Accessible Document Basics

Start here if you want to learn the basics of how to create accessible documents, and how to check your own documents to ensure that they’re accessible using built-in document accessibility checkers.


But before that… Have you attended our Equal Access: Creating Accessible Digital Documents training yet? This training session covers accessibility features of – and best practices for – PDFs, Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, and includes hands-on practice. It’s open to students, staff, and faculty.

Register for Creating Accessible Digital Documents

Below are some fundamental accessibility features and best practices that are common across most types of documents, and where to find them in most document editing programs. Additionally, most documents can be checked for accessibility during the creation process, which you can find in the “Accessibility Checkers” section.

ALT TEXT

Definition:

ALT TEXT is detailed, hidden information for assistive technology users that explains what images look like for those who cannot see them. Images that provide meaningful information or context to a document and aid in its understanding should be given alt text. Images that are used purely for decoration such as borders or separators that are only used to make the document more visually appealing should be marked as decorative.


How to add alt text:

Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

Method 1
  1. Right-click on the image
  2. Select “Edit Alt Text…” from the context menu
  3. Enter a brief description of the image in the box provided, OR
  4. Mark the image as “decorative” if the image only adds decoration to the page and is not informative

Screenshot showing the Edit Alt Text option highlighted in the context menu in Microsoft Word

Method 2
  1. Click on the image
  2. Select the “Picture Format” tab that appears in the top menu
  3. Select the “Alt Text” button to enter the image’s alt text or mark it as decorative

Screenshot showing the Alt Text option highlighted in the Picture Format menu in Microsoft Word

Adobe Acrobat

Method 1
  1. Open the Accessibility toolbar What if I don’t see the Accessibility toolbar?
  2. Select “Set Alternate Text”
  3. Follow the on-screen prompts to provide all images in the document with alt text, or mark them as decorative

Screenshot showing the Set Alternate Text option highlighted in the Accessibility toolbar in Acrobat

Method 2
  1. Open the Accessibility toolbar What if I don’t see the Accessibility toolbar?
  2. Select “Reading Order”
  3. Right-click on the image
  4. Select “Edit Alternate Text…” from the context menu
  5. Add an alt text description to the image or mark it as decorative

Screenshot showing the Edit Alternate Text option highlighted in the Reading Order context menu in Acrobat


Tips:

  • Alt text descriptions should be limited to 1-2 brief sentences. Longer descriptions should be placed as text on the page itself, or linked to in an Appendix or external source.
  • Phrases such as “Image of…” or “Picture of…” are unnecessary unless they provide extra context for correctly understanding the image (e.g., “Pencil sketch of…” or “Oil painting of…”).
  • Think about how you would describe an image as if you were explaining it to someone over the phone. What details are the most important? What would help them to best understand what the image is conveying? Is it providing information, eliciting an emotion, or simply decorating the page?
HEADINGS

Definition:

HEADINGS break up a document into logical sections and subsections and provide assistive technology users with important navigational landmarks.

NOTE: Although headings are classified as a "Style" in Microsoft document editing products, headings should not be used for stylistic purposes only. The primary purpose of heading "styles" is to establish a logical structure for the document.


How to add headings:

 Microsoft Word

Method 1
  1. Highlight the text you want to make a heading
  2. Right-click on the text
  3. Select "Styles" from the context menu
  4. Select the heading style that best applies to the highlighted text

Screenshot showing expanded Heading Styles in the context menu in Microsoft Word

Method 2
  1. Highlight the text you want to make a heading
  2. Select the "Home" tab in the top menu
  3. In the "Styles" section, select the heading style that best applies to the highlighted text

Screenshot showing Heading Styles in the Styles section of the Home menu in Microsoft Word

NOTE: As you add more headings to your document, more heading styles will become available.

 Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel does not contain headings.

For Excel documents, ensure that each sheet is given a proper title. By default, Excel labels these as "Sheet1," "Sheet2," "Sheet3," etc.

  1. Right-click on the sheet title that appears in the bottom tab list
  2. Select "Rename" from the context menu
  3. Give the sheet a descriptive title

Screenshot showing the Rename option highlighted in the context menu for a sheet tab in Microsoft Excel

 Microsoft PowerPoint

Microsoft PowerPoint does not contain headings.

For PowerPoint documents, ensure that each slide is given a descriptive slide title. Most slides have a section for a title by default, however this section may be moved or deleted if a custom slide layout is used.

Method 1
  1. Right-click anywhere on the slide
    1. Select "Layout" to select a layout that contains a section for a slide title, OR
    2. Select "Reset Slide" to reset the slide layout and sections if the slide title section was deleted
  2. In the slide title section provided, add a descriptive slide title

Screenshot showing the Layout option highlighted in the context menu with a layout containing a slide title section selected in Microsoft PowerPoint

Method 2
  1. Select "View" from the top menu
  2. Select "Outline View" ("Normal" should be selected by default)
  3. Locate the slide number of the slide missing a title
  4. Type in a new descriptive slide title next to the slide number

Screenshot showing the Outline View with slide titles entered next to their slide number in Microsoft PowerPoint

NOTE: Following Method #2 may automatically add a new slide title section to the selected slide. If the slide title should be hidden from view, select the slide title section and move it into the top margin of the slide. This will ensure that the slide still has a descriptive title while hiding it from view in Presentation mode.

 Adobe Acrobat

Method 1
  1. Open the Tags toolbar What if I don't see the Tags toolbar?
  2. Expand the Tags tree (TIP: The asterisk (*) key and forward slash (/) key will expand and collapse all tags, respectively)
  3. Locate the tag that matches the content that needs to be made a heading
  4. Right-click on the tag
  5. Select "Properties..." from the context menu
  6. Using the "Type" dropdown under the "Tag" tab, select the heading level that best applies to the highlighted tag

Screenshot showing a heading level tag selected under the properties menu of the tag tree in Acrobat

Method 2
  1. Open the Accessibility toolbar What if I don't see the Accessibility toolbar?
  2. Select "Reading Order"
  3. Select or draw a box around the text on the page that you want to make a heading
  4. In the Reading Order box, select the heading level that best applies to the highlighted text

Screenshot showing the heading levels that can be selected in the Reading Order toolbar of Acrobat

NOTE: It is always better to add and modify headings in the source document (e.g. Microsoft Word) before converting it to a PDF. Adding or modifying headings (or other elements) should only be done in Adobe Acrobat if you don't have access to the source document or the software that it was originally created in.


Tips:

  • Heading 1 should be reserved for the document title or top-most heading in your document, and should be used only once (other headings may be used as many times as needed). This provides a quick means for navigating quickly to the start of the document, and Heading 1 provides context for what the rest of the document is about. (Do not use the "Title" style in Microsoft Word as it will not create a heading.)
  • Headings should follow a logical order and should not skip levels when moving down
    • Correct: Heading 2, Heading 3, Heading 4
    • Incorrect: Heading 2, Heading 4, Heading 6
  • Think of headings as the "outline" of your document. Headings should paint a clear picture of what each section of the document is about, and it should be easy to use headings as a way to quickly navigate between sections of information. You should know exactly where to find the information you're looking for if you were only given a list of headings for the document.
LINKS

Definition:

LINKS that have clear and descriptive link text make navigating your documents and other content more predictable. Assistive technology such as screen readers can produce a list of all of the links in a given page or document, which users can activate without having to search through an entire document for a given link. Links with generic text or long URLs can make it harder for users to understand where the link will take them once activated.


How to add links:

 Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

When adding a new link:

  1. In the top menu, select "Insert"
  2. In the Links section, select the "Link" button
  3. In the dialog box that appears, insert the link URL into the "Address" box, and give the link a descriptive name in the "Text to display" box (e.g. "Visit the Digital Accessibility Website")

When modifying an existing link:

  1. Highlight the current link text (NOTE: Try to be as precise as possible when highlighting. Changing the link text may not work if extra blank space or text is highlighted with it.)
  2. Right-click on the link
  3. Select "Edit hyperlink..." from the context menu
  4. In the dialog box that appears, modify the text in the "Text to display" box to make the link text more descriptive

Screenshot showing the link editing dialog box in Microsoft Word


Tips:

  • Avoid using generic phrases like “Click here” or “Read more” when naming your links. Descriptive text such as “Visit the Kent State Website” helps users better understand where a link will take them if they click on it, and assistive technology users can more quickly locate – and interact with – links on a page that are more descriptive. 
  • When linking to a file, include the file type in parentheses at the end of the link. For example: “Download the 2022 Statistics (PDF).” If the user doesn’t have the required software necessary to view the document, if they’re on a mobile device where reading certain documents is difficult, or if they simply don’t have the bandwidth for a larger file download, they can avoid clicking on the link by mistake. 
  • It may be necessary to use a long URL in place of descriptive text when adding a link to a document that’s meant to be printed out. In situations that require it, ensure that the adjacent text gives context to where the link will take the user when clicked.
TABLES

Definition:

TABLES arrange data into rows and columns in a way that makes the information they provide easily understandable and searchable. It is important that tables are created with a consistent structure and easily identifiable header rows and columns, and that they are not used simply as a means for organizing content on a page.


How to add tables:

  Microsoft Word and PowerPoint

When adding a new table:
  1. In the top menu, select “Insert”
  2. In the Tables section, select the “Table” button
  3. Highlight the amount of Rows and Columns needed for the table (NOTE: remember to add an extra row or column for the Header Row and/or Header Column of your table)

Screenshot showing the expanded Table insert tool in Microsoft Word

Ensure that Header Rows and Columns have been added, and that “Repeat Header Rows”* has been checked.

Header Rows and Columns:
  1. Place your cursor anywhere in the table
  2. In the top menu, select “Table Design”
  3. In the Table Style Options section, ensure that “Header Row” and/or “First Column” is selected, depending on your table structure

Screenshot showing Header Row selected in the Table Style Options of Microsoft Word

Repeat Header Rows:
  1. Place your cursor anywhere in the table
  2. In the top menu, select the right-most “Layout” option
  3. In the Data section, ensure that “Repeat Header Rows” has been checked

Screenshot showing the Repeat Header Rows option selected under the Table Layout tab in Microsoft Word

* Repeat Header Rows is especially important for tables with larger data sets that span multiple pages. This will place the designated Header Row at the top of every page that the table appears on.

 Microsoft Excel

Data placed in a spreadsheet can be made into a table in order to visually group and analyze it.

  1. Select any cell that contains data as part of the table you wish to create
  2. In the top menu, select “Home”
  3. In the Styles section, select “Format as Table”
  4. Select a formatting style for your table
  5. In the dialog box that appears, check that the cell range for your table is correct
  6. Check the “My table has headers” checkbox if your table has a header row

Screenshot showing the Format as Table option expanded under the Home tab in Microsoft Excel

 Adobe Acrobat

Although tables can be created manually in the Tag tree, it is better to ensure that your tables are properly structured in your source document before converting it to a PDF.

Tables in Adobe Acrobat can be checked for proper Header Rows and/or Header Columns.

  1. Open the Accessibility toolbar
  2. Select “Reading Order”
  3. Select the text in a table cell for a table that you want to add a Header Row and/or Header Column to
  4. In the Reading Order dialog box, select “Table Editor”
  5. Right-click on the cell that you would like to turn into a Header cell
  6. Select “Table Cell Properties...” from the context menu that appears
  7. In the dialog box that appears, ensure that the radio button for “Header Cell” has been selected
  8. In the “Scope” dropdown menu, select “Column” if the Header Cell is placed at the top of a column, “Row” if the Header Cell is placed at the start of a row, or “Both” if the Header Cell is a header for data in both the column and row that it’s placed in

Screenshot showing the Header Cell option selected in the Table Cell Properties dialog box in Adobe Acrobat


Tips:

  • Try to avoid creating tables with merged or blank cells. Tables that don’t have consistent structure or tables with gaps in their data are harder to understand and more difficult to read for screen reader users. Try splitting up one complex table into multiple simpler tables if needed.
  • Although adding table titles and descriptions in the Alt Text section of the Table Properties menu can be helpful, it’s still a best practice to add a heading or table caption before the table itself to explain the data that the table holds, which is beneficial to all users whether they use assistive technology or not.
  • Table reading order can be checked by placing your cursor in the first cell of a table and pressing the TAB key to navigate through each cell in order. This method can be used to ensure that your table is being read to assistive technology users in a logical and consistent order.
ACCESSIBILITY CHECKERS

Definition:

ACCESSIBILITY CHECKERS are built-in tools of most document editing products that allow you to check the accessibility of your document before you publish it. While the Accessibility Checkers won't catch every accessibility issue that your document has, with many issues still requiring manual review, they will be able to tell you if your document is overall accessible to users with disabilities and assistive technology users.


How to use Accessibility Checkers:

 Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

Enable the Accessibility Checker

The Accessibility Checker in Microsoft document editing products can be enabled and run while you work, identifying and highlighting issues in your document as you work on it. To enable the Accessibility Checker in Microsoft document editing products:

  1. In the top menu, select "Review"
  2. In the Accessibility section, select the "Check Accessibility" button

OR

  1. In the top menu, select "File"
  2. In the File toolbar, select "Info"
  3. Click on the "Check for Issues" dropdown menu to expand it
  4. Select "Check Accessibility"

Screenshot showing the Check Accessibility option highlighted under the Check For Issues dropdown menu in Microsoft Word

Use the Accessibility Checker to fix issues

If the Accessibility Checker finds an accessibility issue in your document, it will provide an explanation of the issue and the steps you'll need to take to fix it. Many document accessibility issues can even be fixed right within the Accessibility Checker itself. For example, if the Accessibility Checker finds images missing alt text:

  1. Locate the error in the accessibility inspection results of the Accessibility Checker (e.g. "Missing alternative text")
  2. Select the dropdown arrow that appears next to the error
  3. Select one of the Recommended Actions provided by the Accessibility Checker (e.g. "Add a description")

Screenshot showing recommended actions to fix an accessibility issue in the Accessibility inspection results of Microsoft Word

Once an accessibility issue is fixed, it will disappear from the list of issues in the inspection results.

 Adobe Acrobat

Run an Accessibility Check

Unlike Microsoft document editing products, Adobe Acrobat will run a one-time report any time you select the "Accessibility Check" option from the Accessibility toolbar. This will need to be run again each time you want to check your document for accessibility. To run the Accessibility Check:

  1. Open the Accessibility toolbar What if I don't see the Accessibility toolbar?
  2. Select "Accessibility Check"
  3. Leave all settings on by default, ensuring that the Page Range matches the scope of your desired report ("All pages in document" is the default selection)
  4. Select "Start Checking" to run the report

Screenshot showing the Accessibility Check option selected in the Accessibility toolbar of Adobe Acrobat

Once the Accessibility Check has been run, it will produce a list of results (and any potential issues) in another section on the left. Clicking on an issue in this list will typically highlight where the issue occurs in your document.

Use an Accessibility Check to fix issues

Adobe Acrobat's Accessibility Check can also provide you with explanations and steps to fix most accessibility issues from within the Accessibility Check results. For example, if the Accessibility Check finds images missing alt text:

  1. Locate the error in the Accessibility Check results (e.g. "Figures alternate text - Failed")
  2. Expand the issue to show all instances of where the issue occurs within your document
  3. Select an instance to have it highlighted in the document (e.g. "Figure 1")
  4. Right-click on the instance in the Accessibility Check results, and select:
    1. Fix: This will open up a dialog box where you can enter an alt text description for the image, or mark it as decorative
    2. Explain: This will direct you to Adobe Acrobat's support website where the issue and the steps required to fix it are explained in detail

Screenshot showing the options to fix and explain an issue in the context menu of the Accessibility Check results in Adobe Acrobat

The Accessibility Check results will NOT automatically update once an accessibility issue is fixed. To see if an accessibility issue has been fixed correctly, you'll either need to run the report again, or you can right-click on the issue in the Accessibility Check results and select the "Check Again" option, which will update the results for that issue only.


Tips:

  • It's always a good idea to run the Accessibility Checkers at least once before publishing a document, even if you think you've made everything accessible. The Accessibility Checker doesn't catch every accessibility issue, but it will sometimes catch things you may have missed if you've made recent or quick last-minute edits to your document.
  • In Adobe Acrobat, the issues "Color Contrast" and "Reading Order" will always be flagged as an issue that needs manual inspection, even if there aren't any of those kinds of issues in the document.
  • The Accessibility Checkers are there to help you and offer guidance on where your document might have accessibility issues. An Accessibility Check report that shows no issues doesn't necessarily mean that a document is fully accessible, just as an Accessibility Check report that shows issues doesn't necessarily mean that a document is completely inaccessible either. Always just do the best you can, and if there's something you need help with or an issue you just can't seem to fix, please feel free to reach out to us!