Making your documents accessible

Making your documents accessible

Can you imagine going through a family photo album and all you could see is squares of blank paper where the pictures should be?

On every piece of paper there is one word: Image.

That’s what the experience is like for someone using assistive technology if you don’t make sure your documents are accessible.

What is Accessibility?

Around 20 percent of people at any time have a disability or impairment. When it comes to reading documents online, in many cases, this can be aided or overcome by using what is known as assistive technology.

For example, anyone could have a need for assistance because of visual impairment or blindness, a physical impairment, neurological (tremor), and so on.

An accessible document means that the document can be accessed by everyone. It is an equity issue.

Why is accessibility important?

The Australian Human Rights Commission expects websites to be accessible.

In the United States, section 508 is a federal law mandating “that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.” It’s an equity issue.

Around the world, it is not just governments that require accessibility standards, many larger corporations understand the importance and value as well. In Australia, the Australian Government also has similar mandatories.

There is a precedent in Australia that a company can be sued for not providing an accessible website if they have been notified that the site is inaccessible and they have failed to modify it.

Whether you are part of a government or not, the best practice is to make any publicly available document on a website accessible.

What is Assistive Technology?

When it comes to online reading, there are loads of types of assistive technology. Possibly the most common is JAWS. Here is a demonstration:

How to make Word and Adobe InDesign documents accessible

Many software programs now have accessibility checkers. You can use this to see whether there are any issues with an existing document.

If you are starting from scratch, here is a good summary of how to get the document to comply.  While it is possible to remediate files in Adobe Acrobat Pro if the end state will be a PDF, it is much easier and far preferable to get them accessible in the source document in the first place.

This is not an exhaustive article, there are many things to consider. However, this is how to make accessible Word and InDesign documents in a nutshell.

When I am designing or remediating documents to make them accessible, I use an acronym to help me remember each step. MATLOC  (there was a TV show with this name when I was a kid).


MATLOC stands for :

  • Metadata
  • Alt Text
  • Tagging
  • Language
  • Order (the reading order)
  • Contrast

Let’s start with Metadata.


Essentially, the document’s metadata is the information embedded into a text-based file that explains what it is and who wrote it. It is good practice to add this information to your documents if they will be publicly available.

  • Title (a clear, descriptive name for the document)
  • Author
  • Subject
  • Description: a full sentence that clearly explains the content. This is not promotional copy; the main point is that it is succinct and accurate.
  • Keywords (separate them with commas)

This will aid in online search as well as enabling a screen reader or other device to describe the content of the document.

Where do I add metadata?

To do this in Adobe InDesign, go to File > File Info

In Microsoft Word, go to File > Properties

For InDesign, I recommend this helpful article by David Blatner  all about metadata in InDesign.

In this same area is also where you can set the Language, so we’ll jump to the L.


In InDesign, this can be found under the Advanced tab.

Make sure you choose whichever language in which the document is composed. In my case, it’s British English / English (UK).

If you are n InDesign and you are exporting a PDF [either for Print or Interactive], you can go to Export > choose PDF. Under the Advanced Tab, you can choose the Default language for the file.

Alternative Text (ALT TEXT)

handa matsuriThis is text that is served as an alternative for a reader who cannot ‘see’ the picture.

For example, I have a photo of Hand Matsuri, the Japanese festival that occurs every five years in many towns and villages. The ALT TEXT I would enter could be: ‘a photo of matsuri’ In the description field, I might say: ‘ crowds at Handa Matsui, Aichiken, in 2003.

Some people make the mistake of leaving their images blank and a screen reader might just default to the word ‘image’.

Where do I add Alt text?

In Microsoft Word, right click on the image. Select ‘Format Picture’. Choose the Layout and Properties button.

You have two fields to fill in: Title and Description (as pictured below). Using the alt text title as the basis, a user of assistive technology can choose whether they want to see th3 full description and get more information. The description, in other words, should have a bit more detailed information, but still be succinct.

In Adobe InDesign, the alt text space is found under Object menu. So the path is Object >  Object Export Options, then select Alt Text.

From here you can select another XMP source if you have one set up, or otherwise, choose Custom. Enter the description into the box.



 You will be familiar with tags like <p> paragraph and <h1> for main headings and <h2> for handa matsurisecondary headings and so forth.

This is how we can tell an assistive device the order of our information. The key thing to keep in mind is that it is all about good document formatting, using Styles and tags.

For example, in Microsoft Word, we use Styles for body copy, headings, bullet points and numbered lists. Styles are the hooks for tags.

It is the same for InDesign. Don’t just use the Control Panel, create a Style for the different pieces of content, and apply that Style. Avoid overrides. Use both Paragraph Styles and Character Styles when you need them.

If you need to make a space between lines, for example, make a paragraph style for the spacing and apply it, don’t just hot the ENTER key.

The easiest way I find is to create the look you want with the right leading and type size, and then create the Style for that.

Other things to include are <header> tags for table headings and a Style for lists.


The reading order of a document in English is generally left to right, from top to bottom. In Japan, reading order is right to left.

If you have an infographic or a table that you think is obvious for someone looking at it, think about how it will be served using assistive technology.

The key is to make things as simple and logical as possible. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe how to move content blocks in Acrobat to show reading order, but this can be done if you are working with very complex tables of information. In most instances, avoid tables if you can.

You can use the Touch Up Reading Order tool in Acrobat Pro to fix reading order and basic tagging problems.


This is the clarity of colours used in your document. The clearest is Black on a white background, so you are generally okay if this is your black-and-white document.

Be aware of pastel colours in type. Go for strong contrast, rather than shades and be wary of coloured type unless it is very clear.

Contrast is something that needs to be manually checked, and there is a website that will help you check your colour values and offer alternatives if they don’t comply.

Exporting to PDF

If you are designing a document in Microsoft Word or Indesign and plan to make a PDF (either for print or interactive), make sure you check the boxes to:

  • Create Tagged PDF
  • Bookmarks
  • Hyperlinks

Now let’s go back to that photo album. You’ve made sure the document is accessible. I am opening the album to page one. My Text-to-voice reader tells me that this section is called Seaside Holiday. The blank square of paper says Photo of Joey and Bobbi at the beach making a sandcastle. I can see it in my mind.

To summarise, accessible design of documents is about design fundamentals—clarity and simplicity. Making documents accessible feels good.

Use the built-in software features that assist good layout. That means:

Be disciplined with Styles; describe with text anything that is visual; add metadata; and clear contrast.

These things, and MATLOC to remember them, will help you create well-crafted accessible documents for everyone to enjoy—even that 20 percent who may have a permanent, or temporary, need for assistive technology.