Who Needs Accessible Documents?

Accessible documents are used by people with disabilities such as mobility impairments, visual impairments, hearing impairments or learning disabilities. About 1.5 billion people in the world or 1 in 4 adults in US have a documented disability. When we create Microsoft Word document, Excel or PowerPoint, Google Docs and Google Sheets or Adobe PDF file, we need to make sure everyone can access all the content in our documents.

Accessibility Principles

  • Font: Use a font size of at least 12px. Best fonts to use are Sans-serif fonts, Arial, Tahoma or Verdana.
  • Color: Ensure that there is sufficient contrast between text and background. WCAG Level AA contrast ratio is 4.5:1. The Paciello Group Contrast Analyzer is a great tool. 
  • Headings: Ensure that proper heading styles are used. Ensure that a logical heading structure is used. 
  • Lists: Use lists to make content readable. Ensure that all lists use built-in list functionality. 
  • Images: Ensure that images have an alternative description that can convey the full meaning of the image. 
  • Tables: Ensure that tables are used for tabular data only. 
  • Table Headings: Ensure that all tables have column headings. 
  • Hyperlinks: Ensure that all links have text that describes the target. 
  • Templates: Ensure that built-in PowerPoint slide templates are used. 
  • PDFs:  Don’t use scanned PDFs. Ensure that all PDFs are tagged
Instructions on how to create accessible document in Microsoft Word 2010

Headings and Styles

Use headings in your document styles, you can design sections and sub-sections for your documents. Headers can help navigate and comprehend content, and are essential for screen readers. 

Use the built-in heading styles in your word processing software. Default styles in most document applications have settings for headings, paragraphs and lists that can be customized.  

Always choose "Heading 1" for level 1 headings, "Heading 2" for section headings, "Heading 3" for subsection headings, and so on. "Normal" is used for paragraphs.

Well created heading styles structure allows quickly add a table of contents - a valuable navigation system for everyone. When converted to PDF, all bookmarks and links will automatically generate according to the styles structure. 

See how to add headings to your word processing software:


Properly created lists inform screen reader users how many items are in the bulleted list. 

Always use your word processing software built-in lists for grouping related items.

See how to use lists in your word processing software:


  • Links should stand out from the text. Color contrast and underline helps to make it visible. 
  • Very important to make links in documents descriptive. Every link should describe what the user can expect to find when they select it. Example, use "visit our contact page" rather than "click here". 
  • Do not use web address as the description of link, unless this document is for printing only. For online version use name of the destination, ex. Belmont Public Schools.

See how to add descriptive links in your word processing software:

Alternative Text for Images and Charts

Since many documents include images, it is important that the images contain alternative descriptions. Add alternative text via image properties (often called alt-text)

  • Microsoft Word has two fields for text, Title and Description. Type your alt-text in the Description text box so that when you convert Word documents to PDF the alt-text is converted to the new format. 
  • Titles are not converted to other formats, so you would have to enter them again in the new format. 
  • Keep description brief for visual pictures. 
  • Images of text should be avoided. When these images are necessary, the alt text should have the same information as in the text image.
  • Complex images containing a lot of information like charts will need additional text included elsewhere in the document as well as alt text. 
  • When images are linked, the alt text should describe where users will be taken when they select the image.
  • Decorative images like borders, spacers, corners do not require descriptive alt-text, simply use "" for alternative text.

See how to add the alternative text in your word processing software:


Using tables in your documents can be a great way to help organize complex information for people. To make sure your tables are effective and accessible, however, you should only use them for data, and not for visual layouts. Adding headers to your tables improves how people navigate tables, especially if they use a screen reader.

See how to add table headers in your word processing software:

Document Layout and Properties

Bookmarks give people the ability to navigate the document using bookmarked headings, rather than reading through the entire document to find what they need.

Headers and footers help people to navigate through a document, make it predictable especially for large documents. They convert automatically into artifacts in PDF format.

Document Title, Author and Language are the first things read to screen reader users, they have to be added to describe the document for all readers. 


Tips and Accessibility Checklist

Microsoft Office Templates

  • Whenever is possible use Microsoft templates labeled as "Accessible". Even when you use these templates, run Accessibility Checker and test it. 
  • Elements like shapes, icons, SmartArt don't flow logically into the content. These items might be left out of the reading order completely for screen readers. It is the best to limit their use.
  • You can customize your template with school letterhead and colors, just make sure it follows the accessibility principles.

Microsoft PowerPoint Tips

  • Use the outline view to make sure all pages have unique page titles and the content is visible. Check your colors and fonts, see guidelines for choosing colors and fonts above. 
  • All text boxes that are not part of the template are not going to show up in the outline view and will not be read by screen readers. 

Microsoft Excel Tips

  • Avoid using merged or blank cells.
  • Don't forget to create a header row.
  • Do not combine tables in one sheet, use separate sheets for new table.
  • Use unique and meaningful names for your sheets

Accessibility Checklist for Microsoft apps

Microsoft Accessibility Checker is a good resource to help you identify and repair accessibility issues. From Tools select Check Accessibility.

  • Customized Styles - Yes, in Styles panel.
  • Lists - Yes, in the list tool.
  • Image Alt Text - Yes, select the image choose Edit Alt Text
  • Hyperlinks - Yes, use the hyperlinks icon.
  • Colors - Yes, you can adjust colors.
  • Table Header - Yes, select row(s) and choose Table Properties > Row > Repeat at Header Row.
  • Document Title and Author - Yes, in File Properties.
  • Set Language - Yes, in Word Options > Language.

More on the Microsoft Accessibility Checker

Google Docs

Google Docs does not offer an in-application checker. If you need to run accessibility checker you will have to install a Chrome add-on, Grackle Docs or Grackle Sheets. This add-on works in much the same way as the Microsoft checker.

Accessibility Checklist for Google Docs

Make your document or presentation more accessible - tips for making Google docs more accessible

Accessibility for Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, & Drawings - Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Drawings are designed to work with screen readers, braille devices, screen magnification, voice over and more.

Test with a screenreader - NVDA is a free screen reader that you can test with

  • Customized Styles - No, use drop-down Styles menu, but can't be customized.
  • Lists - Yes, use the list tool.
  • Image Alt Text - Yes, select the image and use Format > Alt Text
  • Hyperlinks - Yes, click the insert Hyperlink icon.
  • Colors - Yes, you can adjust colors.
  • Table Header - No, cannot designate the header row(s).
  • Document Title - Yes, the document title is the same as the filename.
  • Set Language - Yes, select File > Language.

Converting Files to Adobe PDF

If you would like to convert your file to Portable Document Format (PDF) from your document, you want to do so in a way that lets you retain all the accessibility features you worked to incorporate. 

PDF is an open standard file format that presents content consistently. It doesn't matter if you print it or view it on a device. The formatting remains the same.

When exporting a document as PDF, it's important to check the export settings to make sure that the PDF is tagged. A Tagged PDF uses tags and elements in a document such as alternative text, document properties, blockquote, paragraph, and headings, that when converted to PDF will be available to screen readers and add meaning to a page. It aids screen reader users with good content structure and makes sure the PDF is easy to navigate.

Save documents as tagged PDFs

  1. Start with a text document that is accessible.
  2. Save the document as an accessible PDF.
    • Microsoft Word: Select File and Save As. Select PDF from the File Format menu. Select Best for electronic distribution and accessibility and select Export. To learn more, see Save a Word document as an accessible PDF.
    • Don't use "Print to PDF". A scanned or "Print to PDF" file contains images of pages without an underlying text layer. It is completely inaccessible.

PDF Accessibility Checker

Run the Acrobat Accessibility Checker after converting your document. Adobe Acrobat has a very good built-in accessibility checker, run this checker to find and fix all the problem areas. Manual checking is needed to verify a logical reading order or alt text for images. There are a few free PDF accessibility checkers available online, one of them is CommonLook Validator. PDF Validator provides users with a certification report for each tested document.

Working with PDFs

Content of Image-Only PDF can be recognized as text by Acrobat. Use "Recognize Text" or "Text Recognition" tool to find text content. Then you will be able to edit the text with the Content Editing panel.

  • Autotag Document if your PDF is not tagged. 
  • Use Reading Options to set all your document reading options.
  • Reading Order tool allows to modify the reading order of the content.
  • Identify Form Fields can help to automatically generate form field.
  • Set Alternative Text tool discovers all graphics and gives an interface for adding alt-text for images.

Create accessible PDFs with Adobe Acrobat

If you have Adobe Acrobat you can create accessible PDFs as well as check existing PDFs to make sure they are accessible. 

More on creating accessible PDFs with Adobe Acrobat