Using effective strategies for accessible documents when you’re editing and writing benefits everyone. The documents become more readable for all, and isn’t that the job of a writer or editor anyway?
A few years ago, I was asked to make some PDFs 508 compliant. The term “508 compliant” refers to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.
This law established federal guidelines that ensure people with disabilities can access electronic and information technology. Companies that contract with the federal government are intimately familiar with these requirements.
Further guidance over the years has included recommendations for
- formatting conventions, such as appropriate use of italics, font and font sizes, and color contrast;
- use of images and hyperlinks;
- table layout;
- heading structure;
- lists; and
- white space.
Developing my strategies for accessible documents
Back when I first got started, I had little notion that I would establish myself as a go-to on strategies for accessible documents. Over the years, I slowly added to my knowledgebase with the help of a fellow graphic designer who is a bit of an accessibility legend at the company that asks me to do this work.
Since she retired over a year ago, though, much of the troubleshooting work has fallen on me and one other colleague. However, I still use the checklists I got from her. And her advice on file-naming conventions, heading order, and meaningful alt text still rings in my ears.
I also get support and strategies for accessible documents from the Facebook group PDF Accessibility. The group is administered by accessibility compliance subject matter expert Dax Castro.
LinkedIn Learning instructor Chad Chelius has also been a great help, so I would encourage anyone to check out his courses if you want more in-depth training in this area.
Strategies for accessible documents benefit everyone
A lot of things writers and editors already do include strategies for accessible documents that benefit not just people with disabilities but also a wide range of readers.
These readers can be non-native speakers of English, those who wear reading glasses (including yours truly), and busy freelancers. We busy freelancers sure can benefit from straightforward navigation when we are trying to find out how to make a document accessible!
In my work with 508 compliance, I have identified several strategies for accessible documents that writers and editors may already use. I’ve also identified a few strategies they may not already use but could be effortless additions to their toolbox.
Strategies for accessible documents you may already use
1. Clear heading structure
Writers and editors know that readable text is easy to navigate. Clear headings in the proper order of heading 1 followed by heading 2 and so on orient readers and make the text easier to consume.
Individuals with disabilities, especially those with cognitive disabilities, also benefit from visually apparent headings that don’t skip levels.
2. No stacked headings
It’s best to avoid stacking headings as one of the strategies for accessible documents, although some style guides allow them. (And you’ll notice I used them above and below, so exceptions apply when worthy!)
Stacked headings are headings followed by another heading without intervening text. This common rule of editing helps readers understand what the section is about. It also helps individuals with cognitive disabilities organize their thoughts.
3. No empty paragraphs
Editors who do a little more formatting ensure that no empty lines appear between paragraphs.
This strategy not only helps with design but also helps those who have visual disabilities. Those empty paragraphs can be indicated and described by screen readers, which interrupts reading flow.
You can use the platform’s “space after” or “space before” functionalities instead. In Microsoft Word, go to the Layout tab and then the Spacing section.
4. Use the list tool, not manual bullet symbols
Another one of the strategies for accessible documents is the use of your word-processing software’s built-in list tool. That is, if you are using Microsoft Word, for example, click on the bullet list button in the Home tab to create an automated bullet list.
A manual symbol for each list item will result in a screen reader assuming the bullet is an image. The screen reader will thus look for alt text (see “Edit the alt text” below) to describe it. It also won’t know that the item is part of a list and will read it as if all items are separate paragraphs.
Strategies for accessible documents you may not already use
1. Meaningful links
When providing a link, either to a location within the document (i.e., internal link) or to a website (i.e., external link), provide meaningful text to go along with the URL as one of the strategies for accessible documents.
For example, instead of saying “click here,” say something like “Go to the CDC website to learn more about flu prevention.” Then you would use the software’s insert hyperlink tool to link the term “CDC website” to the URL. Screen readers will identify the link appropriately.
2. Edit the alt text
If a digital document has images, it should always have alt text that clearly describes the image as relevant to the associated text. This alternative text is read by the screen reader for individuals with visual disabilities.
Proposed alt text:
An infographic is made up of four concentric circles. The innermost circle is labeled Child and Family. The second circle is labeled Early Educators. The third circle is labeled Early Education Providers. The final and outermost circle is labeled Early Education Partners.
Meaningful alt text is also important. I was recently alerted to a UN infographic that had the following alt text: High Resolution Image. If you didn’t go to the link I provided and see the image yourself, would you have known what the infographic was about?
3. Tables should not be used for layout alone
In the beginning, web designers made use of tables to lay out pages that were visually appealing. However, screen readers see tables as a way to organize data.
As one of the strategies for accessible documents, column headers should be labeled as such so that screen readers can orient individuals with visual disabilities. Cells should contain data that correspond to the column headers.
|Pan-fried barramundi||bok choy and mushrooms||rice||barramundi|
|Tuscan pork chops and quinoa||peppers||quinoa||pork chops|
|Fish tacos||slaw||corn tortillas||fish|
4. Color contrast
Ensuring color contrast between foreground and background is high enough for readability is another one of the strategies for accessible documents.
Example of text that is hard to read
For example, in the box above the light blue background with gray text is hard to read. A better option would be a darker blue with bold white text as shown below.
Example of text that is easier to read
High contrast makes text readable not just for people with low vision but also for people with color blindness.
I hope this post about strategies for accessible documents has helped you improve your writing and editing to benefit all your readers, not just those without disabilities.