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Accessible Documents Overview

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Creating Accessible Documents

When creating documents it’s important to following a few basic steps to assure your document is readable by individuals with disabilities. The steps are the same for all document types, but will vary depending on which software program you’re using (Microsoft, InDesign, or other software programs) and the final format of the document.

Use Headings

Headings and subheadings should to be identified as such using the built-in heading features of the program. Headings should form an outline of the page content (Heading 1 for the main heading, Heading 2 for the first level of sub-headings, Heading 3 for the next level of sub-headings, etc.). This enables screen reader users to understand how the page is organized, and to quickly navigate to content of interest. Most screen readers have features that enable users to jump quickly between headings with a single key-stroke.

Almost every software program includes support for headings and subheadings.

Use Lists

Any content organized as a list must be created using the list controls tools within the software. Most software programs include one or more options for adding unordered lists (with bullets) and ordered lists (with numbers). When lists are explicitly using the tool option, it helps screen readers to understand how the content is organized. If a list is created by adding a symbol, such as an asterisk (*), it is identified only as a symbol. The screen reader does not provide the user with important information such as information about where they are on a list, or how many items are in the list, which can be very helpful information when deciding whether to continue reading.

Alternate Text for Images

Users who are unable to see images depend on content authors to supplement images with alternate text, which is often abbreviated “alt text”. The purpose of alt text is to communicate the content of an image to people who can’t see it. The alt text should be succinct, just enough text to communicate the idea without burdening the user with unnecessary detail. When screen readers encounter an image with alt text, they typically announce the image then read the alt text.

Most software programs provide a means of adding alternate text to images, usually in a dialog that appears when an image is added, or later within an image properties dialog.

If images are purely decorative and contain no informative content, they do not require a description. However, they may still require specific markup so screen readers know to skip them.

Images that require a more lengthy description, such as charts and graphs, may require additional steps beyond adding alt text.

Document Language

Some screen reader software is multilingual, and can read content in English, Spanish, French, and other languages. To ensure screen readers will read a document using the appropriate language profile, the language of the document must be identified.

You should also identify the language of any content written in a language other than the document’s default language. With this information, supporting screen readers will switch between language profiles as needed on the fly.

Most document software programs provide a means of identifying the document language and other languages within the document parts.


Tables in documents are useful for communicating relationships between data, especially where those relationships can be best expressed in a matrix of rows and columns. Tables must not be used to control layout. Software programs have other means of doing this, including organizing content into columns.

If your data is best presented in a table, keep the table simple. If the table is complex, consider whether you could divide it into multiple smaller tables with a heading above each.

A key to making data tables accessible to screen reader users is to clearly identify column and row headers. If there are nested in columns or rows with multiple headers for each cell, screen readers need to be explicitly informed as to which headers relate to which cells.


Adobe PDF documents must be a “tagged” PDF to be accessible. There are correct ways and incorrect ways to export documents to PDF. Some software programs don’t support tagged PDF at all, while others provide multiple ways of exporting to PDF, some that produce tagged PDF and some that don’t.

Need more help?

Some content can be challenging to present in a way that is fully accessible. If you encounter challenges, the Communications Team can assist you.