible.

This lack of information on accessibility creates a disadvantage for those potential clients who may be physically or cognitively unable to use the same editing services as their peers. An author with multiple learning disabilities once explained to me that she found it difficult working with other editors: they simply wrote long comments using Track Changes, which she had difficulty reading. As a result, she had to constantly ask her transcriber to read her the edits and comments. After discussing the author’s needs, she and I worked out an alternate method that involved verbally communicating comments and large changes, which would let her work through the draft independently—a tactic that surprisingly hadn’t been considered by the other editors.

Lack of accessibility not only affects the services side of our businesses but it also affects our marketing efforts. Google searches for accessible and inclusive editing services turned up no relevant results. While searching editor websites, I was surprised to find that many do not follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG) nor incorporate basic accessibility features. For instance, a number of websites could not be zoomed in when viewed on a tablet, while others did not have enough contrast between the text and background. As someone with moderate vision issues, I struggled to read the content on these websites. Potential clients with visual or learning disabilities may be deterred by these difficulties and look elsewhere for an editor. If we are to operate our editorial businesses successfully, we need to go beyond our assumptions of what clients need and make our services accessible so we can provide them with what they actually require.

What is accessibility?

To use the Canadian National Institute for the Blind’s (CNIB) succinct definition, “[a]ccessibility means access.” Accessibility allows the maximum flexibility of use for as many people as possible, including those users with physical, mobility, visual, auditory, or cognitive disabilities. It’s not about special treatment but rather about creating equal access to goods and services, information, locations, transportation—all aspects of our world. Consequently, we may need to redesign our built environment, customer service policies, and technologies to ensure we reduce barriers to access.

Why is accessibility important?

According to the Government of Ontario, 1 in 7 people have a disability, and by 2036 this ratio will increase to 1 in 5. Globally, this number is 3.7 million Canadians aged 15 years or older, according to the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD). As the number of people with a disability increases, it becomes even more important that editorial businesses implement accessibility policies.

The Accessible Books Consortium, an organization aiming to increase the number and availability of books in accessible formats, published their Accessible Publishing Best Practice Guidelines for Publishers in April 2011. These guidelines highlight three major benefits of making publishing accessible, and they can be applied specifically to editorial businesses.

1. Commercial
By providing accessible formats and options, more people will be able to use your services, so you expand your market. Accessibility can also improve the customer experience—you meet clients’ needs with customized solutions instead of foisting a standard service that’s not appropriate to their situations.

2. Ethical
Accessibility promotes inclusivity; all writers are given an opportunity to use editing services to improve their work, regardless of their capabilities.

3. Legal
By making your editorial business accessible, you meet the relevant legal obligations. In Ontario, businesses must comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005. At its most basic level, this Act requires all businesses in Ontario to implement and enforce accessibility standards by January 2025. Since many editorial freelancers are also small-business owners, they are responsible for meeting the Act’s requirements.

How can you make your editing business accessible?

When speaking with new or returning clients, we make a point to get as much information as possible regarding the projects. When is the deadline? What type of editing is needed? Who is the intended audience, and what is the piece’s purpose? Is there a budget? Yet we must remember that the person we’re communicating with is also important. Many disabilities are not visible, so we cannot assume that a typical editing and communication process will always be effective for clients.

When I worked as a sales representative, I was trained to understand that every customer is different; I needed to focus on my customers’ needs and tailor the company’s products and services around them instead of around the sale. Editing clients are no different in terms of their uniqueness: a person with severe vision loss will probably require a different level of service than a client with full sight, as will a client who has difficulties with their speech. We’re lucky—editors are able to work with a variety of communication styles and tools, so meeting clients’ needs isn’t as difficult as it may seem. We just need to figure out which ones are the most appropriate to use in each situation.

Here are some ways you can make your editing business more accessible:

Highlight to clients that your work process can be adapted to their needs.

You can either state this outright on your website or in conversations with clients. For every project request, outline your typical work process in detail and explain to clients that this process can be changed to suit their particular preferences. Ask if they would prefer for you to use other methods instead; if they do, work with them to come up with a customized editing process (For instance, using a different colour for Track Changes, using the Compare Documents feature instead of Track Changes, or writing a query sheet rather than placing comments in the text).

Give clients multiple ways to contact you.

Don’t just use a contact form; list an email address and a phone number or a Skype account on your online profiles so that clients can choose the most convenient option for them. Make sure that all these communication methods are also listed in your email signature and social media profiles. If you use a contact form, get rid of the Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHA) feature entirely, as each type of CAPTCHA disadvantages certain groups of people.

In addition, be flexible on how you communicate with a client during a project. Be open to communicating in person (if possible) or by phone, email, or Skype. Explore other communication technologies and apps that may also be appropriate. For instance, when I worked with an author with a learning disability, we used WhatsApp to talk to each other because it was most effective for her: she could listen to my comments and queries, and we could save the messages and refer back to them. I’d never used the app before but downloaded it and quickly learned how it worked. It was free, didn’t have a large learning curve, and provided the client with a service she could effectively use.

Follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) when creating digital content.

As per Ontario law, all public websites had to comply with WCAG 2.0 Level A standards by January 2012. By January 2021, websites must meet the Level AA standards. WCAG 2.0 was created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which has posted a quick reference of the WCAG 2.0 requirements by level. You can check the quick reference for all technical details, but here are some examples of how websites must comply with the requirements:

  • Provide text alternatives for non-text elements and captions for multimedia.
  • Allow keyboard functionality.
  • Include content that can be used by assistive technology without losing its meaning.
  • Have descriptive web-page titles that outline purpose.
  • Including more than one way to access each web page.

Website setup and content significantly affect whether people can locate and use information. In this Adobe blog post, Bartek Lenarth, an accessibility expert with a visual impairment, provides some first-hand insights about how web design affects a user’s experience. If your business’s website isn’t accessible, then some potential clients won’t be able to locate information about your editorial services, and they will find a service from another editor that fits their needs.

Test your accessibility measures.

Testing is the best way to determine whether or not your digital content and services are accessible. While there are plenty of accessibility tools available for websites, nothing beats manual testing done by a human. Since accessibility is about access, human testers will be able to highlight the components that were accessible to them and the ones that didn’t work and need revision. Adrienne Montgomerie outlines some ways to do your own testing if you do not have any volunteers.

If you would like to use accessibility tools to supplement manual tests, the WCAG 2.0 requirements quick reference includes resources for each requirement—simply click on the “Understanding” boxes at the right side of the page to access them. also offers a number of resources you can use, including the following:

  • Color Contrast Checker
  • WAVE (web accessibility evaluation tool)
  • Screen reader, low-vision, dyslexia, and distractibility simulations

Follow up with clients regarding the editing process and rework if needed.

After you’ve edited a few pages or provided some feedback to the author, follow up with them to see if the methods are working. If the author has trouble accessing or understanding your edits, then brainstorm with them on another solution. For each solution tried, make sure to follow up with the author and get their feedback. Getting feedback, whether you’ve implemented a customized solution or not, is crucial for providing an effective customer experience. Don’t assume that an author’s silence means the solution is working—they may be too shy or embarrassed to suggest that something is not working for them.

Don’t undermine clients’ independence, even if you suspect that they may require a specialized service.
Do not assume what your client needs, even if you strongly suspect they have a disability. If your client doesn’t want any assistance or modified services, they may already have solutions set up. For example, the Job Access With Speech (JAWS) screen reader can read Track Changes and provide the user with information about revisions. You can annoy or offend potential clients by pushing an unwanted solution on them or making assumptions about their capabilities.


Creating an accessible editorial business is simple—it involves thinking about how other people, with different capabilities from you, can use your services and content. It is about getting rid of assumptions and providing a service and content that actually meets clients’ needs. Accessibility does not have to be difficult or costly; in fact, it is rewarding in many ways.

How have you made your business accessible? Do you have any other tips or suggestions that you’d like to share?

Christine Albert is an editor and indexer specializing in fantasy and literary fiction, business materials, and humanities and social science works. She holds a postgraduate certificate in Publishing from Humber College and is completing her certificate in Editing from Simon Fraser University.

This article was copy edited by Afara Kimkeran.

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