Did you know that compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act goes beyond making websites accessible? It also applies to the documents you create and share, ensuring that people with disabilities will have equal access to information that those documents contain.
If you’re like us, that means you’re asking yourself the question “How can I make my documents accessible?” Great question!
This article addresses some of the most common mistakes we on the CLP team have encountered when addressing document accessibility in both Word and Google Docs. We’ll address what each element is, why it’s an accessibility concern, and how to address it. This article isn’t exhaustive, but does provide a starting point that we will continue to update as we can.
Are you looking for information on PowerPoint, Excel, or some other type of document? Check out this resource listing:
Let’s get started!
Use titles and headers
Most of us simply enlarge and/or bold text to visually indicate its status as either a document’s title or header. Instead, use built-in titles and headers in both Microsoft Word and Google Docs to ensure that the visually impaired don’t miss what you’re trying to convey.
The visually impaired can’t see visual cues (enlarged and/or bolded text) that allow others to differentiate text. Screen readers rely on the built-in titles, headers, and other document properties to indicate to users where titles and header information is.
Keep in mind – you can still edit how these elements appear to ensure your document looks properly formatted.
If you’re using Microsoft Word you will find those elements on the top bar under Home > Styles.
If you’re using Google docs you will find those elements along the top bar.
Make sure images have alt text
Have you added a picture or other visual element to your document? Ensure that you adequately and concisely describe what those pictures or elements convey.
The visually impaired can’t see the images you’ve put into your document, so they rely on screen readers to communicate the alt text that is embedded within them. Alt text is concise language that describes what the image conveys, meaning that those using screen readers are also able to consume intended visual information.
If you’re using Microsoft Word right click on an image and click on “Format Picture.” Select Alt Text and enter, using concise language, a description of what is happening in the photo.
If you’re using Google Docs go to Format in the top navigation, select Alt Text and enter, using concise language, a description of what is happening in the photo.
Use bullet points or numbered lists
Bulleted or numbered lists help us organize information so that viewers can easily consume and view that information.
The visually impaired can’t see how bulleted and numbered lists are formatted, so their screen readers rely on formatting to help them understand how you’ve organized your information. If you don’t use those built in tools that information won’t be conveyed properly and won’t make sense.
If you’re using Microsoft Word you will find bulleted and numbered lists under Home > Paragraph.
If you’re using Google docs you will find bulleted and numbered lists along the top bar.
Have a page element with a lot of individual visual components? Make it an image
Even though you may have created something that beautifully represents what you want to convey, it will mean little to those who can’t see it. You can easily take a screenshot of what you’ve created and make it into an image with alt text so that those with visual impairments can better understand what you’re trying to convey.
Oftentimes when we create visual representations in documents, we use several various components (lines, arrows, etc.) that screen readers communicate individually to those using them. In the end they’ll know that you’ve included lines, arrows, etc., but they won’t understand what those mean in the larger context. Taking a screenshot of what you’ve created and making it into an image with alt text will allow those – with or without visual impairments – to understand your information.
This specifically applies to flowcharts created within documents, official document headers that are comprised of various parts, etc.
Be careful with how you space your document
While using the tab and space bars allow you to format your document the way you want, there are also other tools that you can use to make your document consumable to those using screen readers.
Screen readers read all information provided within your document, which includes how you’ve spaced it. If you have too many spaces a person using a screen reader may assume that your document has ended. Instead of hitting ‘Tab’ or ‘Space’ to center information, or instead of hitting ‘Enter’ several times to push your information onto a new page, you can use document elements or other shortcuts to format your information the way you want in a way that is screen reader friendly.
To start a new page use a page break. You can do this by clicking Ctrl + Enter at the same time.
To center or left-justify text in Microsoft Word use Home > Paragraph.
To center or left-justify text in Google Docs use the icons on the document’s main navigational bar.
Use Microsoft Word’s accessibility checker
Microsoft Word’s accessibility checker identifies potential issues within your documents and helps you correct them to ensure that your document is accessible.
Government agencies must conform with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, so making sure that your documents are compliant is incredibly important. This accessibility checker brings to the forefront things you may have otherwise overlooked.
In your Microsoft Word document go to File > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility.
To the left you’ll see an Accessibility Checker window that alerts you to concerns within your document. Click on the errors and warnings to learn more and be directed to the portion of your document that you should fix.
There isn’t an accessibility checker available for Google docs, so it may be useful to download Google docs that are ready to share into Word so that you can double check whether or not they’re accessible.