General guidelines for creating accessible documents

Provide a descriptive file name and title

When accessing a document, the first piece of information people will encounter is the file name. A unique, descriptive file name will help people understand the general topic and contents of a document. One example of a descriptive file name is as follows:

  ILS-Z511_DatabaseDesign_Syllabus_Spring2018_TRuiz.docx

That example file name indicates the specific context of the document (course code and name), type of document (syllabus), relevant date for the document (semester and year), and owner of the document (instructor name).

A good guideline for file names is to include similar information as you might include when writing the title of the document at the top of the first page. However, when writing the document title at the top of the first page, you should, of course, use correct punctuation and not use underscores.

The first page's title is the first thing that assistive technology programs will read out to an individual who opens the document, which is why it is important that the title also be descriptive.

Use appropriate language for the audience

Help diverse audiences understand the content in a document by using the simplest language appropriate for the content. The target audience for a document may not be the only audience to consume it, and ensuring the content is easily understandable can help make a document more easily accessible.

Wherever possible, avoid using jargon, complex language, abbreviations, or content that may confuse the reader. If you must include this kind of content, provide definitions for any abbreviations and jargon used, and provide extra resources for further comprehension of complex language or topics discussed in the document. Use illustrations, icons, and other elements to help supplement the text. Remember to review the document's content for spelling, grammatical errors, and readability before distributing it.

Use a clear document structure

Structuring a document appropriately helps individuals understand how a document is organized. The document's structure should provide an outline that gives an overview of the main topics, subtopics, and groups of content, both visually and non-visually.

Create an outline using the following:

Each piece of a document's structure should be visually distinct from other content included, and should also be accessible with assistive technology. Many types of assistive technology will use the document's structural information to improve navigation of the document for users.

Provide alternative text for visual content

Alternative text (alt text) descriptions are required for all types of visual content, including images, charts, graphs, and other informative non-text (visual) content. Including alt text will help individuals using assistive technology understand the content of images, graphs, and other similar items that may be included in a document, as the alt text will be read aloud when a screen reader encounters an image.

Alt text should succinctly describe the purpose or content of the image in the fewest possible words, ideally fewer than 15. If the image is purely decorative and does not serve an informative purpose, no alt text is necessary. In some cases, such as specific website content editors, you can even mark an image as decorative.

For complex images, including charts, data, infographics, and other similar graphics, there are a few options for adequately describing the image. One option, which would benefit all users, would be to include a thorough description of the complex image in the text of the document, immediately before or after the image. This way, everyone would be able to thoroughly understand the content of the image. If you don't want to add additional content to the document, an alternative would be to add the descriptive content to the document's appendix, and indicate where to find the expanded description.

There are a number of ways to provide alt text, including:

For more about alt text, see Alternate text for images.

Use color sparingly

When using color or sensory-based instructions (for example, size, shape, position, etc) in a document, providing supplemental information for users with visual impairments is necessary. To ensure accessibility, you should also be mindful when choosing a document's colors.

Sharp contrast between the text and background colors in a document help people read the content more easily, regardless of visual impairments or the content medium. Low color contrast can make text difficult to read. Try to use simple, high-contrast color combinations such as black on a white background, or white on a black background.

For example: "The assignments in red contained in the box on the left side of the page are due next week." would be difficult to understand for individuals with visual impairments, since they might not be able to tell which assignments were marked red.

However, "Look in the Weekly Due Date section under the Assignments heading. The assignments in red and marked with an asterisk (*) are due next week." provides the same information but the color-, shape-, and size-dependent instructions are supplemented by searchable text indicators like an asterisk and "Assignments" text.

There are a number of websites available that can help test for color contrast issues in a document. One example is Contrast Finder, a site that helps find contrast issues in documents. As an alternative to web-based tools, you can print a sample of the document in black and white or grayscale, and then look for any contrast issues that appear.