Why We Make Documents That Aren’t Accessible to All Readers

An a Generation Xer, I grew up before digital files were everywhere. Even my first computer files were analog, saved on cassette tapes!

I learned to write in this order:

  1. Printing by hand
  2. Cursive by hand
  3. Typing on paper (with an actual mechanical typewriter)
  4. Typing with a computer and printing to paper
  5. Typing with a computer and sharing the document digitally without printing.
  6. Tapping touch screens and fighting autocorrect

Many instructors, staff members, and students similarly grew up writing or typing on or for paper. To this day, word processors such as Microsoft Word give us a white rectangle shaped like a sheet of paper as a typing area on the assumption that the document will be printed. Although I’d assumed that HTML editors would replace word processors or that Word would become an HTML editor as printing became less common, this hasn’t happened. In 2017, we’re still using word processors designed for printing.

Given this history, no one should be surprised that we should use word processors to create digital files that resemble paper documents. Unfortunately, digital files can have some of the same limitations as paper. One is that people with disabilities such as blindness or dyslexia may not be able to read them easily. With a little extra care, however, we can make digital documents usable and accessible to readers in ways that paper can’t match.