Word processing documents must be designed so that people with and without disabilities can easily access and edit them. In particular, people who are blind, people with low vision, and people with dyslexia may use a screen reader or Braille device to navigate the document. Regardless of the type of document you’re creating or the program you’re using, here are a few basic steps you should always follow to make sure the end product is accessible.

Use the Accessibility Checker

Many programs have accessibility checkers that are built-in or easy to add after a simple internet search. For example, the Microsoft Office Suite includes a handy accessibility checker that makes it quick and easy to review a Word document for accessibility. While this automated checker doesn’t always catch every issue, it’s a great starting point. The checker offers tips for fixing issues and can teach you to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Use Heading Structures

Screen reader users rely on heading structures to navigate documents. This is similar to how a sighted person skims through a page to understand how it’s organized and to move between sections. For a demonstration of how this works, watch screen reader user and accessibility expert Sina Barham use a computer at 1,000 WPM!

Making text larger or putting it into bold does not create a heading that screen readers can interpret. Instead, create headings with the built-in Heading styles in your program’s menu bar (e.g., “Heading 1, Heading 2”).

Use List structures

Use the built-in tools in your program to create bulleted and numbered lists. Much like heading structures, this step creates a reliable navigation structure that screen reader users rely on to understand your content.

Add Alt Text to Images

Instead of looking at an image, screen reader users rely on well-written descriptive alternative text (called an “alt attribute” or “alt text”). Screen readers voice this alt text so the user can understand the information in the image. Good alt text is descriptive and concise (100 characters or less).

Use Tables Thoughtfully

Try tabbing through a table without your mouse. You’ll quickly grasp how tables can create challenges for screen reader users, who must navigate via a linear path. You can address these challenges by creating tables thoughtfully. A good rule of thumb is to use tables for organizing data, rather than visual layout.

Use Informative Link Text

Hyperlinked text should clearly describe the content a user will access when clicking the link. Use unique, meaningful text for each link, such as “download the quarterly budget report.”

This helps people of all cognitive abilities, as well as screen reader users. Encountering 10 identical “click here” links will make a screen reader user groan. They are likely generating a list of all links on the page and navigating them alphabetically, especially on longer pages.

Write in Plain Language

Using simple and concise language will help all users navigate your site, regardless of how they process information.

Avoid Sending PDFs

While it is possible to make PDF documents accessible, the process is not always easy, especially for complex documents. The most reliable way to make your document accessible is to publish it in HTML on your website. This also improves navigation for mobile users.

  • Have content you need to share in document form that you don’t want altered? Consider protecting it with a password rather than converting it to PDF.
  • If you must use the PDF format, engage a subject matter expert to confirm accessibility before publishing and give your audience multiple options. For example, you can include a note to your audience that the attached PDF is also published in HTML on your website, or that you can provide alternate formats upon request.

Additional Resources

Accessible documents | WebAIM

Best practices for making Word documents accessible | Microsoft

Google Suite accessibility | Google