Creating accessible documents

Designing accessible documents: general principles

Format

Publish content in HTML where possible so that users can use browser settings that suit them best. Many publishing tools, including Word, PowerPoint, Excel, LibreOffice and InDesign, provide built in options for accessibility. They can also help you convert to accessible PDFs, but PDFs can be difficult for those using assistive technologies; consider carefully what will best meet your audience’s needs. You may need some clean-up in Acrobat after converting to PDF.

Simplicity

  • Use clear, simple language
  • Ensure text size is legible
  • Avoid complex structures
  • Avoid footnotes where possible
  • Ensure link text is meaningful
  • Only use data for tables, and keep tables as simple as possible
  • Consider how to make any images, charts or figures accessible, either by providing alternatives in the text or using alt text

Structure

  • Ensure you give your document a meaningful title.
  • To provide orientation for readers who use screen reading software, make sure your document uses a hierarchy of headings and subheadings to provide structure. It is not enough to change the font size or font weight of headings to distinguish these from normal text. Instead use styles to create and apply headings to text items.

Checking accessibility

Use an accessibility checker to ensure your document meets accessibility standards before uploading.

You can also download the free NVDA screen reader to see how your document appears to those using assistive technology. You do not need to install this on your computer, as the programme can be run directly from the downloaded file.

Creating accessible PDFs

Web editors should consider carefully whether information needs to be published in a PDF, as PDFs can present problems for screen reading software. If publishing a PDF is the most appropriate option, there are steps you must take to maximise the accessibility of your document.

Screen readers need PDFs to be tagged and ordered so that they can communicate the structure of the PDF (headings, links, reading order) as well as the content (your actual text and replacement text for images). This also helps people who choose to strip out the formatting and reflow the text to be able to see content in the correct order.

Use the tools in your publishing software (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, InDesign etc) and follow the principles above to prepare your document for converstion to PDF, then use an accessibility checker and Acrobat to do a final check and clean up.

For further information on using Word to create PDFs, please see Microsoft's own guidance on accessibility and Word.

Mark headings correctly

To provide orientation for readers who use screen reading software make sure headings and subheadings are marked correctly. This information is then translated when you create a PDF.

It is not enough to change the font size or font weight of headings to distinguish it from normal text.

Instead use the Styles and Formatting menu to create and apply headings to text items. Simply mark the text that will be your heading and select Heading 1, Heading 2 and so on from the list of styles in the ‘Home’ section of the Word menu. These pre-set styles can be modified to your needs via right click.

Create bookmarks

  • To help users navigate long PDFs, make sure your document’s headings are correctly translated into bookmarks. Users can then jump to the right section of the document, using the navigation pane automatically created from the headings.
  • To ensure the headings are correctly translated into PDF bookmarks you need to select the right options when you convert your Word document into a PDF. Use the ‘Save as’ menu and select PDF as the file type. Click the ‘Options’ button that appears and make sure that ‘Create bookmarks using: Headings’ is selected. Note that this option is only available if your document contains correctly marked headings.

Use list tags

To ensure lists are being transformed correctly into your PDF and then understood by screen reading software, make sure to use the bullets or numbering options provided by Word, rather than just using paragraphing. 

  • Bad example:

- Item number 1
- Item number 2

  • Good example:
    • Item number 3
    • Item number 4

Use descriptive link text

Do not insert the full URL when providing hyperlinks, especially if it is very long. Instead, use a unique and descriptive link text that tells the reader what happens when they click on it. Avoid generic link text such as ‘click here’.

Provide headers or footers

Readers with visual impairments find headers and footers useful for orientation within the document, especially if it contains many pages or even several chapters.

In any case, you should provide running page numbers. But additional information like chapter title and author can also be useful in longer documents.

Mark columns correctly

If you are displaying your text in two or more columns, use the Page Layout menu to set this up rather than creating the layout manually with text boxes. This ensures assistive readers interpret the reading order of the document correctly.

Tag images with alternative text

If your document includes images or graphics that are not just decorative but contain important information, provide a description of this information - so called ‘alt text’ or ‘alternative text’. This property will be translated into the PDF and can be picked up by screen reading software.

You can find the alt text option if you right-click on an image, select ‘Format Picture’ and in the menu opening on the right hand side select ‘Layout & Properties’.

Make sure that your alt text accurately summarises any data shown in the image.

  • Bad example: 'A graph showing the rise of applications in recent years.'
  • Good example: 'The graph shows that between 2007 and 2017 application numbers have risen by 25%, from 1,000 to 1,250.'

Make tables more accessible

Word has only limited functionality to help screen readers interpret tables, but there are some things you can do to help.

  1. Select ‘Header Row’ in the Table Tools menu to mark the first row of the table as the header row. You can also do this with the last row by ticking the ‘Total Row’ checkbox. This information will be translated when converting the document into a PDF and can be picked up by assistive readers.
  2. Display the header row on each page, in case the table breaks across pages. Right-click in the header row, select ‘Table Properties’ and go to the ‘Row’ tab to find the respective checkbox.
  3. Provide a summary of the table’s information in the Alt Text box in the ‘Table Properties’ menu.

InDesign provides tools that allow you to create tags and get a document ready for export as a PDF. You should:

Full guidance on InDesign accessibility is available from Adobe:

Your document may need some clean-up in Acrobat after converting to PDF. This more involved than fixing the original document in the underlying program, but is sometimes unavoidable.

Acrobat frequently ignores settings from other programs, meaning that many PDFs will need some form of fixing before publishing online.

This is a very quick guide; for more information, see Acrobat’s own accessibility guidance.

How do I see what needs fixing?

  1. If it’s an old document or if you didn’t create it yourself, check if it has already been tagged:
    Tools -> Accessibility -> Autotag Document
    If it has already been tagged, you’ll get a message asking if you want to retag it. Don’t retag it at this point.
  2. If it’s tagged:
    Tools -> Accessibility -> Full Check

    This will open an Accessibility Checker panel which flags all the possible issues which PDFs might have. Some of the errors Acrobat can fix on its own (if you tell it to do so), but some need manual intervention. The quickest way to try and fix errors is to right-click on the issue and select ‘Fix’, if available.

Common errors and how to fix

PAD has provided a list of common errors and advice on how to fix them within Acrobat.

For any other problems, see Adobe’s own PDF guidance.

Further guidance

Contact us


For more information about accessibility and digital communications, please contact the Digital Communications team in PAD:

digicomms@admin.ox.ac.uk