6 ways to make your documents more accessible

Before I started working in the disability sector I had little idea how inaccessible my communications were. I’m now working on making my comms as inclusive as possible.

These 6 easy Microsoft Word tools are a good start. (More recent versions of Word have an accessibility checker – under the Review tab in the ribbon. You can use this as a starting point, but it’s still worth doing a manual scan of your doc*)

I pledge to use these tools in all documents I create from now on. Will you join me?

1. Use styles for headings, title, etc.

Format your title, headings and other key sections using ‘styles’. Don’t just format the text as you go. Assistive technologies use styles to help people navigate around documents.

How to create your own style

If you don’t like Microsoft Word’s default styles (though I actually quite like them), it’s easy to create your own:

  1. Highlight your heading text
  2. Format the text the way you’d like it to look (eg bold, purple)
  3. In the styles menu, right click on the heading style you want to format
  4. Select ‘Update heading to Match Selection’

All headings will update automatically.

2. Structure headings logically

Make sure your headings make sense. For example:

  • All your Heading 1s should reflect sections that are the same level of importance.
  • All Heading 2s should be the same level and be logical sub-sections of heading 1s.
  • And so on

If your heading structure is illogical, you’ll confuse readers using assistive technologies.

How to find out if your document is structured logically

To check if you have the structure right:

  1. Go to ‘View’ menu
  2. Tick Navigation Pane
  3. Your document structure should be displayed on the left hand side.
  4. Check that the structure makes sense

3. Add alt text to your images

If you add alt text to your images, screen readers can read out what’s in the image. It makes sure everyone can enjoy your images.

How to add alt text to images

  1. Right click on the image
  2. Select ‘format image’
  3. From the menu at the right hand side, select ‘Layout & Properties’
  4. Click the arrow beside ALT TEXT
  5. Put a description of the image into the ‘Description box’

There’s no need to add a title.

What images need alt text?

Only use alt text for images that relate to your content. Decorative images don’t need alt text. For example, you don’t need to put a description in for an organisation’s logo. You also don’t need alt text for graphics or design elements.

In more recent versions of Word you can tick a box that says ‘Mark as decorative.’

What if you have an image of a graph or table?

If the image contains a lot of information, such as a graph or a table, it’s OK to put in a very long alt text description. Try to describe what’s going on in the graph or table (trends, comparisons etc.)

If it’s an image of a table, think about using a Word table instead of an image. Screen readers read tables out (see point 5 about making tables accessible).

What if I have a caption for my image?

You don’t need alt text as well as a caption.

4. Use page breaks and set spacing

Do not use ‘enter’ or ‘return’ when you want to move text to a new page or create space above or below headings and blocks of text.

Use page break and paragraph spacing instead.

That’s because screen readers read out blank lines. So, for example, if you move text on to a new page by hitting enter four times, a screen reader will read out something like ‘blank line, blank line, blank line, blank line.’

How annoying is that!

How to enter a page break

  1. The quick way is to use ctrl+enter
  2. You can also go to ‘insert’ menu and select a page break there

How to create spacing

  1. For headings and styles right click on the style, select modify/format/paragraph and adjust the before or after spacing
  2. For general text go to the home menu/paragraph/spacing

5. Make your tables accessible

There are ways to make your tables easier to read for people with assistive technologies.

Click in the table and use the ‘Table tools’ menu bar. Follow the four actions in this table:

A table with four actions to make tables more accessible. 1 Create a header row. 2 Specify all column headings. 3 repeat column headings. 4 Add alt text.

(The contents of this table are described at the end)

6. Exporting docs to accessible PDFs

If you need to create a PDF, you can make sure the PDF keeps the accessible features you have added to your Word doc.

How to export to an accessible PDF

  1. Follow all the steps above so that your Word doc is accessible
  2. Go to File/Save As
  3. Select PDF from the file type
  4. By default this produces a PDF that preserves the document’s accessibility features.
  5. But to be sure, select ‘options’ and check that ‘Document structure tags for accessibility’ is checked.
  6. Add a title to the document by clicking ‘Add a title’. Make it easy to read – this makes sure the document title is not the file name. (File names can be pretty ugly!)

Other accessibility options that can only be done if you have Acrobat Pro (ie you are able to edit PDFs; most people only have Adobe Reader on their computers):

  • Set language
  • Set reading order – this tells assistive technologies what order your document should be read in.

Happy inclusive publishing!

Contents of the table image

Accessibility action 1: Create a header row

How to do it: Tick the header row box in ‘Table tools/Design’. It makes your first row headers.

Accessibility action 2: Specify all column headings

How to do it: Make sure you have text in the first (header) row of all columns.

Accessibility action 3: Repeat column headings

How to do it: Right click in the table, select ‘Table properties/Row’.

In Options, make sure ‘Repeat as header row at the top of each page’ is checked.

Uncheck the box next to ‘Allow row to break across pages.’

Hit OK

Accessibility action 4: Add alt text

How to do it: Right click in the table, select Table properties/Alt text.

You can make this very descriptive – if possible or relevant it’s good to summarise what the table tells readers.

* Thanks to Lilian Chan for alerting me to this tool.


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