Everyone has different views on what language or words are appropriate to use at given times. Instead of changing or removing words, many writers choose to censor words using additional or alternative characters or symbols. A lot of these attempts at censorship are done without consideration for accessibility or users that use assistive technology, and even the shortest words can be confusing for users as they try to figure out why there is a random number or symbol in the middle of a word. Here are my tips for censoring text with accessibility in mind in a variety of different contexts- in order to avoid using negative words, I will be showing examples of censored text with the word “Accessibility.”
What is accessible text, anyway?
In this context, accessible text is text that can be understood by audiences who have trouble reading standard print and by assistive technology tools such as a screen reader or similar technology. There are lots of ways to ensure that the appearance of text is accessible for users, such as the use of large print, bold text, and print disability-friendly font choices, though this post is more about how text is written versus how it is displayed.
- My Eight Favorite Free Fonts For Print Disabilities
- Common File Types For Vision Impairment and Print Disabilities
- Common Classroom Accommodations For Low Vision
- A to Z of Assistive Technology For Low Vision
How censoring text can impact readability
So how can censoring text impact readability or accessibility? I’m glad you asked! Here are a few examples of how common text censoring techniques can be difficult to understand:
- Replacing letters with numbers can cause numbers to be read out loud in place of the letters and impact the flow of a word. For example, the text “Ac3551b1l1ty” would be difficult to understand as the numbers would not be read separately and I would have no idea what the original word was. In addition, some people may not know what numbers look like when written in print.
- Special characters are often not recognized by screen readers or are difficult to read for users with low vision. If I used a special cursive font to write out Accessibility, I would not be able to identify the letters
- Censoring random letters can break up the flow of a word and make it difficult to sound out, especially when done like A–ess-b-l-ty, with the censored words being Cs and Is.
- Replacing letters with symbols can be just as confusing as numbers, if not more so since symbols are often inserted randomly without any additional meaning- what does A#@$%^&+?<@!^} mean anyway?
- Repeating characters or emoji can also be frustrating since screen readers often read each individual character/emoji in a row. For example, writing out five cake emoji would cause a screen reader to read “cake cake cake cake cake”
- How To Make ASCII/Emoji Memes Accessible For Visual Impairment
- How Do People With Visual Impairments Use Emoji?
- Texting Etiquette for Low Vision
- How To Make Keyboards Easier To See
Is strikethrough text accessible?
The general consensus in the web accessibility community is that CSS strikethrough text is not accessible, as the strikethrough decoration is typically ignored by screen readers and the text is read out loud without any indication of a strikethrough. In addition, it can be difficult for screen magnification users or users with low vision to see what the text is, or figure out what text is crossed out. On social media, this can be even more frustrating as strikethrough text may be treated as special characters and not read out loud at all. So using strikethrough text such as
Accessibility is not a good idea.
- How To Make Your Instagram Feed Accessible For Visual Impairment
- How I Document Accessibility Preferences With Low Vision
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Using dashes to remove letters
One of the most common methods I work with for censoring text is using dashes to remove letters whenever possible. Instead of using several dashes, most people choose to use dashes or an em dash, which looks like “—”. In addition, they typically include only the first letter or the first and last letter of a word.
Example censorings of the word Accessibility include:
Sounding out words with syllables
Instead of removing letters, some writers prefer to separate groups of letters or syllables so that the full word is not read out loud by a screen reader and the text can still be easily read by someone with low vision. This would mean the word Accessibility would be written as Ac-cess-i-bil-i-ty or Access-ibility. Personally, I prefer separating words in half since they tend to flow better with a screen reader, though there is a chance users will not notice the text has been separated.
Adding dashes for names
When writing this post, I received a question about how people censor names on social media, and if I had any suggestions for how this should be done with accessibility in mind. My response was that users should try and group the names with dashes whenever possible so that users can clearly figure out what name or phrase is being used, or use the previous censorship guidelines. For example, if I was talking about Digital Accessibility and wanted to have it show up even if someone had one or both of those words muted, I would write it as Digital-Accessibility or similar.
- Seven Factors That Make Websites Accessible To The Visually Impaired
- Tips For Using Social Media With Photosensitivity
My personal preference when writing is to come up with alternative words or phrases instead of censoring my own writing or leaving out words entirely, but I recognize that people have different writing preferences and want to ensure that they can communicate their message in a way that is inclusive of all audiences. I hope this post on censoring text with accessibility in mind is helpful for others!