Making Documents Accessible
Providing an accessible web experience with accessible content is an important part of academic integrity and teaching excellence, and provides a richer experience for everyone. There are certain steps we must take to make our work usable for people with various disabilities.
This is true for all of us: If you have ever written or edited a document that was later posted online in PDF, Word, Excel, or other formats, you have a critical role in this process, even if you are not involved in managing your office’s websites.
The best practice is to post content in web pages rather than as downloadable document files.
This is true for several reasons in addition to digital accessibility, including that search engines are more likely to produce relevant results for web pages rather than for PDFs, so people will more easily find the materials you have created.
To create an audio or braille version of a web page or document, in addition to your text, it needs to know:
- What language is the text in?
- What order should the text be read in, and how is it organized? (Do you have columns? Is anything supposed to be a header, a list, a pull-quote, or a caption?)
- How should images be described? (Without alternative text, the image is inaccessible.)
- Where do hyperlinks lead? Because of the way screen readers function, the linked text needs to be informative and describe where the hyperlink goes or what it does. (i.e., “read more” and “click here” are not useful, but ‘download the site request form” is accurately descriptive.).
How to build accessible Microsoft Word documents
Changing typeface, font size, or color may help sighted users, but screen readers don’t notice them and your meaning is lost. When making documents for digital distribution, use the built-in header feature in Word.
When you use headers, select them in order, like in an outline. (h1, h2, h3, etc.) Do not skip a level; it confuses screen readers. If you do not like the color, font, or size of the built-in headers, you can change their formatting. Watch a Microsoft video about how headers improve accessibility.
Like text headers, the built-in list formatting is recognized by screen readers. Without using the built-in lists, your carefully organized list will read like a jumbled paragraph that just happens to have numbers or symbols interspersed.
It’s important to add alternative text, including the key information in each image. If there’s text in the image itself, which should be avoided, include it in full in the alt-text, because any information not conveyed there is invisible to the screen reader. Also add captions for important charts, diagrams, and graphs.
Here are a few tips for crafting well-written alt text:
- Describe the purpose and function of the image rather than describe the image
- Try to stay under 150 characters
- Do not begin with phrases like “image of” or “photo of”
- Examples alternative text
Complicated images such as graphs and charts will likely require more than 150-character descriptions, so use brief alt text and include a longer description in the text surrounding the image.
Screen readers require us to set the document language and indicate where we may switch languages. They also need additional information entered into document properties, including a descriptive and unique document title (which is not the same as the filename).
Use tables sparingly, and keep them simple.
Tables are confusing for screen readers. Use them only to organize data and not to format text on a page. Always add headers. Never split or merge cells; doing so makes your content illegible to someone using assistive technology. Find out more about using tables.
If you create a form by drawing text boxes and creating your own tables, a screen reader won’t recognize it as a form. Instead, follow Microsoft’s instructions on how to create a form, then remember to tag your form fields in Acrobat.
Better yet, create a form online in Columbia Sites. Building and remediating forms can be incredibly time-consuming.
The actual words you link should be unique and convey meaning out of context of the surrounding sentence or paragraph. If that this is not possible, and you must use something generic like “read more,” add a ScreenTip. (When you link the text, look for the “Screen Tip” button in the pop-up window.) Watch a video about how to create accessible links in Word.
Adding a table of contents allows screen readers to jump to the content users want. It also sets up your PDF export to have bookmarks precreated.
- To keep a Word or Excel file accessible, you must save it with the .docx file extension. If you want to post this document to the site, you are done!
- If you want the document to ultimately be posted as a PDF, you need to be mindful of selecting certain options.
Do not make a PDF through the “print-to-pdf” option. On a Mac, when you save, select the file type that is labeled “Best for electronic distribution and accessibility.” On a PC, when saving, click “options,” and select “Document structure tags for accessibility.”
Open the file in Adobe Acrobat to create and verify PDF accessibility. Never lock the PDF for editing or copying; as mentioned above a screen reader needs to copy the text to process it. (Accessible alternatives to a locked PDF are Microsoft Word files that are locked for editing.)
Next, run an accessibility check and any items that are identified and resave the document.
How to build accessible PDF documents using accessible source documents
- the following steps assume you are starting with an accessible Microsoft Word document (which has used the above instructions)
- you must have Adobe Acrobat software to create accessible PDFs
Your headings set in Microsoft Word will survive the export, but many unnecessary tags also get erroneously added into the export. You must delete and / or revise all errant tags from your root structure.
- Open the file in Adobe Acrobat to create and verify PDF accessibility.
- Fix any issues that may be identified. If you did not save your file with the correct settings in the source program, you may have lost tags. If that’s the case, go back to the source file and resave the document as a PDF, making sure to choose the correct settings.
- You may be asked to manually check for a logical reading order. Read Acrobat instructions on how to check reading order.
- If you have an issue with color contrast, go to “Preferences,” select “Accessibility,” then “Replace Document Colors.” Select “Use High Contrast Colors,” then click “OK.”
Save your file with any adjustments you made, and make sure to never lock the PDF for editing or copying; as mentioned above a screen reader needs to copy the text to process it. (Accessible alternatives to a locked PDF are Microsoft Word files that are locked for editing.)
How to build accessible PDF documents using non-accessible source documents
- the following steps assume you are starting with some form of an un-accessible Microsoft Word document or scanned document
- you must have Adobe Acrobat software to create accessible PDFs
Scans, designed documents, and PDFs created through the “print to PDF” option are basically images of text. Before doing anything, you need to make sure the text in your document is legible to a screen reader. To do so, try to select a few lines of text in the document. If you can, then the text is readable and you can proceed. If you can’t select lines of text, the screen reader will need some help from you identifying the text. For this, you need to perform optical character recognition in Acrobat. Once you have text that can be read, proceed to the next step.
- Open the PDF in Adobe Acrobat Pro, and under “Tools,” select “Action Wizard.”
- From the “Actions” list, click “Make Accessible.”
- Select the files that you want to apply the “Make Accessible” action to.
- Click “Start,” and follow the instructions.
- Set the language of the document.
- Under “PDF Output Style,” set to “Clearscan.”
- Under “Downsample to” select 600 dpi.
Next, you will be led through a series of steps to individually identify and tag paragraphs, headers, chapters, images, and more. This can be highly time-consuming, depending on the complexity of a file. For a text-based document, it is recommended to find—or even recreate—a source file in the program you started in.
If it is not possible to remediate a document, and it must be online, offer an alternative format
At times, particularly with pieces designed in InDesign, remediation is not possible, or doing so destroys designed elements. If that is the case, you can keep your PDF online if you offer an accessible Word document or web page as an alternative. Make sure to follow the steps above to make the document accessible, and save the document with the .docx file extension.
What to Do with Existing PDFs
If you have old PDFs online, it is pretty safe to assume that your document is not accessible. To confirm, you can open the file and run an accessibility check in Acrobat Pro. As you find documents that are not fully accessible:
Consider what can be removed, and delete outdated documents.
Files such as RFPs from prior years or older policy documents that have since been updated should be taken offline. Beyond accessibility challenges, repeated content on a website is often omitted from Google search results, making your work harder to find.
Accessibility in Other programs
The same rules and explanations in Word apply for Excel. Here is an abbreviated list of the steps.
- Set document language.
- Specify header info in tables. Add headers to a new table or Use headers in an existing table.
- Name all tabs. Delete blank sheet tabs.
- Keep your structure simple. Do not split cell, merge cells, or use nested tables. If you do, the file will not be accessible.
- Make hyperlink text meaningful, or supplement it with ScreenTips, small windows with descriptive text that appear when you rest the pointer on a command or control. Find out how to use ScreenTips.
- Add alternative text to visuals.
- Make sure not to designate important information through color or typeface and make sure there is appropriate color contrast between text and background so that people who are colorblind can still read the text.
- Run a final Accessibility Check to find any issues you may have missed.
- Save your file as a PDF optimized for accessibility. On a Mac, when you save, select the file type that is labeled “Best for electronic distribution and accessibility.” On a PC, when saving, click “options,” and select “Document structure tags for accessibility.” Do not create a PDF through the print-as-PDF feature.