What’s up doc? Creating accessible documents for your website

Some tips on creating accessible Word/ PDF documents.
Image by Katrin Hauf on Unsplash.

Hands up if you were asked to do a manual check

manual check needed warning

Editoria11y, the accessibility checker we are using in the WMS, has made it easy to spot issues with your web pages. But — and I’m sure you’ve noticed this — it cannot do the same for the PDFs and Word documents you upload to those pages. Instead, it warns you that a “manual check is needed”. What then? How can you make your files accessible? Here are some tips.

Word has its own accessibility checker

If you first create a document in Word, and then convert it to PDF, you can use the built-in accessibility checker before exporting to PDF. It will look familiar to you because it works like Editoria11y, highlighting and explaining each issue it spots. And those issues will also look familiar because they are almost the same as the ones that Editoria11y alerts you about on your WMS site.

Accessibility rules for documents are (mostly) the same as for your webpage

By now you know what goes into making a web page accessible. Apply that knowledge when working in Word and you will be well on your way to creating an accessible document.

  • Check that the order of headings is logical: Heading 1 at the top, Heading 2 above each new section, describing the content below, Heading 3 for a subsection.
  • Add alternative text to each image or mark it as decorative if the image conveys no meaning.
  • Use meaningful text for links, don’t just paste in the URL.
  • Avoid tables if possible. If you must use a table, include table headers, avoid setting a fixed width, and adjust the table so it doesn’t spread over multiple pages (this might be seen as two distinct tables when exported to PDF).
  • Set a document title for the screen reader to read out loud to its user.

Preserve the accessibility settings when saving as PDF

When saving the Word document as PDF, make sure to select the correct options so the PDF you are creating will make use of the accessible structure you have put in place.

  • When saving on Windows: on the “Save As” dialog box select “Options”, then “Document structure tags for accessibility”.
  • When saving on a Mac: select “Best for electronic distribution and accessibility”.

Or maybe this content shouldn’t be in a document

Keep in mind that even an accessible document can seem unwelcoming to your site's visitors. PDFs and Word documents are designed for printing, and reading them on a browser or mobile device is not ideal.

Also, it is easier for you to manage updates to a web page than a PDF. Editing a WMS page is straightforward; you know where to find it, you can work on a draft until it’s ready, and the old versions are retained. Whereas to make a change to a PDF, you have to find the original document, save it as a new PDF, upload it to your website, and make sure existing links point to the new version.

To keep things simple for you and for visitors to your website, create a web page for anything that you expect people to read on their screen, and create an accessible PDF for anything meant for printing.

Courses that offer a deeper dive into accessibility

Interested in gaining a deeper understanding about accessibility? Check out these courses:

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