Text justification and accessibility

  • Author: Allayne Woodford
  • Date: 6 Aug 2015

When it comes to creating accessible content, focus can tend to be on headings, images and use of colour. Get those things right and you’re well on the way to the metaphorical tick for accessibility. Taking things to the next level though, considerations include (but are very much not limited to) the use of tables, font styling and even text justification.

Text justification is the spacing of text across a page or column where both left and right margins are aligned to create a clean and block look. It is often favoured by graphic designers or people who create brochures or other display advertising.

From an accessibility perspective, we need to be aware of how text justification may affect the readability of a document for some people.

Justifying text can present problems for people with Dyslexia, where the extended spaces between words and sometimes letters within words can create what’s been termed “rivers of white”, referring to the spaces of white that can visually dominate the text.

Another user group affected by text justification is screen magnification users. Magnifying these so-called rivers of white, in particular the space in between words, can increase the need for scrolling beyond what would be required if text was aligned to one side.

So can you justify rivers of white? (Pardon the pun.)

It is possible to justify text without creating the visual issues described, but this will depend on the format you are working in.

Desktop publishing software packages such as InDesign and QuarkXPress have relatively refined text justification tools, allowing for spacing between words as well as letters to achieve the required look, without causing serious accessibility issues. Microsoft Word allows for justification of words but not letters, so it’s more probable that justified text in Word will present users with readability problems.

A tip for all formats when justifying text is to allow for hyphenation but use hyphenation modestly and consider readability when breaking up words over lines.

What does WCAG say?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 recommend that text be left-justified for languages that are written left to right. Noteworthy at this stage, this is not a conformance requirement to meet WCAG Guideline 1.3.2 Meaningful Sequence but an advisory technique.

While text justification is a possibility depending on format it could be argued that best practice is to avoid it where possible and stick to the left.