Making Documents Accessible

An accessible document is one that has clear and consistent formatting. Not only are these documents easier to navigate and comprehend, they offer compatibility from program to program and device to device. For students who require the use of a screen reader, documents created accessibly are more compatible with screen reading software. This webpage will help you achieve accessibility whether you are creating a Word document, PDF, Excel document or Power Point presentation.


Decorative Image  Quick Tools for Accessibility at UMass Boston

Our instructors are encouraged to use the resources available to help document accessibility, and offering multiple means of access. Here are a couple to help you get started:

  • Document Converter Tool This self-service tool helps with the conversion of webpages and documents into accessible PDFs and MP3 recordings.


  • Cheatsheets This NCDAE webpage provides simple one page instructions to create various types of accessible documents, based on the type of document and the version of software available to you.

What is a Screen Reader?

A screen reader is a software application that converts visual web content into synthesized speech, allowing the user to listen to content. A good practice is to download a screen reader emulator like Fangs (for Firefox), so you can “view” your content from the point of view of a student who may require the use of such an application.

Decorative Image  Stay Up-to-Date

A way to ensure both accessibility and compatibility is to use the most up-to-date software available. UMass Boston offers all of its students, staff and faculty free use of Microsoft Office 365 throughout their entire UMB career. Download the apps at the UMB Microsoft Office webpage.

General Practices for Accessible Documents


Number One  Use Headings

Virtually all authoring tools you may use will have a built-in heading feature (Heading 1 for the title, Heading 2 for sub-headings, etc.) This allows for basic organization of your content, and specifically helps screen reader users easily navigate between headings.

number 2  Use Lists

When making a list for organizing content, using list functions in an authoring tool is the best way to ensure accessibility. For the same reason as using headings, reading software can use lists to inform students with disabilities that they have arrived at a list, and just how many items are in the list. If your content resembles a list, it is probably best practice to format it as such. An example is using the “bullet” or “numbering” function in the Paragraph menu in Microsoft Word.

number 3  Use Links Properly

It’s best to avoid vocabulary such as “click here” for links, as screen reader users might have difficulty distinguishing one link from another. Instead, be specific. If your link connects students to an MLA formatting page, for example, don’t say “click here for information on MLA formatting,” but instead, “Visit the MLA formatting website for more information.”

number 4  Use Tables Properly

If you find your information best fits the format of a table, with rows and columns, it’s best to keep the table simple. Consider dividing a single complex table into a series of smaller, simpler ones. Also, clearly identify row and column headers for the sake of students using a screen reader. When nested headings are necessary, keep in mind the “Use Headings” section above.

number 5  Color and Contrast

It’s important to consider some of your students may deal with some level of colorblindness. While color can add to information presented, it’s a bad practice to convey information solely through color. Use other visual indicators such as text, shapes and patterns to make these visual cues more accessible.

star  Best Practice: Using the default settings for things like Word documents or webpages. However, if alternate settings are required or default settings are unavailable, consider all your students! When selecting color of background and text, be sure to include a high degree of contrast to make information as easily readable as possible.


Decorative Image  Important: Things to Avoid

  • Do NOT use visual characteristics to communicate information. With written content, make sure the conveyed information is clear through language, not dependent on visual cues.
  • Do NOT use spacial references to communicate information. Things like “the chart on the right” might not translate from program to program or device to device.
  • Do NOT use color to communicate information. Instead of saying, “the information in green denotes x,” a better practice is to create a separate list or category to convey this.