Accessibility of documents

Many organisations use their website as the main channel for publishing and sharing documents and information. It is important to ensure people know what they are downloading and that the content is usable and accessible. This similarly applies to documents emailed to members of the public.

When publishing documents to the web, consider the format which is the easiest to read. Documents such as Microsoft Word and PDFs can be made accessible. However, this does not happen automatically, and care should be taken to ensure that accessibility is considered in all stages of the documents development.

To start with, all downloadable documents should have a summary provided in HTML, as well as details on the document’s format and file size.


A PDF must meet the same accessibility standard as HTML pages, WGAG 2.1 AA.

Tools such as Adobe Acrobat Pro and PAC enable automated checking of many relevant Success Criteria.

How to make accessible documents

To make a document accessible does not require specific software. It simply requires you to take into account certain considerations (like font size and colour contrast) when developing your document. This will make documents easier to read and understand by the public — particularly members of the public who use assistive technologies like screen reader software.

The following guidance is provided to help make documents easier to access, understand and use.

Give documents a structure using heading styles

A good heading structure is probably the most important accessibility consideration in most Microsoft Word documents.

Many people do not use true heading styles in Microsoft Word. For example, when creating a heading, they simply change the font, increase the font size, and make it bold. The problem with this is that screen readers navigate through the headings function and do not recognise the body text as a heading. So essentially, it does not recognise any structure in the text. In Microsoft Word, the correct way to provide structure is to use ‘Word styles’ found under the ‘Home’ tab.

Use pre-set bullet points, numbering and tables

Use pre-set formats such as bullet points, numbering and tables to format and structure your document. This structure will then be carried over into other formats such as PDF, making it easier to navigate.

Note that alternate formats for the presentation of lists (bullets or numbered lists) may be required upon request by users of accessible technology.

Provide a table of contents for longer documents

For documents over 10 pages, provide a table of contents. This will make specific information easier to find. Additionally, by using the previously mentioned heading styles, it makes creating a table of contents far easier.

Provide Alternative (Alt) Text

When images are unavailable (for example, if the device is not capable of displaying the image or if the person has visual difficulties), equivalent information must be supplied. Alternative (Alt) Text should be provided to convey the same meaning as the image or graphic.

Fill out document properties

Fill out document properties (author, title, subject and keywords). A link should also be provided back to the website in the comments field if there is not a link in the body of the document.

Save or export to PDF

Save or export your document to PDF. Do this by using the ‘Save As’ option and selecting ‘PDF’ in the ‘Save as type’ drop down section. Do not use the print-to-PDF function.

Turn on accessibility features

Ensure accessibility features such as tagging are turned on when saving. This will allow screen readers to identify what is on the page. For example, images and headings.

Check accessibility

If possible, use PDF editing software that supports accessibility to check the accessibility of your PDF file.


Word processing applications may include an accessibility checker that allows you to check for accessibility problems. For example, to run the accessibility checker in Word 2016, select: File > Info > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility.

In long documents provide information in chapters or sections

For very long documents and reports, consider breaking the document into chapters or sections. This allows people to download and read only the relevant sections.

Accessible Documents Checklist

  • Provide a summary in HTML of the document content, as well as information on the document format and file size.
  • Give documents a heading structure.
  • Use pre-set formats such as bullets, numbering and tables for formatting.
  • Provide a table of contents for longer documents.
  • Provide alternative (Alt) text for all images and graphics.
  • Fill out document properties — author, title, subject and keywords.
  • Save or export the document to PDF by using the ‘Save As’ option and selecting ‘PDF’ in the ‘Save as type’ drop down section.
  • Ensure that accessibility features such as tagging are turned on when saving.
  • If possible, check the accessibility of your document by using PDF editing software that supports accessibility.
  • In long documents, break the document into chapters or sections.