Accessible Documents | Elearning Accessibility Tips and Tricks

Creating accessible documents is easier than ever thanks to growing accessibility features in software like Microsoft Word. Notice that I point out Word specifically! This is the easiest software in which to create accessible documents. PDFs? Not very accessible. Convert them to Word (literally just open a PDF using Word, it will convert automatically!). PowerPoint? Also not very accessible! If you need to make a PowerPoint accessible, dump that content into Word instead.

An accessible document needs the same foundational features as a web page:

  • Headings should be used to chunk content (these are called Styles in Word!)
  • Images should have alt-text
  • Be sure that your text and images have enough contrast
  • Hyperlinks should be descriptive words, and each hyperlink should appear only once on a page
  • Any lists should be formatted with bullets or numbers – but Word will usually format your lists for you, which is a nice touch!
  • Avoid extra blank spaces or lines! Use CTRL-ENTER to move the cursor to top of the next page

Just like with webpages, your document isn’t going to make itself accessible. You, the content creator, must know the basics and how to find these features in software like Word. Fortunately, Word has a very handy accessibility checker that will make your life a little easier, though a human eye will be needed to confirm accessibility!

Documents

This video demonstrates creating an accessible document in Microsoft Word:

Headings

If you’ve made it this far, most of the accessibility features you need to use in Word will be obvious to you. Headings, though, may not be obvious at all!

Word uses the term “Styles” to refer to headings. You’ll find Styles under the Home tab in Word.

Locating Styles under the Home tab in Word

 

Notice that only Heading 1 and 2 are available at first. In keeping with accessibility best practices, start with Heading 1 as the largest heading, then move to Heading 2 as a lower-level heading. Once you use Heading 2, Heading 3 will appear, and so on.

You’ll notice that the default styles of each heading are…distinctive. The sizing is good, but the blue color is not so good.

Styles menu expanded in Word

But one of the best non-accessible reasons to use Styles in Word is that fact that you can universally update the look of every instance of a heading with just a couple of clicks. All you have to do is format the heading the way you want it, then right-click on the Style, and select “Update Heading X to match selection.” Poof! Every heading of that same size is now identical. Same goes for “Normal” text. Most of the text in a document automatically has “Normal” style applied to it. Update a small bit of normal text in your document and you can apply it instantly to every other text in your document!

Another reason to use Styles in your document is that it will generate easy navigation options for you to browse your document. Select View, then check Navigation Pane, and it will appear to the left of your screen. Select the tab with the bulleted list imagery and you’ll see all of your Headings laid out in order. Click on any of them to be transported to that section instantly. Similarly, using Styles will allow you to insert a tidy Table of Contents that makes use of your already formatted headings. Just click over to the References tab, then select Table of Contents.

It’s important to get in the habit of using Headings/Styles in Word. Again, beyond making your documents accessible, they will make your life so much easier with their universal-formatting capabilities.

Alt-Text

Adding alt-text is easy. Insert an image, right-click, select “View Alt Text.” A panel will appear on the righthand side of your screen with a text entry box for your alt-text as well as guidelines on how to write high-quality alt-text. Even more fun, Word has an algorithm that takes a stab at writing alt-text for you, based on what it thinks the image is depicting.

Screenshot of alt-text panel in Microsoft Word

Usually, though, the suggested text is underwhelming. For instance, the text suggested above, “person on busy street,” was generated for this stock photo:

Stock photo of a smiling woman that appears to be of Asian descent, dressed in business clothing, on an urban street.

“Person on a busy street” doesn’t provide a thorough description of this photo in a way that conveys its meaning. I would use something like “Smiling woman that appears to be of Asian descent, in business clothing, standing on an urban street.” I get a real business feel from this photo between the clothing and the setting, and I think her race is important to mention, too. This is an area in accessibility design where you have to make subjective decisions about important information to include. I think that including someone’s apparent gender and race is critical to providing an equivalent experience to screenreader users.

If the image truly is decorative, let your screenreader users skip it by checking “Mark as decorative” in the alt-text panel. This is equivalent to leaving the alt-text description empty for a webpage.

Lists

Word, generally, will automatically (and aggressively) attempt to format your lists correctly. Just start typing out a list with each item on a new line, or with a number, and Word will jump into action, automatically formatting with bullets or numbers as appropriate.

If this doesn’t happen for you, or you just want to do it yourself, the bulleted/numbered list format button is easily found on the Home tab.

Accessibility Checker

All done with your doc? Not so fast! Double-check your work with Word’s built-in Accessibility Checker. Find the button on the Review tab labeled as Check Accessibility.

This will pop open a righthand panel that will showcase an accessibility features report for you. It will check your alt-text, contrast, use of blank lines, and more. Select an item to go to its location and to also get tips on how to fix it. If you get stuck, just Google your problem. There are tons of guides out there on making Word documents accessible.

Screenshot of accessibility report in Word

Check “keep accessibility checker running while I work” for instant updates.

One thing this tool will not do is check accessibility of your tables, though – these are difficult to make accessible and are best avoided for a truly accessible document. Use headings instead.

As always, it will take your human judgement to determine if your document has the necessary accessibility features.

Taking It Away

Word, truly, is a good choice for creating accessible documents. Just avoid the temptation to convert your finished documents to PDF – this will create an inaccessible document, most likely. And it won’t even protect your content. It’s very easy to convert a PDF back to word. If PDFs are the standard in your organization, consider gently pushing back on this norm. Word documents are just as professional as PDFs.

Distribute your file just as Word produced it and you’ll be distributing an easy-to-use file that makes use of software that is near-universal, as well as openable by Google Docs, if necessary.