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Accessibility Tips for Text Documents

Decorative image of a laptop with Google open in the browser window.
Image credit: Pixabay

This resource provides four tips for making a document more accessible for assistive technologies. Document types addressed include Google Docs and Word; PDF’s will be addressed in a separate resource.

1. Use Headings

Headings are styles that are built into the text document and identify where sections of the text begin and end. This features allows an individual to navigate the sections of the text with a screenreader or other assistive technology, but it also creates an outline of the document that anyone can use for navigation. Using styles is a critical step to making a document more accessible for anyone. Here are a few pointers for using headings:

  • There should only be one H1 heading per document; this is usually the main title.
  • Headings range from H1 to H6. Usually each succeeding heading represents a smaller level of importance.
  • Think of headings like an outline: there is a thesis or title (H1), main points (H2), sub-points to a main point (H3), and supporting points for sub-points (H4), etc. Each header is information we would consider nested in the section above it.

In Google Docs adding styles (a.k.a. headings) is simple. The main document window has a box on the tool bar at the top that says “Normal text.” If you hover over that box with your mouse, you will see it is the styles menu. Using the drop-down menu, you can highlight text in the document and then change the style to H1, H2, H3, etc.

If you navigate without a mouse, you can highlight your text then press these keys simultaneously: on a PC press Control + Alt + 1, or for a Mac press the keys command + option+ 1. To use a different header setting, for example H2, simply replace the number 1 key with the number 2 key in this formula. More information on using keyboard shortcuts in Google Docs is is also available.

In Word the headers are also called styles and are part of the Home toolbar at the top of the document. Highlight your text and then select the style you want to use from the drop down menu, or use these Microsoft Word keyboard shortcuts.

Here is a short video from Microsoft demonstrating how to add headings.

2. Use Bulleted or Numbered Lists

When creating a list in your document, use the bullet or numbered list feature from the tool bar. Simply using “tab” or changing the spacing yourself to align a list on the paper is a visual organization strategy rather than formal formatting. This information would not be conveyed to someone who is using a screenreader or assistive technology to access your information. Using the bullet or numbered list features ensures that the information is encoded as a list for everyone accessing the document.

Here is a video demonstrating how to use bullets and numbered lists in Microsoft Word.

Here is a step-by-step explanation of how to add a numbered or bulleted list in Google Docs.

3. Provide Alternative Text for Images and Charts

Providing alternative text for images and charts is one of the most important steps you can take to improve the accessibility of your document. It is also the step that can feel the most confusing. Let’s look at both how to add alternative text and how to craft your narrative.

Microsoft provides an explanation for adding alternative text to visual objects here. You can also see it demonstrated in this Microsoft video. In short, you can access the alternative text features by right-clicking on the image you have inserted into the document and selecting the “Edit Alt Text” option. Here you can mark an image as decorative or provide a text description.

Here are a few tips to craft your description:

  • A decorative image is something you have included for entertainment but that does not contain information, give an impression, or otherwise convey information that a user needs to know.
  • A good alternative text description includes any information in the image, chart, map, graphic, or other visual object that you want the user to gain from experiencing the object.
  • Like our text document itself, the alt text should use simple, clear, concise language. Convey the essential details rather than every detail.
  • Here are some examples of useful alternative text descriptions depending on the context and use of the image.
  • If asking the user to analyze your image, you need to provide them a describe of all the relevant information from the image.
  • This does not mean you have to “give away the answer,” but rather provide all of the information as a description of the image that moves around the image in a logical way. For example, “In the upper left corner there is….”
  • Note that Word limits the number of characters you can write in this alternative text box. If your explanation is detailed–i.e. more than a sentence or two–consider providing the explanation below the image in paragraph form.

4. Create Named Hyperlinks Rather than URLs

Not all that long ago the prevailing wisdom was to include the URL address for websites in documents. If you are delivering your materials digitally, the best practice now is to provide a named hyperlink instead.

For example, using the text Google Search is better than providing the link like this The named hyperlink identifies where the link will take the user. The latter, the URL, will be read by a screenreader or assistive technology device as w… w… w… period… g… and so on. Given the length of some addresses, you could easily lose track of what was read and not have a clear idea where the URL will take you.

One exception comes to mind when you are building documents intended to be handouts. Making those available digitally for users is important for everyone but especially those with disabilities, and that document should include named hyperlinks. The printed paper version can contain the URL following the title of what it is for individuals to take that information with them and access the sites later.

Additional Resources

The Web Accessibility Initiative, who led the creation of the WCAG2 guidelines for web design, have an Essential Components of Web Accessibility resource. It is a great starting point for understanding how to design with accessibility in mind. Several of the features discussed above have their origin in HTML coding practices.

The University of Washington has an excellent resource for creating accessible documents and multimedia materials.

Harvard University has a resource for writing useful alternative text.