Best practices to create accessible documents

Anyone who creates content can make documents accessible for people who use assistive technologies. These best practices lay out how to ensure content is accessible.

Often, accessibility is an afterthought for many employees and organizations. Creating a culture that values accessibility can fix this problem.

Document accessibility requires an organization to educate users about digital accessibility and its importance, as well as to create and maintain a culture of accessibility. Then, the organization must put structures and procedures into place to build accessibility in as early as possible.

"This is true regardless of what specific kind of organization or business one works for. Developing that culture and maintaining that education are essential," said Scott Meshnick, access counselor at Purchase College, State University of New York.

An accessibility strategy starts from the ground up. It begins with educating people on what digital accessibility is and entails, the importance of accessibility practices and the overall benefit everyone experiences from it.

Organizations looking to create more accessible documents should consider these best practices.

1. Use plain language

One of the easiest strategies to improve accessibility is using plain language, said Iris Amelia O'Connor, manager of digital services at Emerson College in Boston.

One in five U.S. adults read at or below the fifth-grade level, O'Connor said. Content creators must keep this in mind, as accessibility is not solely about technical solutions. It also means all users -- despite their education level, potential disabilities or access to technology -- can understand content.

"The point of language is to communicate. If language becomes a barrier to conveying meaning … it is as if you didn't say or write anything to begin with," Meshnick said.

Each person creating content will likely phrase information in different ways. However, if an organization wants to reach the widest possible audience, employees must use language everyone can understand, no matter their backgrounds or circumstances.

2. Ensure accessibility carries over when exporting

Content creators have always faced challenges when exporting information from one format to another, according to Tim Nelms, senior director of research and advisory at Gartner. Every major format like DOCX, PDF and HTML can be fully accessible, yet laziness and a lack of understanding create challenges when changing formats.

Maintaining document accessibility requires a consistent workflow for document creation, because accessibility always starts at the beginning, O'Connor said.

"It's always easier to start your base content with an accessible source -- for example, Microsoft Word -- than to retrofit accessibility after the fact," O'Connor said. "When it comes to search and discovery, I find that you can't go wrong with converting documents to webpages. They're easier for Google to scan, and you can engage readers with rich keywords."

Content creators should ensure accessibility features carry over when exporting a document to a new format. If they understand the different methods and options available to export content, they can ensure those standards carry over properly, Meshnick said.

3. Add alt text to images

Images remain the most challenging area for accessibility practitioners -- especially complex graphs and tables, Nelms said.

"Alt text is one of those bare minimums you must include with web content or documents," O'Connor said. "Alt text should describe what's in the image without being too verbose, providing context to the surrounding content, if necessary."

For example, Microsoft Word lets users set alt text in documents, alongside other critical metadata, such as the title, author, etc. It also lets users note if an image is solely decorative, so assistive technologies like screen readers can ignore it.

A screenshot of Microsoft Word that shows how to add alt text to an image, table or graph.
Most content creation apps, like Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat, offer the option to add alt text.

4. Use semantic markup

Well-structured content follows a clear and consistent hierarchy. For example, webpages always begin with an <h1>, representing the first-level heading. Secondary headers will become <h2>, third-level headings <h3> and so forth up to six.

Tagging elements like headings, subheadings, tables and lists in webpage content and documents can aid accessibility. For example, Adobe Acrobat utilizes the tags tree, which relies on semantic tagging and organizes the content in a tree structure by the tagged headings. Semantic tagging offers context to the underlying technologies that render content, which provides information to help the user explore, navigate and interact with content.

5. Use headings

For longer documents, screen readers can only effectively navigate them if they include proper headings.

"Headings are what give a document its structure," Meshnick said. "Headings are basically titles and subtitles, meant to break up a document in a way that is akin to how many books will have multiple subheadings in their chapters, as a way to break up the chapter into distinct, organized subtopics."

Headings are coded in ways that enable screen readers to identify them and navigate between them to different spots in a document more easily. Additionally, headings have an advantage over regular search functions, as screen readers can automatically pull them up and read them aloud quickly. The alternative is to search for keywords, which bring up many search results that can be difficult to navigate.

6. Embrace generative AI

Organizations are starting to see a great deal of innovation in AI for accessibility, Nelms said.

"Generative AI promises to help make us all better authors. It will make it much easier to generate alt text, which will have a significant impact on accessibility of documents," Nelms said.

This technology could also help easily fix issues that content creators might miss, like adding accessible tags and automatically checking for potential accessibility issues on a webpage. However, it's still nascent, so organizations shouldn't rely on it yet to ensure accessibility.

How to get started with accessibility

If language becomes a barrier to conveying meaning … it is as if you didn't say or write anything to begin with.
Scott Meshnick, access counselor at the State University of New York at Purchase

Content creators might feel overwhelmed as they try to make documents accessible, but many online resources can help. Webinars, training sessions and conferences, in particular, can help users learn the ins and outs of accessible document creation, O'Connor said. Additionally, tools like Adobe Acrobat offer their own accessibility checkers to help reach a baseline.

Also, content creators should always ask if their next project needs to be a document. The answer might be no. Instead, they can use an alternative format, like an email newsletter, a webpage or a video.

Finally, content creators gain significant knowledge and skills by making documents accessible. They can then apply those skills to help their organizations improve their accessibility strategies, Meshnick said.

"One can only benefit by learning these principles, putting them into practice regularly and maintaining those practices throughout. Everyone benefits from digital accessibility, including the creators of digital documents," Meshnick said.

David Weldon is a business and technology writer in the Boston area who covers topics related to data management, information security, healthcare technology, educational technology and workforce management.

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