Acronyms and abbreviations: accessibility for content authors

  • Author: Access iQ ®
  • Date: 26 Nov 2012
  • Access: Premium

Acronyms and abbreviations are shortened versions of words or phrases that are used in everyday speech and writing. Typically, they simplify long phrases, words or titles. On websites, they can be confusing for people who aren't familiar with them or have trouble seeing or understanding them.

The purpose of Guideline 3.1 Readable: Make text content readable and understandable is to make content as easy to understand as possible. This includes acronyms and abbreviations.

  • Abbreviations are shortened versions of words.
  • Acronyms are words made up of letters — usually initials — from a longer phrase or title, pronounced as a single word. Examples include AGIMO and QANTAS.
  • Initialisms are pronounced as separate letters. Examples include AKA, REM and IBM.

Success Criterion 3.1.4 Abbreviations states:

A mechanism for identifying the expanded form or meaning of abbreviations is available. (Level AAA)

It also notes that providing an explanation of acronyms and abbreviations on websites might help people who:

  • have difficulty decoding words
  • rely on screen magnifiers (magnification may reduce contextual cues)
  • have limited memory
  • have difficulty using context to aid understanding

It is generally good practice to provide an expanded form or explanation of an abbreviation on first mention. However, judgement is required to decide whether the abbreviation itself conveys sufficient information. The word "modem" is technically an abbreviation of "modulator/demodulator" but it is fair to say that the abbreviation has replaced the expanded phrase in popular usage.

Similarly, it is doubtful that providing the expanded title of "Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services" will enhance anyone's understanding of the word "QANTAS".

These are the kind of decisions content handlers have to make to ensure maximum accessibility.

You can provide explanations for acronyms and abbreviations by showing their expanded forms through the abbr and acronym elements. Using these elements will allow screen readers to voice the expanded forms of the acronyms and abbreviations.

If there are enough acronyms and abbreviations on the website to make up a glossary of terms, you can also provide the link to this list in the text that follows.

Not every abbreviation is unique and will depend on who you are speaking to or the industry you are addressing. For example in computing the acronym MDF is used to abbreviate 'Microsoft Data File' but MDF can also refer to the organisation 'Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation'. In this case, it will be helpful to provide an explanation of the abbreviation either through the abbr and acronym elements or a link to a glossary of terms.

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