How Cooking Websites Are Failing People With Disabilities

Illustration depicting a number of pop-up windows appearing over a webpage, to show how busy web pages can be irritating for people who use screen readers

[Illustrations and animations: Alyssa Nassner]

Editors' Note: We fully acknowledge that Serious Eats isn't as accessible as it could be. Our product team is actively researching ways to improve the site programmatically, and we're currently working on making our alternative text more descriptive and captions more consistent.

Cooking is about far more than basic sustenance. We cook and share food to establish, affirm, maintain, and repair interpersonal connections. We feast the wed and the dead, endear ourselves to coworkers with morning breakfast-taco runs, and research standard rates to ship edible affection cross-country. Many of us teach our communities to value us through the frenetic act of feeding them.

Food can be one of the most accessible ways to forge relationships, particularly for those who are easily marginalized—out of impatience, indifference, ignorance, or fear. You've heard, or perhaps even lived, such stories—the immigrant woman who claws dignity and financial independence back by selling pastries from the motherland, the elder whose sole language in common with succeeding generations is the recipes they’ve passed down, the wallflower who blossoms into a competent socialite on the kitchen side of the island.

This has certainly been my experience as a deafblind immigrant of color, cooking, drink-mixing, and restaurant-recommending my way in from many degrees of margin. But in seeking out the deeper fundamentals of food now available to every wannabe home chef via the internet, I and other disabled cooks keep running into the unyielding archetype of the "normal" cook—someone who is able to glean essential techniques from untranscribed, unnarrated videos, who can gauge a pan's heat by its sizzle and has no obstacles to being consistently present in the kitchen.

It’s clear that the vast majority of cooking websites are entirely unaware that a wide spectrum of disabled people are out here seeking the same liberating, socially affirming confidence in the kitchen as everyone else.

Barriers to Entry

Let’s begin with the most basic obstacle to accessibility for blind or otherwise print-disabled cooks: Busy pages mess with the functionality of various text-to-speech, text-to-braille, or text-enlarging software—such as JAWS, NVDA, Apple’s VoiceOver, or ZoomText—known collectively as screen readers.

Animated GIF depicting how a website page can become totally cluttered by extraneous elements, such as pop-up ads, which are particularly frustrating for those who use screen readers

Pop-ups, background ads, and page-refreshing can interfere with the way screen-reading software operates.

Every time I land on a page on a cooking site, I feel like Jesus of Nazareth addressing the wind and the seas on waking up to find everyone and everything freaking out. "Peace, be still, Serious Eats web page! I'm trying to read Kenji's article on the art of the reverse sear!"

There I am, sometimes reading letter by letter to ensure I don't miss a crucial, order-changing comma, when bang! The ad running in the background changes, the page refreshes, and my screen reader’s cursor gets knocked up, down, sideways, and every which way except where I had it.

Screen-reading software can’t scan and pan quickly back to a previous location, like eyes can, so at that point, it's a matter of how much I want the information I was in the process of reading; whether I can think of another, less troublesome source to get it from; and whether I have the mental energy to text-search, arrow, or swipe my way back on track—always assuming, of course, that the page doesn't refresh again. In the case of the reverse-sear article, my relative indifference toward steak and exasperation with the jittery page outweighed my general interest in all things culinary, so I navigated away.

I get it: Ads bring revenue. Here's the overlooked corollary, though: People bring their retinue, which attracts the advertisers who generate said revenue. When I and other disabled cooks get frustrated off a page, that affects whether and how we make recommendations to our networks.

For instance, there are certain food websites I’ve never recommended because their formats vex hell out of even a dedicated food hound like myself. I have recommended Serious Eats, but only to people who are more active on Facebook via their phones, since that's the only reliable way I've found to access a stable version of the site, with a little help from Apple's Safari browser.

Sites I tend to recommend unequivocally include King Arthur Flour, Cook's Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen (so long as the recipe you want is outside the paywall), Fine Cooking, and, frankly, whatever site I find within five to 10 Google results that doesn't scramble my screen reader, crash whatever browser is currently in use, or clutter me to death with gibbering page elements, while also demonstrating a deeper-than-surface-level grasp of the sought recipe's fundamentals.

Now, it's beyond my skill set to explain the specific design and coding minutiae that distinguish a frustrating site from a friendly, welcoming one. Thankfully, there’s a veritable horde of disabled web-accessibility gurus out here just waiting to be asked, at least two of whom I know to be bomb cooks. There are also organizations, like The Paciello Group and WebAIM, that provide consulting services for companies seeking to make their websites as accessible as possible for everyone.

All that's left for cooking sites to do is take a long, candid look at themselves and ask, "Am I the most accessible version of me?" If the answer comes back in the negative or equivocal, reach out to said gurus or consultants for help.

Instructions That Work for Everyone

Let’s assume there's been an accessibility revolution. Oh, joy and jubilation! Cooking sites have heeded the recommendations of the disability community, and now there are more stable, uncluttered, screen reader–friendly destinations for delicious than we can shake a rubber spatula at. All manner of things are well, right?

Not quite. All of the preceding issues have been, essentially, matters of threshold design. Past the threshold, the question becomes whether or not the recipes and techniques themselves are presented in an accessible way, one that readers with various disabilities would find approachable. The answer to this question changes depending on the recipe, technique, and writer, even across one site.

Let’s have Serious Eats be our case study. Say you want to make sarde a beccafico (Sicilian stuffed sardines) because you have an Italian to woo (I do, actually), but you don’t know the first thing about selecting and preparing fresh sardines for stuffing.

Illustration of four sardines on a work surface, with various icons (eyes, nose, and hand) indicating where multisensory cues would assist with a tutorial on cleaning sardines

Multisensory cues can make recipes and techniques more broadly accessible.

Daniel Gritzer has you covered with a text-based tutorial that is a marvel of precise directions, properly captioned photos, and multisensory cues. Multisensory cues; can somebody say amen?

To pick out a good fish, you can look for bright, silvery skin; feel for firm versus mushy flesh; look/feel for a peeling belly; smell for "good" fishy versus "bad" fishy (viz, sushi versus seagull buffet); and look/feel for clarity and plumpness of the eyes. His subsequent directions on scaling, decapitating, de-finning, eviscerating, and butterflying the sardine are simple yet thorough, peppered with informative caveats regarding necessary and unnecessary worries at various steps of the process.

By the time you've read the last of the well-laid-out steps, you’ll be so flush with conferred competence that a whole other main course will seem in order. How about some jerked chicken with mango salsa? Daniel’s your man again, with his how-to on mango-cutting, and Kenji is there to walk you through breaking down a chicken.

Both tutorials center on beautifully produced, highly instructive videos. Highly instructive, that is, unless you’re blind or otherwise visually impaired, since neither video is narrated or accompanied by a transcript; it’s jaunty music all the way through and, for all I know, dragons doing the anaconda.

Of course, the videos are followed by text versions of the featured procedures—Daniel’s again very precise and multisensory, Kenji’s mercifully free of disabled-bird jokes this time—but the sheer letdown of these obviously linchpin videos being inaccessible is enough to send me running for a cookie, specifically the one Stella says is as big as her face. That video, at least, has narration, but good luck if you’re hearing-impaired, Deaf, or allergic to music, because neither captions nor transcript is provided.

Animated GIF of a shrimp taco with avocado, radish, red onion, and chopped cilantro, with dialog bubbles specifying those ingredients, to show how metadata should be used to describe an image for those with visual impairments

Alternative-text metadata, captions, and transcripts for videos make visual accompaniments for articles and recipes more accessible.

If cooking sites want disabled cooks to feel valued as audience members and share their content with our networks, we need to see them making a consistent commitment to accessibility across recipes, technique articles, and media.

Got a cool video or animation you think will really clarify a technique? Excellent; transcribe and caption it, and add at least a basic voice-over if it doesn’t have a central narrator (and by "basic," I mean have Lin-Manuel Miranda rap the contents). Got the crispest, most illuminating photo collage to help scaffold the learning process on a particularly finicky recipe? Wonderful; fill out the alternative-text metadata for every photo and caption them with actual, informative descriptions so they can serve as a scaffold for everyone.

And please, when you're writing up a technique or recipe, think critically about it with at least five of your senses, if not all 11 of them, so that the finished product will be accessible from multiple sensory perspectives, in the same way that King Arthur and Serious Eats write recipes to be accessible to people using different measuring systems or equipment.

That’s it! It’s that simple. Now come, let’s see how we can make a Double-Caramel Flan accessible, despite all the gold we cannot see.