Getty Images/iStockphoto

Why are accessible documents important?

Accessible documents can reach broader audiences, improve users' experiences and ensure compliance with local regulations. This simple strategy can greatly benefit businesses.

Organizations should aim to make their documents -- both internal and external -- accessible.

Improving web accessibility for people with different kinds of disabilities is crucial. Document accessibility can improve both employees' and customers' experiences, ensure compliance with regulations and is good for business. It also ensures people can access content with assistive technologies like screen readers or screen magnifiers.

Several groups and vendors have or are developing both free and commercial automated accessibility checkers to check compliance with popular standards, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. This can help designers and developers identify and fix accessibility issues earlier in design and development processes.

What is an accessible document?

The widest audience possible should be able to obtain content that a company publishes, said CJ Gregorios, benefits senior advisor and equality and inclusion council director at Quest Software, a cloud management software provider. An accessible document is designed and formatted in a way that enables a wide range of people and devices to use and understand it.

Authors should design and structure accessible documents with inclusivity in mind, according to Alex Weishaupl, managing director at consulting firm Protiviti Digital. This process can involve semantic HTML -- a form of HTML that explains or reinforces the meaning behind certain elements -- to give proper context and ensure elements like links and media have captions and alt text.

Design teams should also ensure they deliver consistency across all documents. The layout and semantics within and across documents should be consistent and created with the intended users in mind.

Some features of an accessible document include the following:

  • The document has wrapped text and ample line spacing.
  • Screen readers can read the content aloud.
  • Printed documents include braille underneath typed text.
  • The business can automatically distribute printed documents with separate braille versions.
  • It avoids directional language, which tells people where elements are or how to interact with them.
  • It uses proper headings, chunks information well and has proper word choices, avoiding the use of non-inclusive terms.
  • It includes alt text for images and tables, and images have good contrast ratios so readers with low vision can see them more easily.

Why is document accessibility important?

Many jurisdictions legally require organizations to provide equal access to products for people with disabilities. Worldwide, about 1.3 billion people live with a disability, according to the World Health Organization. Accessible services can unlock a larger market share for these users.

So, organizations should have strategies to make internal and external PDF and Word documents accessible, said Holly Albano, a principal product manager who oversees accessibility efforts at NCino, a cloud banking platform.

Accessibility shouldn't be a stage of a project, but needs to be considered a key element of both launching and maintaining an experience.
Alex WeishauplManaging director, Protiviti Digital

"Accessibility is not just about compliance, which is very important to enterprises, and it's not just the right thing to do, but it also is a smart business decision," Albano said.

In the context of web content and documents, accessibility refers to the ease with which people, regardless of their abilities, can use the internet, mobile and web products. However, buildings with accessibility can also open a business up to more potential customers. For example, wheelchair ramps in a store can enable wheelchair users to visit the store, but they can also benefit parents with strollers or a delivery person with a dolly, Albano said.

In the digital world, accessible documents are important to ensure everyone can access content even if they use old browsers, have limited bandwidth, use smaller mobile screens or can't play a video or audio aloud.

How to get started with a document accessibility strategy

Organizations should consider efforts to support accessible documents broadly and as an ongoing process.

"Accessibility shouldn't be a stage of a project, but needs to be considered a key element of both launching and maintaining an experience," Weishaupl said.

Authors and design teams must consider accessibility at every stage in their digital strategy. This includes testing the accessibility of content and interactions as part of content and UX design and baking it into QA testing. Organizations should also continuously audit launched experiences to ensure they stay accessible.

Organizations should approach accessibility as part of a cross-organization effort, Gregorios said. For example, a company can include its HR, IT and diversity teams in efforts to assess employees' needs and ensure they have the necessary tools to perform their duties and feel comfortable in their work environment.

"Ultimately, it comes down to listening to what employees' pain points are and being an advocate at every level," Gregorios said.

George Lawton is a journalist based in London. Over the last 30 years he has written more than 3,000 stories about computers, communications, knowledge management, business, health and other areas that interest him.

Dig Deeper on Information management and governance

Business Analytics
Data Management