What is document accessibility?

A man is looking at the laptop screen with a document file opened on it

Accessibility is a vast subject, with deep impacts. The two most important aspects of creating accessible documents and content is being empathetic and celebrating accessibility requirements as a set of principles that improves content for every reader. Doing that layers your work with an inclusive mentality that benefits the many. Not the few.

Portrait photo of the post author Di Mace

Di Mace

Communication strategist

Accessibility helps users of all abilities to understand, use and enjoy the web. Sadly, there’s a myth that content and document accessibility is difficult and expensive, but it isn’t, when the core principles are incorporated from the beginning of the creation process.

As a content creator or website designer, it’s your responsibility to bring a better experience to all users and readers, irrespective of their situation, abilities or context.

What is an accessible document?

An accessible document is a document that’s easily read and used by everyone – including people with disabilities, low vision, low literacy levels and non-sighted readers. The document should be screen reader-friendly and Dyslexia and color-blindness friendly.

Documents of various file formats (e.g. Word, PDF, HTML, etc.) can be designed to make content accessible to assistive technology by applying a set of common principles.

  • Use page titles.
  • Use a nested heading format and hierarchy.
  • Use lists to structure information by bullets (unordered) or numbers (ordered).
  • Use a font that’s at least 12pt (16 pixels) and Sans Serif to aid readability.
  • Double or 1.5 spacing between lines can make a document easier to read.
  • Use meaningful hyperlinks (not 'click here').
  • Add alt text (alternative text) for all images.
  • Ensure sufficient contrast between the font color and the background color.
  • If including tables, use a simple table structure for data only, and specify column header information.
  • Ensure color is not the only means of conveying information.
  • Avoid writing important information in the Header or Footer sections of the document.
  • Avoid flickering or flashing on the page as seizures can be triggered by photosensitive epilepsy.
  • Avoid using closely positioned columns of text – include a gap of white space between each column. Otherwise, some screen readers will read straight across the first row of each column rather than down a column. This also assists people with low vision.

How to check documents for accessibility issues

Having an online Accessibility Testing Tool reviews your content and flags any document accessibility issues that may be a potential problem for someone with a disability. It also suggests how you can resolve the issues that it finds.

Our Accessibility Testing tool is set at compliance level AA of the WCAG guidelines.

Once you’ve pasted the content into the editor UI, click the button and it works in the background to detect any document accessibility issues.

What is the most accessible document format?

There is no one accessible document format that's superior to the others. If the core accessibility principle of providing a solid structure and hierarchy is applied, then the content is likely readable and accessible across a range of digital formats, from HTML, to MS Word, Google Docs and PDFs.

Each document format has its own way to assist you in adding structure, so the most important thing is to design the content using semantic structure, including headings, lists and tables, during the creation phase. Other points to remember are:

  • Make full use of the document format's support for structural markup.
  • Add alternative text (Alt text) to images and avoid color contrast issues.
  • Generate PDFs from documents that already carry and use structural markup – this saves having to add structure to the PDF later, which requires specific software.
  • Emails (including newsletters) should be in accessible HTML format with the option of viewing in plain text.
  • PDFs (if used) should always be tagged/structured PDFs that are optimized for accessibility.

Digital document accessibility is most effective when it is incorporated from the beginning of the document creation process.

Naturally though, you should still test for accessibility on all documents, in all formats, before they’re published. While it’s impossible to cover all situations, your efforts to make your content accessible so that it reaches all users, can yield many rewards – sometimes in unexpected ways.

Get your own WCAG A-AA-AAA level accessibility checking tool. Click to discover how.

Portrait photo of the post author Di Mace

Di Mace

Communication strategist

Di Mace is a freelance copywriter and messaging strategist who's worked with both B2B and B2C brands across the country. She helps businesses identify who their best-fit customers are, what drives them to do what they do, and then crafts messages that turn them from fans into customers and evangelists.

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