Provide a way to understand unusual words and phrases

The unusual word "Gobbledygook" being defined
Image description: Black text on a white background. At the top is the word "Gobbledygook.” Below is the definition, "language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of abstruse technical terms; nonsense."

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Why This is Important

Defining unusual words is accessible to people struggling to understand the meaning, especially for people with cognitive, language, and 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.

If words and phrases are complicated, technical in nature, or a type of idiom or jargon, then it’s often helpful to provide a definition to help people understand them.

Autistic people need more support with idioms because they tend to take phrases more literally (e.g. explaining that “it’s raining cats and dogs” means “it’s raining heavily”). This support is also accessible for people with learning disabilities and people with a different native language.

This references WCAG criterion 3.1.3 Unusual Words (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 ways you can provide definitions.

Define the term inline

For example:

The art gallery showing had an ephemeral feeling (meaning short-lived).
There is a plethora (excessive amount) of bees here!

Keep in mind that adding the full definition here might make the sentence longer and harder to read, especially if there are multiple words to be defined.

Link the term to a glossary

In general, linking may be better if it has a long definition that is better understood in a separate place.

For example:

The art gallery showing had an <a href=””>ephemeral</a> feeling.

For the reader's convenience, you can also link the term to footnotes at the bottom of the page using in-page linking.

For example:

There is a <a href=”#plethora”>plethora</a> of bees here!
<div id=”plethora”>Plethora - a large or excessive amount of something</div>

Interesting Further Reading

How to Test This

Manual Test
Semi-Automated Test
Automated Test
  • Read through the content and make note of any unusual words and phrases
  • As an enhancement, use a vocabulary checker (such as Vocab Checker) to automatically find and categorize the difficulty level of words (this may not encompass idioms and phrases)
  • Check that those unusual words or phrases are defined somehow, such as with inline definitions or a glossary


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