Accessible Documents

It is likely that you work with electronic documents on an almost constant basis. Perhaps you post PDF reports or Excel spreadsheets to the web, or distribute handouts and PowerPoint presentations to students in Canvas, or attach a PDF newsletter to an email.

Use the following resources and start designing your documents with access in mind before you share them.

Know the basic techniques of digital accessibility.

Microsoft Office

Get familiar with the Microsoft Accessibility Checker. Use it as a guide when designing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint Files.


Word Quick Tips

  • Check templates for accessibility features, even ones marked as accessible-ready.

  • Use heading styles (h1 through h6) rather than just formatting text to appear larger/bolder.

  • Format lists using bullets and/or numbered styles. Avoid pseudo lists.

  • Embed hyperlinks in descriptive, purposeful text. Avoid generic text like “click here.”

  • Add a Title to document properties metadata (different from file name).

  • Add alt text to all graphics.

  • Avoid layout tables. Ensure that tables show relationships between data.

  • Avoid complex tables with merged and nested cells.

  • Use table headers.

  • Ensure there is sufficient color contrast between foreground and background, especially with text.

  • Use standard sans serif fonts like Verdana, Calibri, and Arial to maximize readability.

  • Use line spacing that is 1.5 times

Word Resources


Excel Quick Tips

  • Name worksheets.

  • Use cell A1 as the title of the spreadsheet.

  • Data formatted as tables needs descriptive headers.

  • Name the table.

  • Use chart titles and labels.

  • Remove blank rows/columns.

  • Empty cells include “no data.”

  • Alt text for images, charts, and tables.

  • Use alt text in cells where color is the only way to convey meaning (conditional formatting.)

  • Formatting emphasis, ALL CAPS and strikethrough not perceivable to some users.

  • Link to other sheets for keyboard-only users.

  • Adjust text wrapping and column width to improve readability of all cell data.

  • Avoid hiding rows and columns.

  • Alert users with text where frozen panes are active.

Excel Resources


PowerPoint Quick Tips

  • Distribute your slide deck ahead of time.

  • Choose built-in slide layouts. Text boxes you add to layouts will not appear in Outline View.

  • Use the Slide Master to modify slide layouts.

  • Add alt text to all graphics.

  • Use captions for complex graphics.

  • Give each slide a unique title even if it’s a continuation of the previous slide.

  • Make sure embedded videos include closed or open captions. Use .VTT format in PowerPoint.

  • Use the Reading Order panel by arranging objects from bottom to top.

  • Ensure links are descriptive.

  • Use 24pt-28pt minimum text formatting.

  • Include table headers.

  • Use the 7x7 rule: no more than seven bullets or seven lines of text per slide, and no more than seven words per line.

PowerPoint Resources

Adobe Acrobat and PDFs

PDF stands for “portable document format.” PDF documents display their original layouts and styles regardless of the operating system or application used to display them (hence the “portable” part). PDFs are really intended for printing and they can contain numerous barriers for people who use assistive technologies. Whenever possible, try creating an HTML alternative to your PDF.


Tags create the true reading order for screen reader users. That is why they are the most important part of PDF accessibility. PDFs without tags are inaccessible. PDFs with poor tag structure are also inaccessible. If it’s helpful, think of tags in little like HTML. When we see a PDF document, we visually perceive all of its information, layout and styles. Tags are what creates the underlying semantic structure and makes it all usable and meaningful to assistive technologies.

Converting Files to PDF

  1. Start with the source document
    Before converting a file into a PDF, be sure all accessibility requirements are met first. Design the document with accessibility in mind using the Basic Techniques. Double check your work by using the accessibility checker tool. Once all errors are fixed, save your changes.

  2. Avoid using ‘Print to PDF’
    Always use ‘Save As PDF’ or ‘Export to PDF.’ These options preserve the accessible features of the document and generate tags. Print to PDF creates PDFs without tags, which is completely inaccessible.

  3. Cleaning up a converted PDF
    Even if we design documents that meet all accessibility requirements, there can be issues after converting to PDF. Run the Check Accessibility tool to identify issues in 7 key areas.

  • Document
  • Page Content
  • Forms
  • Alternate Text
  • Tables
  • Lists
  • Headings

Acrobat Pro Quick Tips

  • Run the Accessibility checker and use the report to guide you.

  • PDFs must include tags.

  • Use the tags tree to check reading order.

  • Add alt text to all graphics, mark decorative where appropriate.

  • Embed hyperlinks in descriptive, purposeful text.

  • Ensure that heading and list tags are used logically and create structure.

  • Make sure bookmarks match navigation structure like headings, lists, links, images, etc.

  • Avoid layout tables

  • Avoid blank and merged cells

  • Include table headers

  • Include metadata like title, language, author, keywords, etc.

Acrobat and PDF Resources