Creating Accessible Documents

The vast majority of documents (including PDFs) are created using Word. Here are some key principles to consider to improve the accessibility and usability of these documents.

Set the document language

Many assistive technologies can operate in different languages to provide a tailored experience for the learner. However, these tools can only do this when a document has the appropriate language identified.

In Word, go to Review > Language > Set Proofing Language and on the next dialogue box select the default language.

To set a specific block of text to a different language, highlight the text first before performing the steps above.

Use Headings

By using a heading structure, you help those who may have a visual impairment understand how the document is structured. This is helpful for users who use screen readers as they can jump between headings to more quickly navigate the document.

It also allows visual users to more easily scan the page. Additionally if “the computer” understands the documents structure, tables of contents and PDF bookmarks can be created automatically and be auto-updated as you make changes to the document.

To create headings in Word use the “styles” tools in the Home Tab. Use the Heading 1, Heading 2 etc. to create hierarchy in the titles that you have used. The visual appearance can be changed to suit your taste or needs.

Screenshot of words style menu

For more information take a look at Microsoft’s Creating Headings in Word tutorial.

Use lists

When creating lists in Word use the built-in bullet points. Without using these tools lists are simply a number of words that look like a list, not an actual list that assistive technologies can understand as such.

Use descriptive and unique link text

Use meaningful, descriptive link text so all users know what they are clicking on before selecting the link. Do not rely on the text around the link to give it meaning, rely on the actual text that is intended to be clicked.

Many screen reader users will list all the links on a page, if all links use the text ‘click here’, the screen reader can only create a list of links without context consisting of ‘Click Here’, ‘Click Here’, ‘Click Here’. Additionally, when scanning a document for a link it is much easier for everyone when the link is properly named.

Poorly written, inaccessible link:

  • For more information click here for the W3C guide to accessibility

Appropriately written, accessible link:

For more information take a look a Microsoft’s Creating accessible links tutorial.

Font formatting

  • Use a sans serif font such as Ariel, this is easier to read than a serif font such as Times New Roman.
  • Do not overuse bold when emphasizing text. If everything is emphasised, then nothing is emphasised.
  • Using italics can be problematic for those with dyslexia.
  • It is advisable not to use underline as another form of emphasis as this is often used to signify a web link. It can confuse users into thinking that they can click the underlined text.
  • Use left justification for text, never fully justify. Many people with cognitive disabilities or visual impairments find reading blocks of text difficult which can be made worse by fully justified text.
    • In order to fully justify text so both margins are equal, uneven gaps between words are created to make all of the line lengths the same. These uneven spaces can create “rivers of white” that run down the page making line following difficult.
    • When text is left justified it normally means that line lengths are different which creates a ragged right-hand margin. This can be used as a visual “place holder” to help readers find the next line of text.

Alternative text and descriptions.

All non-text-based content such as images and charts should have concise descriptions that describe the contents of the media. In Word, text descriptions can be added by right-clicking the image and selecting either Format Picture or Edit Alt-Text depending upon which version of Word that you are using.

For more information see Microsoft’s Adding alternative text to a shape, picture, chart, SmartArt graphic, or other object tutorial.

In many cases writing alt-text can be quite difficult. Neil of the TEL Team has written a blog post called Make it Accessible – Alternative Text which you might find helpful.

You may also find this guide by WebAIM about writing alt-text helpful.

Use tables wisely

Tables of data can be very difficult for assistive technologies to understand unless they have been created with the correct markup that defines the relationships between all the parts, for example, which cell is a header and which cells are data.

Whilst Word can be used to create relatively simple tables in an accessible manner, more complex tables can be problematic. Often complex tables can be simplified by breaking them into multiple simple tables with a heading above each.

By taking this approach you not only help assistive technology users but also users that may have a cognitive disability or learning difference.

Please note that you should only ever use a table when the most appropriate way to express the data is via a matrix of columns and rows. Never use a table to control the visual formatting of the document.

Please see the Microsoft guidance on Creating Accessible Tables for more information on how to set column headers and cell properties.

Be careful with colour usage

Don’t use colour as the sole signifier of important information as colour blind users will not be able to see it. Use text labels and shapes in addition to colour.

Using only colour to convey information.

Monday 2-3pm
Tuesday 10-11am

Using text labels with colour.

Red Group Tutorial
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Blue Group Tutorial
Tuesday 10-11am

Using only colour to convey information.

Using shape and colour to convey information.