Easy Document Accessibility


Making materials accessible for a student, staff or faculty member with a disability can be a daunting task if you are not familiar with the basics. This post aims to help with the 80% of accessibility that is easy to do.

image showing various modes of accessibility

Structure, and more structure

Let’s say that you are building a document in Microsoft Word. If you use the heading styles rather than making text look like headings (by changing font size or bolding font), that will make your life much easier, as you likely know if you have ever tried to build a table of contents in Word. In addition, you are also making it much easier for any student to find information efficiently. A blind or dyslexic student can easily go from heading to heading without having to peruse all the text in between; and all students can now bring up an outline of the contents.

heading structure in word

The example of the Word document carries over to other formats. Headings in Google Docs or and many HTML editors will work similarly.

heading styles

Digital where possible

One very common barrier for students who use some form of accommodation is scanned text. It is really easy to quickly run an article or chapter through a scanner, send to PDF and, voila, you have just created a blank piece of paper for anyone who uses text-to-speech, and in addition, those with learning disabilities who might want to modify the look and feel of the text for greater efficiency will not have that option. Where possible, it is worth using digital versions of text as they are by default much more accessible than scanned printed pages.

Describe it

If you include an image in any resource, please take a moment to describe it using the “alt text” field. Brevity is of the essence here, so please do not tell your reader that the image is a photo or any such terminology, unless that is relevant (e.g. if the image is a charcoal drawing in the context of an art class). Whether it is a blind person with a screenreader or a search engine accessing your resource, it will be conveyed that it is an image. You can find instructions on how to write and add alt text in the resources below; it is a very quick process.

For images of graphs, tables, and other data visualizations, including the full description or data table in the main document body and using an alt tag that refers to that content is often easiest for readers.

Images are not the only thing that might need describing. In a classroom, describing what is projected or written on the black- or whiteboard will help anyone struggling to see or understand what is shown, and is especially important if a lecture is recorded. Captioning and transcribing videos will similarly help any viewer who either cannot hear or who benefits from the support of the text (e.g. ESL students.)

Data tables

Tables can be an extraordinarily useful way to convey information. They are best used for data only, as layout tables usually create a host of display and reading problems. In a data table, please mark up the heading row and columns wherever possible. Instructions for Word and Excel are in the resources below. For large tables this is especially important, as they become very hard to follow otherwise, visually or with text-to-speech. As with headings, you will save yourself many headaches by using the built-in tools for laying out a table, rather than manually making cells look like header rows or columns, especially in Excel.


One of the easiest things anyone can do make instruction more accessible to a lot of people is using colors with good contrast. Gray text on a white background, light blue on dark blue, all of these will increase eye fatigue for students and educators whose eyes already tire of screens, and for anyone with low vision, with or without a screen magnifier and/or custom color scheme, it may be a dealbreaker. A good bar to aim for is a contrast 4.5:1 unless the text is large - a contrast checker can easily tell you whether your colors work.

To conclude

The above points do not constitute a comprehensive overview of document accessibility, but do provide some easy starting points. The mantra to remember here is that you are not alone, and that in working toward a more accessible, welcoming educational environment, you do not have to do the work from scratch. The information below is only the tip of the iceberg of accessibility tips.


Why accessibility? https://www.w3.org/WAI/perspectives/

Word accessibility: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Make-your-Word-documents-accessible-d9bf3683-87ac-47ea-b91a-78dcacb3c66d

Excel accessibility: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Make-your-Excel-spreadsheets-accessible-6cc05fc5-1314-48b5-8eb3-683e49b3e593

How to write a good alt tag for an image: http://webaim.org/techniques/alttext/

All things captions and audio description: http://ncam.wgbh.org/

Color contrast analyzer: https://www.paciellogroup.com/resources/contrastanalyser/

And now, a silly obligatory music video:

Date Last Updated/Reviewed: 4/10/23