In this post I’m returning to an important topic: accessibility. In a previous blog my colleague Susan Fein explained how everyone benefits from more accessible materials and that a large number of our students have some degree of disability.
Word documents are ubiquitous in our courses, as well as for other work-related activities. If a Word document is designed for digital consumption – such as posting in the Learning Management System or on a website – it needs to comply with accessibility standards. Fortunately, Word includes excellent tools for making your file accessible! I will first go over the main accessibility features, and then show you how to implement them in the video below.
- Accessibility checker: Word includes a tool that helps you check your work. It is useful but it doesn’t catch all the errors.
- Structure: headings, spacing, lists: Marking these properly will let screen reader users skim the content and understand its organization easily. Structure a document in a hierarchical manner: the title should be Heading 1 (NOT the “Title” style – that one just gets read as simple text). The next major sections should be Heading 2, subsections of a Heading 2 are Heading 3, and so on. Do not skip levels. You can change the appearance of all these styles to match your aesthetic. If you wish, you can also save style sets to have them ready to use.
- Images: There are two main things to take care of here: adding alt text (so screen reader users can listen to the description) and making sure that the image is in line with the text (to keep the reading order clear).
- Colors: If you use colors, make sure there is enough contrast between text and background. Even people with good eyesight can struggle to read something if the contrast is not strong. In addition, remember that many people are color blind, so do not rely on color to convey essential information. For example, avoid something like “The readings in blue are very important, make sure you read them carefully! The optional resources are in green”. Use other means of signaling instead, such as bold or italics.
- Links: Links need to include meaningful text rather than the URL. A screen reader will read the URL one letter at a time, which is not very helpful. In addition, descriptive links help both screen reader users and sighted users skim the document to get an idea of the content or find specific information.
- Tables: Tables can cause trouble to screen reader users – do not use them for layout! Only use them for actual tabulated information. When you use tables, the main rule is to keep them simple and avoid split cells, merged cells and nested tables. Then, make sure you have a designated header row, which helps screen reader users navigate the data.
- Document properties: The document needs to have a title set in its properties. This title is helpful for blind users because the screen reader announces it as the document is loaded in the program.
Save to PDF – yay or nay? Avoid turning your document into a PDF file, if the document is meant for online reading. PDFs are hard to make accessible. If you must make a PDF, start with a fully accessible Word file. It is recommended to use PDFs only when the design includes complex or unusual elements (for example special/technical fonts, musical notes etc.). If you are using a PDF because you have a complex layout, consider posting both the PDF and a simplified Word file, in case someone needs the fully accessible version.
Watch this 10-minute video that walks you through an example of making a document accessible. I’m using Microsoft 365 on Windows – if you’re using another version of Word or platform, things may look slightly different. Timestamps:
- Accessibility checker – 00:38
- Headings – 01:46
- Lists – 04:56
- Spacing – 05:27
- Images – 06:16
- Colors – 07:29
- Links – 08:09
- Tables – 08:49
- Title Property – 09:33
As you can see, the process of creating accessible Word documents is straightforward. Turning this into a standard practice will greatly help people who access information electronically, with or without assistive devices. Let’s make it happen!
- Department of Health and Human Services – Microsoft Office Headings and Titles Accessibility
- Nielsen Norman Group – PDF: Still Unfit for Human Consumption, 20 Years Later
- Penn State Accessibility – PDF Issues & Recommendations
- WebAIM: Microsoft Word – Creating Accessible Documents