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Basic Guidelines for Creating Accessible Documents

When authoring documents, it's important to follow a few basic guidelines to assure your document is readable and accessible by all users.

Accessible documents benefit everyone - not just those with disabilities! For example, accessible documents benefit cell phone and tablet users, as well as students with low bandwidth access. Accessible documents also make it easier for browsers to display them and are much easier to convert to various platforms or formats.

Microsoft Accessibility Help Information

Use Headings

Headings and subheadings should be identified using the built-in heading features or styles provided in the authoring tool. Headings are used to outline the document content. For example: Heading 1 is used for the main heading, Heading 2 for the first level of sub-headings, Heading 3 for the next level of sub-headings, etc. With headings, persons using screen readers or text-to-speech software can easily access your documents.


The text "Basic Guidelines for Creating Accessible Documents" at the top of this page is the main heading so it's marked as Heading 1, the subheadings for each guideline have Heading 2 applied, and the "Example" subheadings use Heading 3. This text does not have any manual styling applied (i.e. bold, larger text size, etc.) - the heading feature or style itself applies the visual styling in most authoring applications.

Use Lists

Any content that is organized as a list should be created using the list tools provided in the document authoring software rather than adding the bullets or numbers manually. Most authoring applications include one or more tools for adding unordered lists (with bullets) and ordered lists (with numbers). When lists are explicitly created as lists, screen readers can better understand how the content is organized. When the screen reader recognizes text formatted as a list it may let the user know how many items are in the list, which can help the user decide whether to continue reading.


An Ordered List Icon and an Unordered List Icon

Use Meaningful Hyperlinks

All links included in an electronic document should convey clear and accurate information about the destination of the link. Most authoring tools allow the author to assign a hyperlink to selected text.

Link Text Examples - W3C Tips for Webmasters

Add Alternate Text for Images

Users who are unable to see images depend on content authors to include alternative text (alt text) with their images that communicates the content of the image they don't see. The alt text should be succinct and include just enough text to communicate the idea without providing unnecessary details. When screen readers encounter an image with alt text, they typically announce there is an image and then voice the alt text audibly.

Authoring tools provide a way for you to add alternative text to images - typically in a dialog box that appears when an image is added, or later in the image properties dialog box.

If an image contains no real information needed to understand the document content, it is considered decorative. Decorative images do not require a description. However, they may still need to be identified as decorative so the screen reader knows to skip them. Important text in the image should be included in the alt text. Images such as charts and graphs that require a more lengthy description may require additional steps beyond adding alt text.


Alt text = "Stack of blueberry pancakes with powdered sugar" rather than "pancakes" or "a picture of pancakes"

Identify Document Language

Most screen reader software is multilingual and can read content in a variety of other languages. To ensure that screen readers will read a document using the appropriate language profile, the document language must be identified.

It's also good practice to identify the language(s) of any part of the content written in a language other than the document’s default language. With this information, supporting screen readers will switch between languages while voicing the text. Most document authoring tools provide a way to identify the default document language as well as the language of specific parts.


Setting the Language in Word documents - Review > Language > Set Proofing Language

The MS Word Language dialog box with English (United States) selected.

Use Tables Wisely

If you are presenting your data in a table, keep the table simple. If the table is complex, consider dividing the data into multiple smaller tables with a heading above each. To make data tables accessible to screen reader users you should clearly identify column and row headers using the authoring software's table properties. If there are nested columns or rows with multiple headers for each cell, screen readers need to be explicitly informed as to which headers relate to which cells. Tables should not be used to control layout.


A table with 5 columns and 3 rows with column and row headers included

Microsoft Word: Design tab > check Header Row and First Column in the Table Style Options > apply visual formatting as needed

Preserve Accessibility when Exporting to PDF

To create PDF documents that are accessible, they must be created as a “tagged” PDF. If you follow the basic guidelines for making a document accessible, the exported PDF will be tagged, as long as you exported it properly. There are right ways and wrong ways to export documents to PDF. Most authoring tools support exporting to tagged PDFs and some provide multiple ways of exporting to PDF. Make sure your authoring tool exports to a tagged PDF format.

What is a Tagged PDF?

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Owner:Sharley K.Group:IT Knowledge Base
Created:2020-11-30 20:32 CSTUpdated:2020-12-22 14:50 CST
Sites:IT Knowledge Base
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