In a recent article, I outlined how you can ensure compliance with The Equality Act 2010 and Public Sector Equality Duty. The article provided general guidance on accessibility for digital content. In this article I concentrate solely on the benefits of document accessibility and how this enhances both user experience, audience reach and legal compliance.

As we know, making your documents accessible is a legal requirement in the UK, under The Equality Act 2010. In particular, that means ensuring that your documents are accessible to disabled people. With that in mind, this article explores the benefits of document accessibility, outlines techniques you can use to make your documents more accessible and demonstrates how this helps your digital content to reach a wider audience.

Document accessibility: ensuring equal access to content and services

It is now almost impossible to operate outside the digital realm, so anything that excludes disabled people from accessing the content within your documents limits their ability to participate in educational, professional, and social activities. Under the law, the services and content provided to disabled people must be ‘equivalent’ to those provided to people who are not disabled; this is a core concept of the Equality Act 2010. Regardless of ability, everyone should have equal access to information and service.

This does not mean pushing disabled people into digital ghettoes – where we provide separate, simplified or less rich, content – in order to achieve technical accessibility of our content. Rather, we should aim to provide the same rich content to everyone. The key to achieving this is to make your document formatting flexible enough to meet different needs. This articles outlines some basic strategies you can use to do that, for people with different impairments: blind or visually impaired, deaf or hearing impaired, cognitive impairments and motor impairments.

By making documents accessible you are ensuring that all users have the opportunity to engage with your content and your services.

How to remove the barriers that disabled people often encounter when accessing digital documents

It is not possible in a short article to cover this topic in full, however, I have listed some of the things you can do make your documents more accessible to disabled people.

  • Individuals who are blind or visually impaired principally need text alternatives for non-text content. However, that in itself is not enough. They also need ‘well-structured documents’. By well-structured, I mean the document must be organised in a way that is logical and easy to navigate – both visually and in the way it is formatted. Making a document well-structured simply means organising the content in a logical manner and using styles to add appropriate formatting. For example, use nested headings (H1, H2, H3…) that reflect the relationship between the different sections. Whether you are publishing PDFs, MS Word documents, or any other type of document, the issues are the same . Unless the accessibility software disabled people use can understands the structure of your document, the document is not accessible. Of course, accessibility goes beyond just adding structure: images must have equivalent text; layouts should be simple to navigate; text should be aligned in a way that is friendly to people using zoom tools; links must make sense when read out of context; and more.
  • For individuals who are deaf or have a hearing impairment, transcripts or captions should be provided for audio content. If the budget allows, it is also a good idea to translate content into sign language. Not all deaf people find written English easy to understand—it may not be their first language. Sign language is a different language from English, with its own grammar and structure.
  • For individuals with learning difficulties or cognitive impairments, there are many strategies you can use to make your documents more accessible. As a general rule, aim to simplify content, use plain language, avoid clutter, enhance readability, and provide alternative ways to access information. Try to break text down into small sections and use lots of headings, bullet points, and numbered lists—rather than large, dense chunks of text. Use images, icons, audio, videos, and animation to support the meaning of your content.
  • Users with motor impairments need documents that are fully keyboard accessible; content that is well-organized and easy to navigate, and interactive elements with large target areas. It is also helpful to have adequate white space and margins. The recent WCAG 2.2 update addresses some related issues. For example, the new guidelines specify that the size of a target area must be at least 24 by 24 CSS pixels. These new guidelines help users who have hand tremors or quadriplegia.

Advantages of Making Documents Accessible

Creating accessible documents offers numerous benefits beyond compliance with legal requirements:

  • Improved Usability: Accessible documents are easier for everyone to navigate and understand, not just disabled people. For example, video captions allow all users to access content in noisy environments.
  • Legal Compliance: Many countries have laws and regulations, such as the The Equality Act 2015 in the UK and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the US, that require digital content to be accessible. The de facto guidelines used to test whether   digital is accessible or not  are the Web Content Accessibility Guideliens version 2 – or WCAG 2 for short. Compliance with these standards helps organisations avoid legal repercussions and demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity.
  • You will reach a broader audience, including disabled people and elderly people, who are likely to have multiple impairment.

Examples of Accessible Document Formats and Techniques

To create accessible documents, it’s essential to use formats and techniques that support accessibility:

  • Accessible PDF: PDFs are most often generated from source documents such as an MS Word document. The first step in ensuring that a PDF document is accessible, therefore, is to ensure the source document is accessible. This means, for example, using styles to add semantic structure; ensuring your images have appropriate alt descriptions; ensuring that link text makes sense when read out of context; avoiding the use of URLs as link text; and ensuring that you have good contrast between text and background colours. When you have created your PDF document, you can use tools like Adobe Acrobat Pro to help edit, check, and improve PDF accessibility
  • Microsoft Word: I outlined the basic techniques when discussing how to make PDFs accessible, as often MS Word documents are the source for the production of PDFs. However, I should mention that MS Word has its own accessibility checker that will highlight any issues with your document. Instructions for using it depend on the version of Word you are using, so I suggest you check the latest MS Word accessibility documentation directly from Microsoft.

It should be noted that HTML is potentially, still the most accessible format, assuming it content is coded in a way that does not present barriers to disabled people. I have written an e-book ‘Jim Byrne’s Guide To Creating A More Accessible Website‘ on how to make your website accessible, so I will not repeat that information here. You is a free download on my website. You don’t need to give anything in return, not even your email address.

Document accessibility ensures a more accessible and legally compliant user experience

Making your documents accessible is about ensuring disable people get the same content and services as their non-disabled colleagues. It’s a legal requirement under the The Equality Act 2010. However, as I hope I have demonstrated I’m this article, the benefits of document accessibility go beyond compliance. You also get improved usability, expanded search results and a larger audience for your services. And in demonstrating a commitment to inclusivity and excellence enhances your organization’s credibility and strengthen your brand.

By taking advantage of the benefits of document accessibility, you are helping to create a more inclusive digital world for everyone.

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Accessible Website Design, Scotland, UK- benefits of documents accessibility

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You will learn both the techniques of accessible website design and an entire ‘framework for thinking about the subject’. It will equip you with the skills to understand, identify and fix issues any accessibility issues you come across. Watch the free videos to get a taste of what is on the course. Video image from Web Accessibility Online Training Course - WCAG 2.1 Compliance
Jim Byrne's Guide To Creating A More Accessible Website

Working with non-profits, charities, voluntary and public sector organisations and social enterprises for over 20 years. Jim set up one of the worlds first website accessibility web agencies in the mid 1990s.