Should you use italics from an accessibility perspective?

Published on May 15, 2023


Text in italics is hard to read and may not be available to screen reader users. Consider why you need italics. Avoid italics if you can.

Text in italics impact on folks with low vision, on dyslexic folks, and on screen reader users.

A designer recently asked me about using text in italics. They couldn’t find any definite information. Let’s face it, guidance on what to do about italics is lacking. There are a few blog entries about this topic. And now, I’m adding my 2 cents!


What do the standards say about italics?

WCAG 2.1 has a little bit of info about italics. It’s in the understanding document for Guideline 3.1 Readable. The guideline states:

Make text content readable and understandable.

In the middle of a long list of advisory techniques, you can find:

Avoiding chunks of italic text (future link)

This is somewhat vague, but it’s a start!

WCAG is the starting point of accessibility, not the target.

Why is text in italics problematic?

In general, “chunks” of italic text are hard to read. That is, large blocks of content in italics can be hard to read for some users. The primary groups typically cited as having problems with italics are dyslexic folks and folks with low vision.

There’s not a ton of research on the impact of italics on dyslexic individuals. And the research that exist was done on relatively small groups. There’s some anecdotal information that indicate that some dyslexic folks feel that some text in italics help break large block of text.

Why italics?

Why do you want to use italics? Probably to put emphasis on a specific word or sentence. Perhaps to style a quote? Maybe you are referencing a book or a study and the reference system calls for italics.

Always ask yourself why you’re making a design decision. Also always ask yourself if that reason is conveyed to everyone.

Screen readers and italics

Chances are that screen reader users coming across text in italics will not get any information about the fact it’s in italics.

Announcing text in italics, or emphasis, is an option in most screen readers. It’s not on by default though, because it creates too much cognitive load to have it on.

And let’s face it, most people don’t typically change default settings.

This leads us back to “why are you using italics?”. And directly to “how do you convey this information to screen reader users if that’s important meaning to convey to sighted users?”

Now what?

  1. Figure out why you need to use italics.
  2. Use italics sparingly.
  3. Figure out how to convey that meaning to screen reader users without adding unnecessary noise.