Designing for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Website Visitors

Published September 17, 2020

One of the great things about the accessibility community is the willingness to share and collaborate. We’re free with our strategies and tips that help make accessibility easier for all.

For example, there’s a set of Design Dos and Don’ts (PDF) for users with certain disability types, such as visually impairments, dyslexia (an oft forgotten user group), and others. W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) has hundreds of pages dedicated to success criteria and best practices. WebAIM’s email threads are often rich with interesting and insightful discussions — all freely available.

We have spent years advocating for those with disabilities and educating those who don’t. Accessibility, with its complexity, can be difficult to describe and understand, so we try to simplify as much as we can.

When I first came across the aforementioned Design Dos and Don’ts, for example, I was pleased by its simplicity and layout. Its purpose is clear: make the core concepts of accessibility easy to understand at a glance. As someone who is hard of hearing (HoH), I’m always intrigued to see what the guidance is for ensuring deaf and HOH people are included. Often when I read these resources I find myself either: 1) nodding in agreement, or 2) wanting to clarify or correct information.

When I read the guidance for the Design Dos and Don’ts for the deaf/HoH, this was one of those times I wanted to correct, as I was rather confused. So if you come across these posters, keep this in mind.

First, things I nod my head in agreement with: including closed captioning in video and asking for preferred communication mechanisms. What confused me was the dos and don’ts around simple language, not using complex page layouts and blocks of content, recommending good heading structure, etc. These don’t really have anything to do with hearing, so it could be taken as assuming deaf/HoH website visitors share similarities with those with certain cognitive disabilities, which is not the case.

I believe there are more concrete design considerations that could be included that wouldn’t conflate hearing disabilities with other disabilities. In keeping with the spirit of simple and sleek, I put together some Dos and Don’ts for designing accessible video content for deaf/HoH viewers.

Designing accessible video content for deaf/HoH viewers

Design Consideration Do Don't
Using captions Use captions in all video content Use autogenerated captions (without reviewing and editing)
Accuracy and timing Ensure accuracy and synchronization of captions with audio Provide captions one words at a time
Placement Move captioning when it would obscure content Place captions above or to the side of video content
Important audio Identify each speaker Caption unimportant audio
User changes Allow users to change their caption font, color, and background Use only black and white captions
Controls Place caption controls in a predictable location Hide caption controls behind another menu or outside the video player

In addition to video content and captioning, contact methods are an important consideration. To design more inclusively, don't make telephone the only means of contact. Instead, let users ask for their preferred communication mechanism.

When it comes to designing for the deaf and hard of hearing, it’s all about the video content. Site layout and complicated language are irrelevant to hearing, so it’s important we don’t send the message that we have problems communicating. There are differences in communication, of course, like when people use sign language exclusively for communication — as it doesn’t translate into exact English — but still, that does not have anything to do with complicated words or dense text.