How to make your documents more accessible

Image of a computer with the title of the blog: How to make your documents more accessible

Why does accessibility matter?

According to Statistics Canada, one in five Canadians over the age of 15 has one or more disabilities.

Some people with disabilities face employment and education challenges. With advancements in technology and our growing understanding of abilities, we can continue to progress to a more inclusive society.

Legislation

In Ontario, most organizations and many businesses are required to follow the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). The act outlines standards for service and design that include customer service, website accessibility, public spaces and communication and information access.

It’s a great idea to work toward more accessible communication and service, even if you aren’t required to by law. And if you are governed by an act, taking steps to become more accessible is about more than meeting legal requirements. Ideally, we seek feedback and continue to evolve so that the intent of the legislation — a barrier-free society — can be achieved.

Creating accessible documents is a simple way for communicators, business owners or any document creator to make their organization or business more inclusive.

What is an accessible document?

Accessible documents are files that are created so they can be accessed and understood by people with various accessibility needs. These needs may include:

• vision, including colour blindness
• hearing
• mobility and dexterity
• learning and cognitive disabilities

When we include accessibility in the planning stages of document creation, we make sure more people have access to the information we’re sharing.

Accessible documents tend to be easier to read and understand. Their design is simple and effective. Changes that make your document more accessible can improve communication overall.

Note: when you’re sharing information on a website, it’s generally recommended to include the information on a web page, rather than as a linked document whenever possible.

Characteristics of accessible documents

Use common language

Use simple and concise language to communicate your information. This includes minimal use of acronyms and jargon.

Use alternative text

Add alternative text (Alt Text) for images, tables and acronyms in your document. The alternative text will describe what the image or table is communicating.

In Google Docs and Word, right click on the image to access the Alt Text option.

For tables, Alt Text can be found by right clicking on the table and selecting Table Properties. Tables should only be used if they’re necessary.

Alt Text can be added for acronyms using Adobe Acrobat after the document is converted to a PDF. The reason for doing this is screen readers will predict and read acronyms as words, especially if they include vowels.

Use built-in formatting tools

Organize content by using headings and or paragraph styles.

Organize content using headings and avoid large chunks of text. Make sure to use the software’s built-in styles. You can modify and set standard styles for titles and heading levels 1 through 6

Using heading styles creates a hierarchy that’s useful for people using screen readers. They can easily scan the document and move between sections of text.

It’s also an easy way to make a table of contents and create consistency in your documents. Organizations could have standard templates set on all employee software. These styles might be included in your organization’s style guide or visual brand standards.

How to set styles in Word

How to set styles in Google Docs

Use page break to move text to a new page

Don’t use the Enter/Return button to add multiple lines between content or to move text to a new page. Use the Page Break function.

Use lists and bullets

Whenever possible, organize content using numbered lists or bullet points. Make sure to use the software’s list formatting tools.

Ensure high contrast if using colour

Always check contrast if you’re using colour in a document. It’s a good idea to check the accessibility of all of your brand colours and note which colours can and cannot be used for text information. Include this in your visual brand standards document if you have one.

There are also colour combinations to avoid because people who are colour blind may not be able to see the difference. Red and green is one example.

Select font for readability

Try not to go below 11pt for your font. San-serif font is easier to read — consider sticking to Arial, Helvetica or Roboto for body text (or another similar san-serif font) for standard documents. Arial and Roboto (a web-based font) are both commonly available on most devices. Use a larger size serif font for headings to create more differentiation.

Tables

Avoid using the table feature for laying out text in columns – use a column setting. Tables present special challenges especially when they include merged and split cells. Tables can be made accessible; however, it requires more time, advanced skills and the understanding of how to manually tag content.

Create a hyperlinked index at the end of the document

If you have a longer document with many hyperlinks throughout, add an index at the end of the document listing all links. People with mobility issues may find it difficult to navigate through a document with a lot of links within the body text. Plus, a list at the end is handy for all of us.

Use simple design

Overall, the suggestions I’ve listed should lead to a simple design. Too much design can be overwhelming for anyone. The use of whitespace, headings, well-chosen colour and font, and a simple layout will make your document easier to read.

How to check your document for accessibility

To check the accessibility of a Word document, go to File then Check for Issues and Check Accessibility.

You can use a screen reader to listen to what your document sounds like. NVDA is one option.

Where to get training on creating accessible documents

Most of what I’ve learned about accessible documents is thanks to Barbara Moody. She’s a designer and software trainer who is an expert in creating accessible documents. I recommend Barbara if you’re interested in training a team, or you’re a designer who wants to understand how to create accessible layouts using both Adobe and or Microsoft programs.

Accessibility Ontario is another training option. They offer a range of in-person and online training opportunities, including training for boards.  

Quick tips to make other types of content accessible

Video

  • Make sure the script is written in clear, easy-to-understand language
  • Avoid speaking quickly
  • Make subtitles available
  • Offer an alternative format, like a transcript, and/or descriptive video if the video doesn’t contain descriptive audio
  • Include a list of references in the transcript
  • Follow colour contrast practices
  • Avoid having written text on the screen with audio delivering different information

Audio

  • Offer an alternative format, like a transcript
  • Include a list of references in the transcript
  • Avoid speaking quickly
  • Keep the volume of background music or sound low so it doesn’t interfere with the main content

Visual communication – infographics

  • Offer a text-based format
  • Use Alt Text when posting online
  • Follow colour contrast guidelines
  • Organize the content in a logical order, with a beginning, middle and end
  • Cite references for data
  • Use headings if applicable

Remember: It’s about being understood

With all communication, our goal is for the receiver to easily understand our message. Creativity and accessibility can coexist. Stay open to feedback — ask for it. As with anything, we’ll continue to learn and evolve.

List of accessibility resources

Disability information

2017 Statistics Canada Data on disabilities in Canada

Legislation and best practices

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act

Website accessibility guidelines

How to improve your writing

Document formatting

Designing for color blindness

Colour contrast checker

Overview of font styles

Screen readers

NVDA

Training

Barbara Moody, Ontario-based designer and software trainer

Accessibility Ontario

Rick Hansen Foundation

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