Can I make a document accessible?

  • Author: Allayne Woodford
  • Date: 27 Nov 2015

Accessible documents are a key part of any digital accessibility strategy and relatively quick and easy to implement. A question that we are frequently asked is “can I create accessible documents myself?” We all use Word and other standard programs every day, so it can’t be that hard. At first glance, creating accessible documents might seem to be within the reach of anybody with a bit of basic training, but it is very easy to become stuck in common accessibility problems with no way of knowing how to fix them.

To help you determine whether a document is a safe “do-it-yourself” or a “call in the experts” I have compiled a list of seven questions you should ask yourself:

1. How long and complex is the document?

If a document is pretty basic, with a few headings, no tables or images and an obvious structure then it should be pretty straight forward for somebody with some basic knowledge in document accessibility. Similarly, 20 pages or less shouldn’t take too long, as long as it is simple in nature.

2. How important is it?

There is a vast difference in the potential risk of accessibility problems between an internal staff newsletter and a Chairman’s announcement to shareholders. If the document has a high public profile, such as on your website, or emailed to your entire customer database, then you need be confident in your accessible document skills to reduce the risk.

3. Do you know how to deal with images?

If there are any images in the document do you know how to create alt text? Do you know the difference between the Title and Description boxes in Word? How many words can you write until the text is considered too long for standard? How do different formats and accessibility technology (like screen readers) handle alternative texts? If this is sounding mysterious and overwhelming it might be pointing to getting expert help. If you are mildly concerned that your knowledge has some gaps, then some quick practical training might get you across the line.

4. Do you know how to tackle tables?

Simple tables with a standard structure across all rows and columns can make them accessible. Beyond that, knowing how to mark-up cells for assistive technology and dealing with complex tables is a whole new level. Add in different formats of Word, PDF and Excel and you are getting into accessibility minefields. Again the simple question is complexity. If looks complex on the page to start with, you can guarantee making it accessible needs a well-trained expert.

5. Are hyperlinks meaningful to me?

If you think “click here” and “read more” is all you need in a hyperlink, then it’s best left to an expert. If you are comfortable with creating meaningful hyperlinks and understand how a screen reader navigates a document, then DIY should be fine.

6. Do you know how to check colour and contrast?

The first accessibility problem you can usually spot is a colour and contrast issue. This is also one of the most common problems you find in documents. So if you know how to use the free colour-contrast checkers and are familiar with the acceptable ratios in different circumstances, you are well-versed and should keep going.

7. Am I really relying on auto-tools and fancy programs?

Auto-tools and specialist software can be your short-cut friend or the start of all of your problems. Like any tool, you need to understand how they work, what they do well and what they miss. Typical auto-checkers pick up around 40% of document problems, which means most are missed. You also have to watch out that when you fix an identified issue you don’t create a hidden other problem. In the right hands they speed up the process, but you still need a trained person to ensure that the document is accessible. If you are relying on an auto-tool or remediation program to do all of the work for you, you are almost guaranteed to end up with only a partially accessible document and you really need some outside help. If the auto-tool is part of your accessibility kit bag to make your job easier, then you have already learned the value of these handy bits of software.

If you are confident that your documents are within your skill range and you are going to DIY, then it pays to get some hands-on, practical training to ensure that you understand some of the tricks and shortcuts that can save you time.

If your thoughts are that some of the documents are a bit too complicated, tricky or important to risk to a DIY approach and would really be better handled by a professional document remediation service, then you can contact Media Access Australia to get a quote.