The APA Style team worked with accessibility experts at David Berman Communications to ensure that APA Style guidelines as presented in the Publication Manual (7th ed.) are compliant with Web Content and Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA standards. Our style guidelines have been developed to address the needs of users worldwide who access works in APA Style in a variety of contexts and modalities. As discussed on this page, APA encourages users to make refinements as needed to meet the needs of their specific communities.
The information on this page represents some of the most common questions users have about accessibility and APA Style, including the following:
- accessible typography
- creating accessible headings
- including URLs in reference list entries in an accessible way
The APA Style team will update this page over time to address other areas of concern to users.
Here we are going to look at some myths and facts about accessible and usable typography as relevant to APA Style. The main takeaway is this: There do not have to be trade-offs—you can have great, expressive, nuanced typography that also meets or exceeds all regulatory and functional accessibility requirements. To paraphrase David Berman, when we style for the extremes and we do it well, everyone benefits.
Myth 1: Serif Fonts Are Not Accessible
It is a common misconception that serif fonts (e.g., Times New Roman) should be avoided because they are hard to read and that sans serif fonts (e.g., Calibri or Arial) are preferred. Historically, sans serif fonts have been preferred for online works and serif fonts for print works; however, modern screen resolutions can typically accommodate either type of font, and people who use assistive technologies can adjust font settings to their preferences.
Research supports the use of various fonts for different contexts. For example, there are studies that demonstrate how serif fonts are actually superior to sans serif in many long texts (Arditi & Cho, 2005; Tinker, 1963). And there are studies that support sans serif typefaces as superior for people living with certain disabilities (such as certain visual challenges and those who learn differently; Russell-Minda et al., 2007).
However, a skilled designer can create an accessible document that uses serif typefaces effectively, and if structured according to best practice standards, that same document can have its machine text presented in other ways for particular users. For example, a person living with severe dyslexia could choose to have the font swapped in real time with a typeface and spacing that works better for them—thus, there are no trade-offs for the typical user, and the typographic tone of voice that the designer intended for the message is retained.
Furthermore, typeface selection is only one part of the typographic solution for creating accessible typography. Designers must also make wise choices about other factors including size, color, justification, letter spacing, word spacing, line spacing, character thickness, screen resolution, print readiness, and other audience and media issues.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) set standards for online accessibility. WCAG 2.0 Level AA does not set any rules about typeface or type size. It does not specify which typefaces are better than others. There are effective and ineffective serif fonts, just as there are effective and ineffective sans serif fonts. If everyone were to strictly follow the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) guidelines for typography, all text would be in 12-point Arial black. Fortunately, you have the flexibility to choose from a variety of font types and identify which will best suit your work.
Furthermore, depending on your organization, there may be additional standards you have to follow to be in alignment with brand guidelines. And depending upon your jurisdiction, there may be additional regulations you need to follow (e.g., the European Union’s EN 301 549 calls for compliance with WCAG 2.1 Level AA, which includes specifics regarding line and character spacing).
Thus, a variety of typeface choices are permitted in APA Style. Also check with your publisher, instructor, or institution for any requirements regarding fonts. We recommend particular fonts in the Publication Manual because they are legible and widely available and because they include special characters such as math symbols and Greek letters. Other fonts can be used with APA Style provided that they also meet these criteria. Thus, users should be able to find a typographic solution that meets their needs.
Myth 2: All Caps Are Not Accessible
Many people have heard that is never accessible to present wording as all-capital lettering; however, this is another myth. Fear not! You can in fact use all caps in an accessible way.
It is true that presenting text in all caps will slow down all readers, especially those with certain types of visual and/or cognitive impairments. However, making sure you do not break the accessibility of wording by putting it in all caps is actually all about doing something no person reading it will see. Here’s how: Always type words with appropriate capitalization (capitals for the beginning of a sentence and proper nouns, etc., lowercase for other words). Then apply a style or text effect to create the appearance of all caps. Screen-reading devices will then announce the words correctly (as opposed to, e.g., trying to treat them as an initialism or acronym and reading out each word letter by letter). Other assistive technologies or conversions will also work correctly because they have the option to override your style to remove the all-caps style or effect. This puts the power exactly where we want it—in the hands of readers.
In APA Style papers, the running head is the only part of the paper that is written in all-capital letters. The running head appears only in professional papers. If the authors’ manuscript will appear online (e.g., as a preprint in PsyArXiv), authors should use a style or text effect as described here to format the running head in all caps.
Myth 3: Smart Quotes Are Not Needed
Using inch marks and foot marks (sometimes also called “straight quotes”) instead of proper left and right quotation marks (both double and single, including apostrophes) makes it harder for assistive technologies to understand your content. Imagine a screen reader announcing “inch” or “foot” rather than announcing the beginning or ending of a quotation.
Everyone deserves proper punctuation. So, in your word-processing program, turn on the option for “smart quotes” to help ensure that you are using the proper mark.
The following examples show the visual difference between straight quotes and proper left and right quotation marks, or smart quotes.
Creating Accessible Headings
Headings in a document identify the topic or purpose of the content within each section. Headings help all readers become familiar with how a document’s hierarchy is structured and how the content is organized, helping them easily find the information they seek. Headings that are formatted and worded well aid both visual and nonvisual readers of all abilities. Headings must be clearly distinguishable from body text.
How can one then create and use excellent headings (and related body text) for all users, including those using assistive technologies? Read on.
Purpose of Headings
The functional purpose of headings is to identify the topic of the content within each section. Treat your headings as if they are “landmarks” within the text, guiding readers to their desired destination. Headings allow readers searching for particular information to find it easily; readers looking to understand the scope of a work are able to do so at a glance.
Also, it is impossible to talk about presenting a truly great heading structure without crossing over into the wording within the headings. Headings should never contain content that is not within the text in the section described by the heading. In other words, if your heading is “How Many Designers Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?” the text in that section must discuss designers and lightbulbs. In academic research papers, standard headings are often used, such as Method, Results, and Discussion. Standard headings allow readers to understand the structure and content of the research being reported. It is best practice to keep headings to 60 characters or less, and 80 at most. This is especially helpful to nonvisual users who could, for example, be using a dynamic Braille display that only presents 80 characters at a time.
When appropriate, headings can, accessibly, include intriguing wording intended to capture readers’ attention, as long as there is also a part of the heading that reveals what is actually present. Just like a book title can include both an intriguing phrase as well as an explanatory phrase (e.g., “Frustration Exemplified: How To Give a Cat a Pill”), you could do the same in a heading. However, context is important: For a “do it yourself” book, this might engage readers and enhance their reading pleasure. For a medical textbook, this might be distracting and even frustrating for readers trying to look up specific information.
In longer works (e.g., dissertations and theses, books), headings appear in a table of contents. The purpose of the table of contents is to give readers an overview of the entire contents of the text as well as to make them familiar with how the content is organized in sections and subsections. Especially for reference works, this is a vital part of the reader interaction. The table of contents, in essence, is a collection of the headings within the text. Readers use visual style and content to understand the importance of the heading (the hierarchy) and the topic or purpose of the content in the section labeled by the heading. Thus, if you have excellent headings (both in content and in visual style), you will generate an excellent table of contents. For electronic documents, excellent headings will help you generate an excellent navigational structure as well.
The Publication Manual does not set standards for tables of contents because journal articles and student papers do not contain tables of contents. For works that include a table of contents, such as dissertations and theses, APA recommends that you use the automatic table of contents function of your word-processing program to create the table of contents. Any of the automatic formats are acceptable. Typically the three highest levels of heading within each chapter or section are included in the table of contents; however, this can vary depending on the length and complexity of the work.
Are You Required to Use Heading Styles in Your Work?
Writers should use heading styles to format and electronically tag headings to help their audience of readers navigate and understand their work. Heading styles also help students create consistently formatted headings.
However, in some cases, using heading styles (vs. manually formatting body text to look like a heading) is optional. The most common case in which it is optional to use heading styles to format text is when authors are submitting a manuscript for publication. Regardless of whether the authors use heading styles in their manuscript, the typesetter will strip the work of all heading styles and implement the headings styles of the publisher. Thus, it is not required for authors to use headings styles in draft manuscripts, but they can if desired. For example, during review, heading styles may help editors and reviewers navigate the work, especially a longer work.
Likewise, students are not required to use heading styles to format their headings, but they can if desired. For example, if students submit a course assignment on paper, it will not matter whether they used heading styles or manual formatting to create the look of headings. However, if students submit an assignment electronically, it may be helpful to use heading styles to facilitate the instructor’s navigation of their work.
If writers are self-publishing their work online, it is helpful to use heading styles to assist readers in navigating the work. For further advice on how to use heading styles, particularly when publishing your work online, read more about accessible typography and style at David Berman Communications.
Inclusion of URLs in Reference Lists
WCAG 2.0 Level AA guidelines recommend that URLs in online works have descriptive text. For example, in the preceding sentence, the words “URLs in online works have descriptive text” are linked to the page at https://www.w3.org/TR/UNDERSTANDING-WCAG20/navigation-mechanisms-refs.html.
However, APA Style references include links with anchor text that is simply the destination DOI or URL (vs. anchor text that is natural, descriptive language)—does this mean that APA Style references are not accessible?
APA Style References Meet Accessibility Standards
To answer this question, the APA Style team consulted with accessibility experts at David Berman Communications to develop our strategy for seventh edition references. Although we considered creating references that included descriptive text links (e.g., linking the title of the work), we settled on the current approach for a few reasons:
- A reference list is not meant to be read from start to finish but rather consulted as needed if readers want more information on works cited in the text. Thus any reader—including a person using a screen reader—would not be expected to follow every link in a reference list. Even if the links in the reference list were beneath descriptive text, the list of links in the reference list would not be particularly helpful on its own because those links need the context of the in-text citation for readers to understand why the links are relevant.
- APA Style governs how manuscripts meant for publication and student papers are prepared. These papers might be read either in print or online. Thus, it is helpful to preserve the actual link address to account for the case in which the work is printed. This approach also produces one set of general guidelines rather than multiple sets, which simplifies writers’ task of understanding and implementing the APA Style reference system.
Because reference lists are not meant to be read from start to finish and because works in APA Style may be published either online or in print, our guidelines recommend that links show the DOI or URL of the work rather than be beneath descriptive text. Links in the text (which are relatively rare—they are only used for general mentions of websites) are treated in the same way; the URL should immediately follow the name of the page being linked to. To reduce the length of links, shortDOIs and shortened URLs are also acceptable.
Using Descriptive Links in APA Style
Although the Publication Manual addresses how to use APA Style for journal publication and student papers, APA Style is used in other contexts as well. Users who develop online-only resources should adapt APA Style to fit their needs. This adaption includes, but is not limited to, the use of descriptive links throughout texts and reference lists.
For example, on this very webpage and throughout the APA Style website, all links appear beneath descriptive text. Other users of APA Style in online contexts should follow this practice as well.
Likewise, in references, people creating online works in APA Style can put the DOI or URL beneath descriptive text. Some reference databases put DOIs or URLs beneath buttons labeled “Article.” Another approach is to link the title of the work to the work’s URL or DOI, as in the following examples.
American Psychological Association. (2019). Talking with your children about stress.
Warne, R. T., Astle, M. C., & Hill, J. C. (2018). What do undergraduates learn about human intelligence? An analysis of introductory psychology textbooks. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 6(1), 32–50.
Accessible Use of Color in Figures
The use of color also presents accessibility concerns. In APA Style, color is most commonly used within figures. It is important that color figures have adequate color contrast to allow users living with color-vision deficiencies (also called “color blindness”) to understand the material. For a thorough description of the accessible use of color, please visit the page on the accessible use of color in figures.
Contact the APA Style Team
If you have further questions or suggestions about accessibility and APA Style, please contact us.
Arditi, A., & Cho, J. (2005). Serifs and font legibility. Vision Research, 45(23), 2926–2933. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.visres.2005.06.013
Russell-Minda, E., Jutai, J. W., Strong, J. G., Campbell, K. A., Gold, D., Pretty, L., & Wilmot, L. (2007). The legibility of typefaces for readers with low vision: A research review. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 2007, 402–415. http://bit.ly/2mshytC
Tinker, M. A. (1963). Legibility of print. Iowa State University Press.