Font Size Isn’t the Only Factor: How to Make your Documents Readable for People with Visual Disabilities

One of the first things people think about when making printed media accessible is a larger font size.  It’s usually recommended that a size 16- to 24-point body be used. However, by increasing the font size, other things need to be addressed.  Larger font means that the text will take up more room on the page, which could mean more pages. Luckily, there are multiple things you can adjust beyond font size to make your printed media accessible for everyone.  We discussed layout and paper choice previously, so this article will focus on font.

Legibility and Readability

The process to making your document accessible to people with visual disabilities starts with these two ideas.  They’re related but very distinct in terms of what they do.  

Legibility is determined by the specific traits affecting the identity of the letters.  For example, how easy is it to tell the difference between two letters–like a lowercase “l” and an uppercase “I”.  When we read, we don’t look at every individual letter, rather we assemble groups of letters into phonetic groups which allows us to process information much faster.  For legibility, you will want to focus on shape, scale, and style.

Readability is the clarity and speed that content can be digested over the span of a paragraph, page, or several pages.  Is there a logical order to where the text is? Is it lined up for easy scanning? This is influenced by legibility, but also layout and design decisions.  For readability, we will focus on dimension, spacing, and alignment.

Shape and Weight

The shape and weight of a font are determined by two factors: the form and the counterform (also called counter).  The form is the stroke, or the actual letter itself. The counter is the space around the letter. It’s this balance between form and counter that determines how easy it is for a letter to be recognized.  If the stroke is too thick with small counters, or if the counters are disproportionately bigger than the stroke, it can take longer for the eye to decode. A regular or medium weighted font is generally preferable to a bold or fine font.

Scale

A letterform’s scale is determined by several factors.  The relative size of a typeface is determined by its “x-height”, or how big the other letters are compared to a lowercase “x” of the same font, with the exception of ascenders and descenders.  Typefaces with tall x-heights are often thought to be easier to read because they are larger in size overall. This doesn’t mean that you should only use fonts with larger x-heights, but you need to be aware of this when deciding which typeface to use.  You also need to be aware of the width-to-height-ratio. If the letters are too skinny or too fat, it can make it harder to read. Most legible fonts have a relatively equal ratio.

Style

There are typically two types of typefaces:  display fonts and text fonts. Display fonts are decorative, while text fonts are designed to be more plain and be easier to read.  Because text fonts are easier to read and have easily recognizable letterforms, it makes sense to choose them for the majority of the document when designing for accessibility.  When using display fonts for establishing visual style and flare, repeat recognizable content in the text fonts to make these portions easier to read. 

It’s also important to note that some typefaces are designed to be easy to read on screen and may not be as easy to read in print, so test this out if you are ever unsure.  Always consider how this information is going to be delivered when designing the document.

Dimension

Readability of text can be improved by manipulating the point size and column width.  While it’s impossible to say which specific point size is best for a font because each typeface is unique, the key is to be sensitive to the above factors when making design decisions.  

Column width, or line length, can also affect the reader’s ability to process information.  If the columns are too narrow, words will have to be hyphenated awkwardly and it will become difficult for a reader to scan the document.  Too wide, and the eyes have difficulty finding the next line. Think of a textbook, newspaper, or magazine. They have multiple columns to make line length more manageable.

Spacing

There are a lot of spacial considerations when making a document accessible, from how far apart letters are to how big paragraphs should be.  All of these things affect the ease and speed that a reader can process text:

  • Kerning:  the horizontal space between letters.  This can create gaps or areas of visual tension between letter pairs which makes reading more difficult.
  • Tracking:  how is the flow of the overall document?  Do the words/letters bump into each other, making everything tight?  Are they too far apart?
  • Leading or line spacing:  This is the vertical distance between lines within a block of uniformly set type.  If the line spacing is too loose, the readers have trouble finding the next line. Too tight, and the ascenders and descenders collide.  Optimally, you want to shoot for 120% the font size (10pt font, 12pt leading)

Alignment

In western culture, left-aligned type is easiest to read, because we read from left to right.  This means having each line starts at the same point on the left side of the page. Text aligned to the right or center both have inconsistent start points and can make it difficult to find the start of the next line.  Justified text, where text on both sides of the column are aligned, can also be detrimental because the spacing from line to line is inconsistent. This can create distracting “rivers” through the text and affect readability.

People with visual disabilities require more than just larger font size for printed media to be accessible.  The kind of font used, the spacing, alignment, and multiple other factors contribute to being easier for someone to read a document.  Most of this stuff you’ve probably seen or even done without even knowing it. Now that you’re aware of why these things are important for accessibility, hopefully you’ll look at ways you can improve further.

How to Make your Documents Readable for People with Visual Disabilities
How to Make your Documents Readable for People with Visual Disabilities
Font Size Isn’t the Only Factor: How to Make your Documents Readable for People with Visual Disabilities

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