Accessible Electronic Information

With the increase in the use of the internet it is becoming much more common to provide information electronically. It is relatively painless to make electronic documents accessible to everyone from the outset, and in particular to those who use a range of assistive software. The information below is primarily taken from a series called Accessibility Essentials, written by JISC and TechDIS. It is written for users of Microsoft® Word, as this is the most common word processing software available but it can be transferred to many text processing tools.

Writing accessible documents

An electronic document is one of the most accessible ways of passing on information. Everyone will be able to read it in some way. It can be used with screenreaders, you can change the text size, font size and colours if you wish, print it out, read it on the screen, turn it into a DAISY book and even Braille it. It is important that as the author you think about accessibility from the beginning as you will determine how accessible the document will be.

Think about an electronic document you are about to write, it could be minutes to a meeting, or a report you have to write, and open up a blank Word document and consider the following.

Font styles and colour

There is more information from the clear print section with guidance on font styles and colours. The usual default for Word documents is Times New Roman, which is Sans Serif. Serif fonts, such as Arial, Verdena and Helvetica will usually allow for better readability. To change the font go to Format choose Font from the drop-down list and select the font you wish to use. If you want to always use this font you can make it the default by clicking on the Default button in the bottom left-hand corner of the Font pop-up box and selecting Yes.

Colours can also make a difference, either with the font colour or the background colour if you're using text boxes. An important thing to remember is to have good contrast between the font colour and the background colour. If it has you screwing up your eyes, think what it could be like for someone with a print impairment.

Background colour

You can also change the background colour of documents, but bear in mind the contrast between the font colour and the background colour.

  • From the menu go to Format and select Background. You can change the background colour to whatever you wish.
  • Common good contrast colours are black text on a yellow or pink background.
  • For printing documents it is better to use coloured paper.

Structuring documents

Possibly the most important part is to create structure for your document. This will allow the end user to navigate through it much more effectively, especially if they are using assistive software such as screenreaders, and all users can skim through the document map to find the information quickly. If your document has structure through the use of headings and styles you can also easily create a table of contents.

To use headings and styles in your document select Format and Styles and Formatting from the menu. The styles and formatting menu will be in the right hand of the screen. It defaults to show only a few of the many headings and styles available. To show all that are available, select All Styles from the Show Available Formatting drop down list at the bottom of the menu and they will display alphabetically. Try typing your document in headings and styles, or use the following as an example:

  • Select the style Title and give your document at title, e.g. 'Annual report, 2007. This will be the default name for saving the document. Press enter.
  • Select Heading 1 from the styles list and type a heading, e.g. 'Finance'. Press enter and you'll notice that the document style defaults to Normal.
  • Type some plain text, e.g. 'In 2007, we had a very good year.' Press enter. 
  • Select Heading 2 and type your next heading, which is a sub heading to heading 1, e.g. 'Income 2007', press enter. 
  • Type some text, e.g. 'Our income for the year 2007 was...'. Press enter.
  • Select Heading 3 and type your next heading, a sub-heading to heading 2, e.g. 'Donations'. Press enter and type some text, e.g. 'Our main donors for 2007 were...'.
  • Select Heading 1 and create another primary heading, e.g. 'Buildings and Estates'.

You can carry on adding as many headings and sub-headings as you wish and there are 9 listed in the All Styles formatting list. What you or the end user can now do is change the colours and sizes of headings very quickly. Try the following:

  • From the formatting list, click on Heading 1 and from the drop-down arrow next to it select Select all X instances. All Heading level 1 will be highlighted in your document.
  • Select Modify from the Heading 1 list and a pop-up box will allow you to make changes to the font size and type, text colour, line spacings and much more.
  • Select a different colour for this heading and you'll see it changes instantly. From now on any text in this document in heading 1 will be in your chosen colour.
  • Unless you tick the box Add to template this change won't carry across to other documents.

With Headings and styles in place you can easily navigate a document, something that can be useful if it's very long. Try the following:

  • From the Word® menu go to View and select Document Map. You'll see all the headings you created down the left hand side of the screen.

Some of the other helpful styles are List Bullet for writing lists and List Number for writing numbered lists.

The document itself doesn't look any different to one written with the use of bold and font size changes, but it has hidden information that will make a world of difference to someone who has a print impairment. You can also now easily turn this document into a DAISY book and also Braille it.


Images can also be easily incorporated into an accessible electronic document, with a little care and attention to where they are placed and the use of alternative text. Some points to bear in mind:

  • Don't place the image in the middle of a block of text
  • If you want to wrap text around an image, put the image on the right-hand side of the page, so that there is a consistent starting point for the text on the left-hand side.
  • Setting text over an image can be confusing
  • If your image is essential, think about using alternative text and captions for it

Using alternative text and captions

To make the images you are using more accessible, it's advisable to use alternative text. This will be picked up by screenreaders and also anyone with mild visual impairments will benefit. Try the following:

  • From the menu go to Insert and select Picture and either From File or Clip Art
  • Right click on the image you've chosen for the document and select Format Picture from the drop down list
  • Click on the Web tab and the alternative text box will be displayed
  • Explain what the image shows, as concisely as possible

The above will be helpful for information going up on the web, but you can also insert captions into Word® documents. Try the following:

  • From the menu go to Insert and select Picture and either From File or Clip Art
  • Right click on the image and select Caption
  • A pop up box will appear and you can type in the caption to the picture, decide whether it is a figure or  table or create your own and where its position will be
  • You can also select a caption from Autocaption list

You've now created a document which is much more accessible to everyone. For more information and helpful tips have a look at the TechDIS webpage.

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