Making Websites Accessible: 11 How to create accessible electronic documents

Today documents are mainly produced electronically in a word processing software package. After being written they quite often make their way to people in one electronic form or another: they can be emailed as attachments, downloaded from websites, read on a handheld computer or mobile phone and, of course, also be printed out on paper and in braille. Quite often a document will also be transformed from one format into another during its lifetime. The accessibility of these documents depends on how well they are formatted and structured from the beginning. A well-formatted Word document can be easily transformed into an accessible PDF file to be downloaded from a website.

This chapter provides information on how to make the most common document formats more accessible.

Are Word documents accessible?

The general question about whether Word is a more accessible format than HTML or other document formats is covered in a good article on the AccessIT Website. The article is called ‘How accessible are Microsoft Word documents?’ The Web address is

Making Word documents accessible

The follow summary will help you to make your Word documents accessible to people with a range of different impairments. This list is also available as an appendix.

  • Avoid using extremely small fonts and avoid setting large blocks of text in italics.
  • Use styles to add structure to your documents, e.g. use the heading style to create headings rather than just making text look like a heading by making it bold.
  • Provide alternative labels for all images. To do this, right-click on the image, then select Format Picture. A dialogue box will appear. Select the Web tab, and then add the appropriate alternative text.
  • Create clear uncluttered pages, with plenty of white space. Use bulleted lists when appropriate as they can be easier to understand than dense paragraphs.
  • Avoid animated text or flashing/blinking elements – as these can trigger seizures in some people.
  • Ensure there is good contrast between elements on the page, e.g. text and background colours.
  • Use the built-in table tools when creating columns of text. Don’t use tabs to create tables.
  • Use descriptive link text for links, when linking to web pages within your documents.
  • Add space around paragraphs using style formatting options rather than using carriage returns. This is particularly important if you intend to convert your Word documents into PDF files.
  • If you have embedded sound files, provide a text transcript of the sound file content.

Creating web pages from Word documents

If saving Word documents as HTML – save as filtered HTML. This will strip out some of the superfluous HTML that it would otherwise add in an attempt to make your web page look the same as your original document.

Adobe Acrobat and accessibility

The first version of Adobe Acrobat to create accessible PDFs was version 5. The following are some of the accessibility features of PDF documents created with version 5 and above:

  • text can now be read by some screen readers,
  • high contrast viewing is supported,
  • structured markup can be added to PDF documents (just like HTML) – making it easier for those using screen readers or other assistive technologies to access content.

Making PDF files accessible

The Portable Document Format (PDF) allows authors to create documents that retain their original layout and design when viewed on screen or printed out.

Creating accessible PDFs involves a number of steps:

  • Create accessible source documents. Use Word 2000 or later to create the source document according to guidelines mentioned earlier and then convert them to PDF using the latest version of Adobe Acrobat.
  • Ensure that the PDF conversion settings in your source application are set correctly (see the links to documents at the end of this section for information about how to set conversion settings correctly).
  • Run the built-in accessibility checker in Adobe Acrobat after you have created the PDF document.
  • Fix any problems found, either by going back to the source document and re-converting after making changes, or by editing the XML (Extensible Markup Language) tags within the PDF document.

Creating accessible PDF documents is too complex a subject to cover in this short guide. Details relating to the above steps can be found by following the links at the end of this section.

If your Word documents are going to be converted into the PDF format, then using style to add structure to your document and ensuring all images have labels is very important. It is difficult to make changes to your document after it has been converted.

Adobe Acrobat is the most popular application used to create PDF files. It has built-in features to help authors create accessible PDFs. However, documents with complex layouts can still be difficult, or impossible, to make completely accessible, e.g. if the document has a complex layout such as overlapping images and text. For this reason you should always test your PDFs before making them available on your website. Seek feedback from someone who is an experienced screen reader user, to find out how accessible they are in practice.

As creating accessible PDFs is a time-consuming task, consider carefully whether PDF is the most appropriate format for each document you publish.

Creating accessible PowerPoint presentations

PowerPoint presentations are now quite common on the web. They can be made more accessible for users of assistive technologies if they only contain headings, text, bullet points and simple graphics. The main thing to remember is to include notes describing any other elements like graphics, diagrams and charts.

To do this you:

  • create the slide in PowerPoint,
  • use Auto Layout in Normal View,
  • write a descriptive text in the notes panel for all graphics and additional elements conveying information in the slide.


How to Create Accessible PDFs with Adobe Acrobat 6 by Jim Byrne

AccessIT article: Is PDF accessible?

Acrobat solutions for accessibility

WebAIM, Accessible PowerPoint presentations

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