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Creating accessible documents:
preparing faculty-produced items

Mary Taylor

December 2006
Minor updates January 2009


Many disabled students find electronic documents more convenient than printed books. They may find it easier to use a keyboard or some other device to step through pages on a screen instead of turning paper pages. Or they may rely on the computer to read documents to them or to magnify them.

These guidelines have been written to help secretarial staff or anyone else who is preparing documents to be delivered to students through a course website. They will also be useful for preparing material which is handed over to LTS for processing, it will make it easier for them to achieve accessibility targets.

The guidelines assume that documents are created in Microsoft® Word then converted to PDF using the Adobe PDF Maker plug-in.

There are some things that you can do when you prepare an electronic document which will make it easier for disabled students to read. These apply to MS Word documents and the same principles can be transferred to the other two main accessible formats: HTML pages or PDF files.

The most important guidelines are:

  • Use styles and headings instead of direct formatting

  • Construct tables correctly

  • Take care with figures

1.1A note about “RTF” files

Many disabled students ask for RTF or Rich Text Format file for documents instead of an MS Word document. It is similar to an MS Word document but can be readily opened by other word processing programs. It also does not carry “macro” viruses which means students feel that it is safer to download. It is easy to save an MS Word document as RTF, it is one of the options under “File/Save as”. MS Word opens RTF files in the same way as it opens its own document format files.

1.2A note about PDF files

There are some reservations about the accessibility of PDF (Portable Document Format), but it is widely available and some disabled students have no problems with it.

When you convert an MS Word document to PDF, using Adobe tools such as the Acrobat plug-in and following the advice given here, the helpful structure will be passed on to the PDF file without you doing any additional work.

1.3A note about screen readers

Screen readers are programs that are used by visually impaired people to read the text on a computer screen. They run in the background and work with Windows, MS Word and other MS Office programs, Internet Explorer and any other program which has standard Windows toolbars, menus and text windows.

Users can choose whether to read all of the text in a window or to read a line or word at a time or just one letter at a time. It is very important for students to be able to read in detail. They may need to read the same sentence several times or to check spelling of names or new terms.

For more information about screen readers and other programs used by disabled students, see Assistive Technology.

1.4Showing “hidden” codes

Hidden codes are marks that MS Word uses to add tabs, paragraphs, manual page breaks and other formatting instructions. Turning on the feature which shows the hidden codes is useful to spot potential accessibility problems. Select ¶ on the toolbar or “Show/hide ¶”.


  • Don’t use direct formatting – use styles

Layout and formatting help any reader to understand the structure of a long document. These visual cues help people to understand the content and also to remember it. For example, headings indicate sections and subsections, bullet lists emphasise important points. People who use screen readers can use the Document Map to navigate. They can also choose to have all changes in styles announced. This gives them a richer view of the document which in turn helps them to understand the content better.

Direct formatting can be used to achieve the same result, for example you could just select a line of text and make it bold, 14 point and Arial font. This would make it look like a heading, but it wouldn’t appear in the document map. A screen reader program won’t be able to interpret it as useful navigation. The next line shows the last heading created using direct formatting (indented to avoid confusion).

2 Styles

It doesn’t matter if a MS Word built-in style doesn’t look the way you want it to to begin with. You can change the look of any style for a particular document by using the tools under “Format/Styles and formatting”. Changes to built-in styles will only be changed for one document, unless you deliberately change your default settings.

Many of the styles commonly used in MS Word documents have equivalents in HTML codes and PDF tags. Those covered in this document are passed on when converting between formats.


  • Use Title style for the document title

  • Use headings for major sections such as chapters

  • Start with Heading 1 for the most important headings

  • Continue with Heading 2 and Heading 3 etc.

  • Don’t skip from Heading 1 to Heading 3 or 4 if you can possibly avoid it

Remember, if you use direct formatting to create headings, the fact that it’s a heading will be obvious to anyone who can see it, but will not be announced by a screen reader. Use “Heading 1”, Heading 2” and so on.

Remember also that you can change the look of any style. For example, if you need Heading 1 to be italic, and right justified:

  1. Make sure the cursor is on a line which is a Heading 1

  2. Select “Format” from the main menu

  3. Choose “Styles and Formatting ...”

  4. In the “Styles and Formatting” window, find “Formatting of selected text” at the top, “Heading 1” should be in the drop-down box.

  5. Click the drop-down arrow on the right of “Heading 1” to reveal the options for this style

  6. Choose “Modify style ...”

  7. A dialog box will open with a selection of the usual formatting tools

  8. Set the text to italic and the alignment to right

  9. Click on OK and all your level 1 headings will be changed

So, if you want the most important heading level to look the same as built in Heading 3, change the look of Heading 1 and use that, don’t be tempted to use Heading 3 instead. Screen reader users will be puzzled if something which is styled as Heading 3 is a main section heading or a chapter heading.

If possible, make sure that subheadings follow in a logical order, use Heading 2 for the next level after Heading 1, not Heading 3 or Heading 4. You may need to ignore this guideline to achieve the structure intended by the author.

4Lists etc.

  • Use built in list styles

If there is a style for what you want to display, use it.

For example for numbered or ordered items, use ‘numbered lists’:

  1. Item 1

  2. Item 2

  3. Item 3

and for other lists use ‘bulleted lists’:

  • Red

  • Yellow

  • Green

Screen reader programs can announce the beginning and end of a list that is styled in this way. Some will also announce the number of items in the list.


  • Use MS Word tables for tabular information

  • Don’t use tables to create columns or lists

  • Turn on the table option “Heading rows repeat”

  • Use table cells correctly for tables with text – keep related material in one cell

Use tables for the correct purpose, arranging tabular information. Don’t use them for laying out columns or to lay out a list, use the column and list tools.

Turn on the option “Heading rows repeat” for any table which has headings, this will help screen reader users if it is a long table, and anyone who needs to increase the font size which might cause the table is split over two pages.

If a table has column headings, use a style for this row which includes bold text, this helps the screen reader to identify them.

For example:

Table 1 Standard and Roman numerals
















5.1Tables with text

Be careful when using tables to display text, make sure that things that are meant to be read together are in the same cell. Screen reader programs can step through tables cell by cell, across and down rows.

In the next table, the first row shows the right way to use table cells, the next 2 rows shows the wrong way and the last row shows the order in which a screen reader user would hear it.

Table 2 Nursery rhymes

Do it this way

Jack and Jill

Went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down

And broke his crown

And Jill came tumbling after.

Old King Cole

Was a merry old soul

And a merry old soul was he.

He called for his pipe

And he called for his bowl

And he called for his fiddlers three.

Don’t do it this way

Jack and Jill

Old King Cole

Went up the hill

Was a merry old soul

To fetch a pail of water.

And a merry old soul was he.

Jack fell down

He called for his pipe

And broke his crown

And he called for his bowl

And Jill came tumbling after.

And he called for his fiddlers three.

Otherwise a screen reader will read the rows out of order like this

Jack and Jill

Old King Cole

Went up the hill

Was a merry old soul

To fetch a pail of water.

And a merry old soul was he.

Jack fell down

He called for his pipe

And broke his crown

And he called for his bowl

And Jill came tumbling after.

And he called for his fiddlers three.

Take extra care if you don’t have visible grid lines in the table as it may not be obvious where the cell breaks are.

5.2Don’t use tabs to create columns or tables

For the same reason, never use tabs to make text look like a table or columns. Screen reader programs will just read across rows a line at a time.

For example

Jack and Jill Old King Cole

Went up the hill Was a merry old soul

To fetch a pail of water. And a merry old soul was he.

This was created using tabs:

Jack and Jill  Old King Cole

Went up the hill  Was a merry old soul

To fetch a pail of water.  And a merry old soul was he.

and will be read by a screen reader as:

Jack and Jill Old King Cole Went up the hill Was a merry old soul To fetch a pail of water. And a merry old soul was he.


  • Check that the author has provided descriptions of essential figures

There are two main types of figures in a MS Word document, those that are inserted as pictures and those that are constructed using text boxes and arrows.

Both types may need a description, this should be discussed with the author or course team.

See Description Guidelines for more information on how to describe figures.

6.1Figures which are pictures

  • Add web alternative text if needed

For a figure which is a picture, you can add short descriptive text by right-clicking on the image and choosing “Format picture” then the “Web” tab. Enter a few words in the “Alternative text” box.

Note that the “alt text” is not visible or read out by a screen reader in the MS Word document, but it will be read out when the document is converted to PDF.

Figure 1 S103 Block 2 Figure 9.1

This is only useful for very short descriptions as, although a screen reader can read them out, they cannot be read interactively in the way that document text can. If the document being created for disabled students, longer descriptions can be added after the caption for a figure. If the document is to be used by all students, descriptions should be supplied in a separate document.

6.2Figures constructed using text boxes

  • Keep all boxes, lines and arrows which are part of the diagram within a single canvas

  • Add a web alternative text description for all figures if this type

Screen reader programs will try to read any text which they find on the screen, including words in text boxes. This is not usually helpful when text boxes are used for figures.

If care is not taken when constructing figures, a screen reader may read partial information or may read it in an unexpected order, or it may not read it at all. What is read out depends on the layout of the figure and its position in relation to the surrounding text. It won’t read lines or arrows or give any information about the positions of the boxes. If you have any text boxes which are outside the main area of the figure, these are sometimes read in MS Word as part of the next paragraph, causing additional confusion.

The most reliable way to avoid this is to construct figures using a program which can save them in a picture format such as JPEG. However, this is often not desirable as figures created this way may not look as sharp and may increase the size of the document file.

Given that it’s not practical to use image files for these figures, the simplest way to avoid confusion is to make sure that all of the boxes and arrows that are part of the figure are contained within the “canvas” object. The figure should then behave in the same way as a figure which is a picture; a screen reader will announce “text box” or something similar, then ignore all the boxes and continue to read the rest of the page.

The canvas object is the background labelled “Create your drawing here” which MS Word creates when you choose”Insert/Text box” to start a new figure. (I have formatted the canvas to have a border to make it easier to follow, this is not the usual setting.)

Add a web alternative text caption, even if it’s just “Figure 1”. To do this:

  1. right-click on the canvas

  2. select “Format drawing canvas” from the menu

  3. select the Web tab and enter a short description, or “Figure x” in the “Alternative text” box.

The description will not be read by a screen reader in MS Word, but it will be read in the PDF version of the document. If you don’t add even a simple description, all the text in boxes will be read in the PDF file, causing confusion.

It is much quicker to add the description in MS Word than it is to fix the PDF file afterwards.

Figure 2 Text boxes

There are more problems for this kind of figure when it is converted to PDF. Any text boxes that are not completely inside the canvas will be read out, not necessarily in the right part of the page. In Figure 3, one of the boxes has been dragged outside the canvas. If there was no border round the canvas, it would not be obvious that this is significantly different from Figure 2.

More notes here

Figure 3 A text box outside the canvas

When reading this page in the PDF version, a screen reader user would hear the lines above the figure then “Figure 3 A text box outside the canvas ”. This would be followed by the rest of the page then a stray sentence “More notes here”.


If you have followed the guidance given above, you are ready to save the file as RTF and PDF.

7.1To save as RTF

  1. From the main menu choose “File/Save As”

  2. In the box “Save as type”, choose “Rich Text Format (RTF)”

7.2To save as PDF

7.2.1Checking conversion settings

If you have the Adobe PDF maker plug-in, and you have not changed any settings since it was installed, the conversion settings should be correct for creating accessible PDF documents. If you are not sure whether the settings have been changed:

  1. From the main menu choose “Adobe PDF”

  2. Select “Change conversion settings”

  3. Click on the “Restore defaults” button in the bottom left corner

  4. Select “Standard” in the drop down box labelled “Conversion settings”

  5. Click on “OK” to close the box.

If you need to change settings for other reasons, ask for technical help.

7.2.2Creating the PDF file

  1. From the main menu choose “Adobe PDF”

  2. Choose “Convert to Adobe PDF”

  3. If you haven’t saved the file, you will be asked to confirm that the converter can save it

  4. When prompted, change the file name if necessary and the conversion will proceed.

8Other resources

JISC/TechDIS - Authoring Accessible Documents

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