Last updated September 7, 2023
Follow these basic steps to increase the accessibility of your Word, HTML, PowerPoint and PDF documents.
Basic steps for document accessibility
The core steps needed for accessibility are the same regardless of whether your document is in HTML (including mass emails), Microsoft Word, PDF or another document format.
Headings are essential elements of web accessibility, as they help users navigate and understand your content. Heading levels are the hierarchical structure of your content, indicated by the HTML tags <h1> to <h6>. You should use only one <h1> tag per page, which is usually the title of the page. Then, use the other heading levels to organize your content into sections and sub-sections, following a logical order.
Identify document language
Specifying the language of content is useful for a wide number of applications. Browsers and other applications can use information about the language of content to present information to users in the most appropriate way. The more content is tagged and tagged correctly, the more useful it is.
Lists and bullet points are also good ways to organize and simplify content. Ordered lists use numbers for each list item and should be used when the order of the content matters, like steps in a recipe. Unordered lists use bullet points and should be used when the order of the list items doesn’t matter, like a packing list.
Data tables are used to organize data in grids, allowing assistive technologies to provide context to users. Accessible tables on the web need HTML markup to indicate header cells and data cells and define their relationship. Some document formats such as PDF and Word provide similar mechanisms to markup tables.
Add alternative text to images
Alternative text, or alt text, is a concise text substitute for non-text content like images and icons. Screen readers will announce alt text in place of the images. It should be short, about a sentence, and descriptive of the image and how it relates to the content.
When exporting from one format to another, start with an accessible version that preserves the document structure. Make sure to include heading levels, alternate text for images, and markup that explicitly identifies lists, tables, document language, and other content that is important for accessibility.
How to create accessible documents
- Use uniform and hierarchical headings to structure the document.
- Use the simplest table configuration possible. In general, tables are best for data and not layout.
- Use link text that describes the destination.
- Use true bulleted and numbered lists, rather than using the tab key, as screen readers cannot interpret tabs.
- Use the Microsoft Word built-in accessibility checker.
Learn more about accessible Word documents.
- Give each slide a unique title. Place the title within the slide (not above or below it).
- Use sans serif fonts like Red Hat or Arial.
- Avoid content-heavy slides and use at least 1.5 line spacing.
- Include alternative text descriptions on all images.
- Use strong contrast between text and background colors.
- Make sure slide content can be read in the correct order.
- Use uniform and hierarchical headings to structure the document. How to add headings to a Google Doc
- Use simple tables to display data (and not to structure your document or slide)
- Use link text that describes the destination of the link
- Use numbered and bulleted lists. How to add a numbered list or bulleted list
For more detailed information, see Google’s guide on how to make your document or presentation more accessible.
Best practices for accessible and usable email communications:
- Write shorter, scannable paragraphs
- Incorporate bullet points with actionable content
- Use clear calls-to-action
- Use plain language
- Use descriptive link text
- Provide alternative text for images
- Use fonts that are 16 pixels or larger
- Use high color contrast
- Caption/transcribe your videos
- Write clear and concise subject lines
Learn more about accessible and usable email communications.
- Start with an accessible document before converting to PDF.
- Follow WebAIM’s guidelines to learn how to create accessible PDFs or Adobe PDF Pro guide for accessibility for step-by-step instructions
- Scanned images of text are not accessible.
- If you must use a scanned document, it should be high visual quality and at least 300dp resolution.
- Text should not be highlighted or underlined, binding shadows should not be present, lines should not be clipped, and text must be readable, even when enlarged.
Use live text
- Add an accurate tag on each text content.
- Avoid all manual formatting and edit the Style Tags’ Export Options
- Use styles to tag:
- Paragraph styles
- Character styles
- Object styles
Control reading order
- Thread stories throughout the InDesign work product. Re-thread any orphaned frames
- Ensure reading order in InDesign
- Control the stacking order in Layers Panel (“Bottom up”)
- Control the order of the articles in Articles Panel(“Top down”)
- Ensure reading order is setup in PDF Tag Tree & Reading Order Panel. Test frequently in PDF.
Captions, graphics, and images
- Add alt text (in Object Export Options)
- “Artifact” as decorative all Graphic Design that holds no imagery information in Object Export Options.
- Anchor them into text thread
- Anchor sidebars into the text thread
- Anchor captions and other frames
- Update “header and footer setup” to “repeat header row” for the top row of the table.
Test your work intermittently
Check your work as you go by making PDFs intermittently as you design to be sure your content is flowing correctly.
For detailed step-by-step instructions for creating accessible InDesign documents see Adobe InDesign Accessibility
For more detailed instructions for particular document formats, select one of the following topics:
Check out these resources to support writing for and about people with disabilities.
- Guidelines for writing about people with disabilities
- Communicating with and about people with disabilities
- Choosing words for talking about disabilities
- Etiquette: Interacting with people with disabilities
Learn about disabilities
- Visual disabilities
- Auditory disabilities
- Motor disabilities
- Cognitive disabilities
- Apparent and nonapparent disabilities
- Insensitive portrayals of disability (video)
- Intersectional disabilities (video)
Credit: Much of the content in this and other guides in the accessibility series was provided by the University of Washington’s terrific Accessible Technology website.