Documents & Accessibility

Students with visual disabilities use assistive technology to interact with documents. Documents that are designed following the recommended guidelines will provide access to a greater number of users. Typical barriers in the design of documents when access is not considered are:

  • Lack of heading structure
  • Links that are not descriptive
  • Images with no alt text
<>Plain Language

Plain offers the following checklist for plain language writing:

  • Less is more! Be concise.
  • Break documents into separate topics.
  • Use even shorter paragraphs digitally than on paper.
  • Use short lists and bullets to organize information.
  • Use even more lists digitally than on paper.
  • Use even more headings with less under each heading.
  • Questions often make great headings.
  • Present each topic or point separately, and use descriptive section headings.
  • Keep the information on each page to no more than two levels.
  • Make liberal use of white space so pages are easy to scan.
  • Write (especially page titles) using the same words your readers would use when doing a web search for the info.
  • Don’t assume your readers have knowledge of the subject or have read related pages on your site. Clearly explain things so each page can stand on its own.
  • Never use “click here” as a link. Link language should describe what your reader will get if they click the link.
  • Eliminate unnecessary words.

Document Structure - LIST


Hyperlinks should utilize descriptive text for screen reader users. Screen readers can scan for links, so informative link text is helpful. It's best to use the title of the page as the linked text.

  • Avoid creating links that say “click here”
  • Avoid leaving the link as the full URL, unless the document is to be printed out.
  • Use links that show either the title of the article or shortly describe the link’s content

The steps to creating a descriptive link:

  • Paste the URL in Word
  • Select the text, right click and select Hyperlink
    • You can also use the shortcut keys, Ctrl and K.
    • Ctrl + K works in most programs
  • Change the text in the text to display field to a more meaningful description

TLT Universal Design Links
WebAIM - Links
Microsoft Word - Hyperlink Text and ScreenTips
Google Docs - Links


All images and tables should have alternative text. Alternative text, “alt tag”, or “alt text” is the written description of an image. Alt text is used by screen readers in place of images, allowing the content and function of the image to be accessible to those with visual or certain cognitive disabilities.

  • Alt tags do not have to be verbose; simply write what the image is.
    • For example, if there is an image of a dog laying on the grass with people running on a park trail with the cityscape in the background, the amount of detail is nice, but how does this level of detail tie into the overall message?
    • An appropriate alt text description for the image described above would be “dog laying in the grass,” or “dog at the park”.
  • Write what the image is. You do not have to write a novel, or describe every little detail of the image. Also, consider the context of your post to determine what level of detail should go into the alt tag.
    • Keep the image description under 12 words if possible
    • If the image is decorative, put “decorative” in the alt text.
  • Do not write “image of…” because the screen reader will announce that it’s an image when it reads the alt tag.
  • Mention color if it’s relevant.
  • Share humor. Descriptive text doesn’t have to be overly formal and should do its best to express what’s funny.
  • Transcribe text. If the image has text that is central to its meaning, make sure you include it in the description.
  • Read it out loud. Make sure that the description is logical.
  • WebAIM - Alternative Text for Images
  • Microsoft Word - Alt text to images
    • Right click on an image
    • Select Format Picture > Layout & Properties
    • Select Alt Text
    • Type in a description
      • Note: You do not need to put anything into the “title” field
  • Google Docs - Alt Text
    • Right click on an image
    • Select Alt Text
    • Type in a description
      • Note: You do not need to put anything into the “title” field
  • Other considerations -
    • Images work best when they are placed inline with text.
    • Screen readers can have a hard time going in order on the document if the image isn’t inline.
  • Do not wrap the text around the image.
    • Use columns to get the same effect without issues.
  • Images from the internet retain their hyperlinks.
    • Remove the hyperlinks to avoid any issues.


  • Heading structures are often the most vital piece of digital accessibility in documents. Headings allow users with screen readers to navigate a document. Headings also create a table of contents automatically, benefiting all users.
  • Headings should be in hierarchical, logical order
  • You can change the style of the heading and apply the style to the levels throughout the document
    • In Word: right click on the specific heading you want to change in the styles group on the home ribbon and select Modify.
    • When the Modify Style window appears, make whatever changes you want to make in the style and select OK. The new style should be reflected in the style group.
    • The other option is to change the style in your text and choose Update Heading 2 to Match Selection (or whatever level heading you are changing.)

WebAIM - Headings in Word
Microsoft Office - Built-in Heading Styles
Google Docs - Headings

  • Use true columns rather than the tab button.
  • Use true numbered and bulleted lists to convey lists.
  • Use a minimum 12 point font.
  • Use sans serif fonts.
  • Do not use the enter key to create white space on a page.
    • Under the paragraph spacing button, there is an option to increase or decrease spacing in between paragraphs.
  • Avoid using the space bar for multiple spaces.
  • Don’t use color as the only way to convey meaning.
  • Use page break to create a new page rather than hitting the enter key.


Tables should only be used to convey data in documents. They should not be used to control layout within documents. Accessible tables need a clear table structure and table headers to guide a screen reader user.

  • Mark the header rows in the table.
  • Don’t merge any of the cells
    • You can place a title above the table.
  • You should add alt text to the table.

TLT Universal Design Tables
Microsoft Word - Create Accessible Tables
Google Docs - Accessibility Tips

Accessibility Checker

The accessibility checker that is built into Word will identify certain accessibility issues:

  • Images with no alt text
  • Headings that are not in logical order
  • Tables have the header box checked
  • Tables that have merged cells or with empty cells
  • Large numbers of repeated blank characters

It is important, though, not to rely solely on the Accessibility Checker as it cannot identify all accessibility errors, for example whether or not alt text provides an accurate description or if color contrast is adequate.
Accessibility Checker
Rules for the Accessibility Checker


Adding accessibility tags to PDF files makes it easier for screen readers and other assistive technologies to read and navigate a document, with Tables of Contents, hyperlinks, bookmarks, alt text, and so on.
It is strongly recommended to create the document in Word first with all the accessible features utilized then convert the file to PDF.
An accessible PDF has:

  • searchable text (recognizable by the computer)
  • interactive form fields (i.e., a user can enter information into the fields, where the tab key lets the user move logically through the form)
  • navigational aids (bookmarks, headings, table of contents, and logical tab order for form fields)
  • specified document language (specify the language to enable people who use screen readers to switch their speech synthesizer to the target language so they'll hear correct pronunciation of the content)
  • title (helps users find the document on their computer)
  • document structure tags (which headings, paragraphs, sections, tables and other page elements; also allows documents to be resized and reflowed for viewing at larger sizes and on mobile devices)
  • logical reading order (governed by the document structure tags)
  • alternative text for non-text elements
  • appropriately formatted tables

There are a lot of things to check within PDF for accessibility. You can use Adobe Pro to fix older, inaccessible documents. You can use the “Make Accessible” Wizard. It will automatically fix many issues. If there is missing alt text, go back to the original software the document was made in to add the alt text. You can also check the document for tags, features that allow assistive technology to identify and interact with the PDF. Accessible Document Solutions offers a great resource page for PDF tags.

  • Converting to a PDF
    • In Word, choose File and click save as Adobe PDF.
    • Select the options button at the bottom of the dialog box.
    • When the next dialog box appears, make sure the check box labeled “Document structure tags for accessibility” is checked.

WebAIM - PDF Accessibility
PDF Accessibility Checker
*Refer to NCDAE Cheatsheets for how to create a document from start to finish in Adobe.

PDF & Optical Character Recognition

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is the electronic or mechanical conversion of images of typed, handwritten or printed text into machine-encoded text. OCR conversion allows a PDF to be searchable (meaning you can highlight and search the text within the document.)

  • The simplest way to check if a PDF needs to have an OCR performed is to try to highlight text with your cursor. If you can highlight specific text in the PDF document, that means that the text is at least being recognized by your computer.
    • You can test the accuracy by simply copy & pasting text from your PDF into a word document or notepad window. If the text copy & pastes without a problem, it means that you have a PDF with a good quality OCR!
    • However, if you end up with misspelled words or symbols after pasting, it means that your text is being inaccurately recognized, and this will still cause problems with text-to-speech software.
  • If you are unable to select the text and the entire page is selected instead or you are only able to drag a selection square across the page, this means your computer is not recognizing the text.
    • Use the “Enhance Scans” tool to recognize the text in your document
    • Open the document in Adobe
    • Click Enhance Scan
      • On the top toolbar, select recognize text
      • Choose this file or multiple documents
        • Adjust the settings if needed
      • Click recognize text
    • Be sure to test the process by copying the text to another document to ensure that the text is searchable
  • There are some web-based OCR pages:
  • There are paid softwares for OCR conversion:

Page last updated 3:42 PM, June 6, 2024