Framework Accessible Online Documents

2 - Accessible

Many people  use special software and devices, including screen readers, to access computers and reading material. We have a responsibility to ensure any documents we publish meet accessibility standards.

This means everyone should be able to get the same information, including those with disabilities. Documents include PDFs, Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.

The top advice from all expert sources is to publish this information as web pages. If this is not possible then you must try to optimise your documents for visibility, hearing and mobility assistive technologies.

How to make your documents accessible

Click on the titles below to see the content:

Headings give your document a structure, help people navigate it and understand the content hierarchy. This helps all people but is especially important to those using screen readers; they rely on these to understand the hierarchy of the information.

The heading styles in Word are not for decorative effect, they actually apply the structure to the page.

Use the right style at the right time

As with web pages you should use the right heading style at the right time, not the one you think looks the best.

  • There should be one Heading 1 (the title of your document)
  • Any subheadings below that must be Heading 2
  • Any subsections of the Heading 2 headings must be a Heading 3 and so on
  • Make sure that you don’t skip heading levels

Heading styles are for grouping and adding a hierarchy to your contentnot for formatting.

Style is important for corporate identity. When we produce our documents we must follow our branding guidelines as explained in the “In our branding style” page.

How to apply heading styles to text

You can apply heading styles by highlighting the relevant text and selecting a heading style from the list on the Home tab of the ribbon.

(click image to enlarge)

The top ribbon of Word at the Home tab where we can see the headings buttons


Of course you will need to style (modify) these heading styles according to our branding style or use one of our templates.

Checking the heading structure

Before you publish or share your document you can check the structure by turning on the Navigation Pane.

Additional Benefit

By applying the correct headings structure, your document not only complies with the accessibility regulations but also becomes very user friendly since all your headings will be exported as bookmarks in your final PDF, which although are not a requirement they will make your documents (especially the lengthy ones) extremely easy to read and navigate.

Simply select “Save as”, then select “PDF (*.pdf)” from the documents type options, click on “Options…” in the new window, and in the Options pop-up select “Create bookmarks using:” and the radio button “Headings” below it.

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Step-by-step illustration of saving MS Word doc to PDF including headings

It is very important that the text we use for hyperlinks describes where people will go if they click that link. Using meaningful and descriptive makes it easier for everyone. There is more about writing descriptive links in this accessible content guidance.

For example, you may have links like these in the document: (the screen reader will try to read out each letter of this – which can be a pain) or worse still, there may be vague link text like click herelink or here.

These are all bad for accessibility as they make it harder for people to understand where the link will take them. Link text should be descriptive and if possible unique. For example User friendly was our last page and the next page is Current and valid.

If you tend to hit “Tab” or “Enter” over and over again to create formatting you want, try to kick the habit. Hearing a bunch of white space (identified by a screen reader as “blank”) can be annoying and might give users with disabilities the impression that the document has ended.

  • Instead, use document formatting. Rely on indentations, line spacing, and Styles to create the effect you want.
  • To create extra space after lines without pressing enter, right click and go to Paragraph. Under Spacing, adjust the before, after, and line spacing options as desired to get the layout you want.
  • One way to check how your document might “look” to a screen reader is to select the option to show all non-printing characters so that you can see the paragraph symbol that appears every time you hit the enter key and the dot that appears every time you hit the space bar. Ideally, these should only appear when you truly are stopping an old word or paragraph and starting a new one. They shouldn’t be there when you just want to create extra space.

Tables are great for organising data and information, but when they’re read by a screen reader, they can be confusing. Tables must never be used to improve the layout of your page and should be used sparingly.

If you are using tables for data or statistics then there are some things you can do in to make them more navigable and accessible:

    1. Use clear and designated column headings.

      Just like you use Style headings throughout your text, use column headers to make your tables consistent and easy to navigate. Make sure that under “Table Options”, you select “Header Row” so that screen readers will identify the top row as column headings.

    2. Make tables as simple and logical as possible.

      If possible, avoid having merged or split cells only in certain columns or rows, because this will be confusing when the content is read aloud. Stick to a standard, evenly laid out format.

    3. Try to make your tables read logically from left to right and top to bottom.

      To get a better idea of how a screen reader will navigate your table, use the tab key on your keyboard to check the order that the cursor goes through your columns and rows.

    4. Add a table summary (alt text)

      To aid people with visual or cognitive impairments you should add an alt text entry for your tables.

      • To add alt text, Select the whole table by clicking the select icon (cross), right click and select Table Properties. In Excel select Table.
      • Click Alt Text
      • Add a title, this could be something like ‘Town Centre Car Parks’
      • Add the description. For example: ‘This table shows all the car parks available in Tunbridge Wells town centre and the available parking options’.

How to apply the correct style to a table

    1. Select the whole table by clicking the select icon (cross) in the top left corner of the table. In Excel you will need to select all the cells that contain the table content.
    2. In Word or PowerPoint, click on the Design tab under Table Tools on the top menu ribbon. In Excel select Format as a Table on the Home tab.
    3. Select one of the table designs. In Excel you should make sure the My table has headers box is ticked when prompted.
    4. Make sure that the Header Row is ticked. First Column should also be ticked if your first column contains headings rather than data.

Use alt text

People with visual impairments, whether they are blind or have partial sight, may lose out if you use a lot of images, charts, shapes, photographs, or clipart in your documents. This doesn’t mean you have to skip those features – you just have to add some alternative (or “alt”) text or captions to explain what they are. Screen reading software will read Alt text or captions aloud to make sure users with visual impairments don’t miss out.

Your alt text should be descriptive of the content (just like you would describe it to someone who cannot see it) but also concise.

How do I add alt text or captions on the images and charts in my document?

After you inserted your image or chart in your document, right click on it and select ‘Edit Alt text…’ (or ‘Insert Caption…). A pane will open on the right of the document where you can add your alt text. We strongly recommend that you add alt text to all images and do not use the ‘Mark as decorative’ function.

For captions it will be a pop-up window.

(click images to enlarge)

Illustration of adding alt text
Illustration of adding caption

What is the difference between alt text and captions?

The alt text is used to describe the image for search engines and screen readers. On the other hand, the caption is used to describe the image for all users.

Alt text is not visible on your document while captions are visible below your images.

The alt text is crucial for accessibility. The caption is optional and can be used only when you need to provide additional information about the image.

Use clear line colours in charts

For people with red green colour blindness, it is important to not have both red and green chart elements (lines, bars or segments). You can easily fix this by changing one of these to an alternative colour.

Pie is not for everyone

Pie charts aren’t great. They can be difficult for those with colour perception issues like red green colour blindness or colour deficiency. Furthermore, imagine trying to match the legends and the slices if you can only see a quarter of the screen at once.

Avoid floating objects

When you add images, charts, or other objects, be careful with your text wrapping. If you use floating objects, screen reading software may ignore them altogether or read their Alt text in the wrong order.

Instead, use the “top and bottom” or “in line with text” text-wrapping options.

How do i choose the correct wrapping option for my image?

After you inserted your image or chart in your document, right click on it and select ‘Wrap Text’. In the next menu that opens up you will see all the different options for wrapping text. Hovering the cursor over each one, will change the text wrapping ‘on-the-fly’ and give a visual example that will help you choose the correct option.

(click image to enlarge)

Illustration of wrapping text options


If you wish to learn more about wrapping text around images in MS word, this article by Microsoft is a good start.

Some users may have cognitive impairments and benefit from clear language. Some may have colour blindness or other visual impairments that make low-contrast text difficult to separate from the background.

Some users who rely on screen readers will have to listen to every part of your document, sometimes over and over again. If you’ve got unnecessary contents, try to weed it out.

Be thorough with your contents, but if possible, stay simple in your approach.

  • Keep titles short, especially if they appear often.
  • If you’re using colour, avoid putting very similar colours on top of one another. Contrast makes text easier to read for everybody, especially those with visual impairments.
  • Don’t rely on colour-coding alone. For users who can’t perceive colour or are using screen readers, make sure that information is conveyed in multiple ways, not just through colour of the text. For example, avoid a long list of items where red text signifies one thing and blue another.

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