Provide pronunciation for ambiguous words

Example of phonetic pronunciation of the word "anemone"
Image description: The word "Anemone" is highlighted, with the phonetic spelling below that says, "uh-nem-uh-nee." On the right is a small green square character saying, "uh-nem uh-nem uh-nem uh-nem-nee?" (Which is a reference to the Finding Nemo movie).

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Why This is Important

Explaining how to pronounce an ambiguous word is accessible to screen reader users and people with reading or learning disabilities.

Blind and visually impaired people use screen readers to interact with websites and apps. A screen reader is a type of assistive tech that converts things on screen to audio and/or braille. It's important that things are understandable and interactive to screen readers.

Keyboard accessibility is essential for people who do not use a computer mouse (which might be because they have unpredictable or very specific movement due to a motor disability). Many Blind and visually impaired people also use keyboard interactions in order to use their screen reader.

Error support is accessible to people with a diversity of disabilities. A cognitive disability might affect how a person perceives and understands things. A physical disability might lead to unpredictable movement. Other factors such as environment, stress, and multi-tasking may also lead to errors.

In order to be accessible, gestures and interactions must account for people with physical and motor disabilities, who might have unpredictable or very specific movement.

Pronunciation guides are helpful for understanding uncommon words, abbreviations, heteronyms (words that sound the same but mean different things), and non-English words.

This is accessible to screen reader users because the screen reader reads everything on the page out loud, and it’s important to make sure it’s pronouncing everything correctly. Pronunciation guides are also accessible to people with reading or learning disabilities who may need more support in reading.

This references WCAG criterion 3.1.6 Pronunciation (Level AAA).

Level AAA compliance is considered more difficult to meet because it requires more resources to fulfill. It also might encompass conflicting access needs (meaning what is accessible to some might be inaccessible to others). Use your best judgment of your target audience and your team's capabilities to determine if this is a pragmatic goal to reach.

How to Implement This

There are a few different ways to provide pronunciation. You can spell out the pronunciation after the word, you can provide a glossary, or you can use the ruby pronunciation element.

Provide the phonetic pronunciation directly after the word

For example:

It would help your case if there’s no evidence against you that could be considered inculpatory (in-ˈkəl-pə-ˌtȯr-ē).
My last name is Zhang (pronounced jAHng).

Many digital dictionaries and glossaries also include an audio file with the phonetic pronunciation. This helps ensure that hearing people can understand how a native speaker would pronounce the term.

Provide pronunciation in a glossary

A glossary can help centralize abbreviation expansions, definitions, and pronunciation all in one place. As an extra accessibility boost, you can link the term directly to where it’s defined in the glossary.

Use the ruby pronunciation element

Some accessibility docs recommend using the ruby text element to programmatically set the pronunciation. This is often used to help people pronounce Kanji in Japanese. However, according to some user feedback, this is actually not recommended because screen reader users are used to the quirks of their technology. Overriding the pronunciation might run the risk of confusing people.

There does not seem to be common agreement on this. If you have additional thoughts about this, please fill out the form below!

How to Test This

Manual Test
Semi-Automated Test
Automated Test
  • Read through the content and make note of any words that might need pronunciation support
  • Check for ways that provide pronunciation, such as phonetic spellings or audio files


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