How special characters and symbols affect screen reader accessibility
It’s quite common to see people using fancy fonts, characters and symbols on social media. Often people use them for emphasis. Or to make their tweets or account handles look different from the standard font.
What are special characters?
Special characters represent something other than a letter or number.
Standard punctuation marks and symbols on your keyboard are examples of special characters. Like the exclamation mark “!”, or ampersand “&”.
Unicode is a global coding standard.
It includes alphabet characters and symbols from every language in the world. Including Greek, Arabic, Thai and Cyrillic. Each character has an individual code that computers use to display a unique symbol.
Unicode characters do not appear on a standard keyboard. Although they’re recognised by most devices, websites, and applications. For example, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Gmail all support Unicode characters. Unicode characters also include miscellaneous symbols and pictographs. Like astrological, musical, political and religious symbols.
Yes, Unicode characters might look interesting and stand out visually. But they are inaccessible to screen reader users. Screen readers may skip them entirely or read something irrelevant to the user. This leaves people feeling confused. And often left guessing what the intended message was.
This is the case even if you’re using Unicode characters that ‘look’ like standard text. While a sighted user can see a stylised “t”, a screen reader may read out “mathematical sans-serif script t”. This means that even a short word can take a long time for screen reader users to process.
Hear how a screen reader deals with Unicode characters in the tweet below by Ken Dodds. Written in different special character font styles, the text reads: “You think it’s cute to write your tweets and usernames this way. But have you listened to what it sounds like with assistive technologies like Voiceover?”
You 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬 it's 𝒸𝓊𝓉ℯ to 𝘄𝗿𝗶𝘁𝗲 your tweets and usernames 𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖜𝖆𝖞. But have you 𝙡𝙞𝙨𝙩𝙚𝙣𝙚𝙙 to what it 𝘴𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 with assistive technologies like 𝓥𝓸𝓲𝓬𝓮𝓞𝓿𝓮𝓻? pic.twitter.com/CywCf1b3Lm
— Kent C. Dodds (@kentcdodds) January 9, 2019
Emoticons are smiley faces made from standard letters and punctuation symbols. For example, using a colon “:”, followed by a dash, “-” and a closed bracket “)” to create a smiling face. These are different from ‘emojis’ that use cartoon pictures to convey an emotion or object.
The tricky thing about emoticons is that some screen readers can read them. Whereas others can’t.
Emojis can actually be more accessible than emoticons. This is because emojis have alt-text that explains what the image is to screen reader users. Whereas most screen readers treat emoticons like normal punctuation.
Also known as ‘text art’, ASCII art uses special characters to form pictures. Text art is often used on Twitter and in online chats. But because it’s made using special characters and spaces, it’s not accessible to screen readers.
You can hear how a screen reader deals with ASCII art in the tweet below. It’s hard to get any meaning from it. And it takes a long time to read out.
If you like ASCII art but want to be more accessible, take a screenshot, upload it as an image and add alt-text.
Here is a recording of a screen reader announcing the ASCII (not even the full video).
If you want to partake in these memes in an accessible way, please take a screenshot and add the relevant live text to the tweet or to the alt text of the screenshot image.#a11y pic.twitter.com/N9S2s51hWS
— Tatiana Mac (@TatianaTMac) March 24, 2019
The problem with special characters and accessibility
Special characters might make your content look different. But they’re not always accessible to screen reader users and other disabled people.
Most special characters are important for good punctuation and grammar. But special characters can cause problems when they are:
- used incorrectly
- used for decorative purposes
- used to convey a different meaning to the original character
Custom fonts and fancy symbols make your content harder to read. Not just for screen reader users, but also:
- people with dyslexia
- people with low vision
- people with lower reading levels and abilities
- people with learning difficulties
- non-native English speakers
- people with limited time or attention span
They make things harder to read for sighted users, too. This is because they add extra visual ‘noise’ that our brains must work harder to read.
Screen readers and special characters
Screen readers read out what’s on the screen. They turn the text on screen into speech.
But screen readers treat special characters differently to the standard alphabet. This can cause issues as assistive technologies cannot always ‘read’ them. Sometimes they will skip them altogether.
This is because most of the time, users do not need to hear every punctuation mark or symbol. This would create quite a frustrating experience.
When reading a document, screen readers pause at points where there is a comma or full stop. Screen readers will use a shorter pause for commas, and a longer pause at the end of a sentence.
For words that include an apostrophe, like “don’t”, most screen readers will pronounce the full word. Rather than read out the punctuation (like “don apostrophe t”).
It’s important to know how screen readers treat different characters if you work in content.
Screen reader settings
Some screen readers will read most special characters, and some will read very few. This depends on their default settings. Screen readers can also pronounce special characters differently, adding extra confusion.
This means you can’t guarantee your message will make sense if you’re relying on special characters alone.
People can also change their punctuation settings depending on their preferences.
These settings allow the user to choose how much, or how little the screen reader reads out. For example, users can set verbosity to “all punctuation”. This is where everything is read aloud. This may be useful for blind web developers or writers who need to know what punctuation they are using.
For example, the popular screen reader Jaws:
- reads the minus sign as a – (dash). It does not distinguish when it is being used for maths equations, for example.
- uses a different intonation for an exclamation mark, adding a bit of expression
- announces when information is in brackets or quotation marks
While Apple’s built-in screen reader, VoiceOver:
- does not announce some frequently used special characters
- only pauses when it comes across quotation marks, brackets and dashes
But pauses can all sound the same to screen reader users. This means that users cannot always tell if they are reading a quote, or something in brackets.
Best practices to follow when using special characters
Each screen reader is different. But following these tips can make your content better for screen reader users.
Use plain English
Screen reader users may prefer to read plain English web content. This is because it’s quicker to read. Making it easier to find the information on the page they need.
Avoid jargon, extra words and any unnecessary special characters. For example, always use “and” instead of an ampersand.
Plain English uses standard punctuation that’s generally more accessible for everyone.
Use correct grammar and punctuation
The way you use punctuation makes a huge difference to the way screen readers read your text out loud. Think about whether you’re using the punctuation in the right place. And what value it’s adding to your writing.
Correct punctuation makes long passages of text much easier to read. And it means screen readers have the best chance of understanding it.
Don’t over-use punctuation either. For example, using three commas in one sentence. It makes your writing harder to read. This also makes it inaccessible. Instead, split the sentence out into several sentences.
Avoid Unicode characters
When using Unicode characters, ask yourself whether they’re really needed. Could you use standard text instead?
If you want a wide audience to understand your message, avoid using Unicode.
Screen reader testing
It’s important to know how screen reader users experience web page content. Particularly if you’re a website or content designer. The best way to do this is to work with people who use screen readers every day.
Learning to use a screen reader can also help. While this requires time and commitment, it can increase your awareness and understanding.
Some of the most popular screen readers include:
JAWS (Freedom Scientific)
A complete guide to Narrator (Microsoft Support)
Screen reader (Dolphin Computer Access)
Accessibility – VoiceOver (Apple)
Get started on Android with TalkBack (Android Accessibility Help)