When an accessible template isn’t an accessible template

  • Author: Allayne Woodford
  • Date: 12 Apr 2016

Is the term ‘accessible template’ an oxymoron? I’ve been pondering this question over recent weeks while working on various documents for a range of clients and realising that, while the end result of using an accessible template is an accessible document, the usability of the template itself is often lacking.

I should be upfront in my belief that all attempts of accessible template creation are a positive and there’s no doubt that resulting documents are an improvement in accessibility. Any organisation that adopts accessible templates is championing accessibility in my view.

But let’s look at a few scenarios in Microsoft Word that have led me to this article.

Accessible templates

Templates to include a company’s styles and logos are pretty standard and these days may include accessible styles. This may cover the use of high contrast and sans serif fonts, table and list styles that retain accessibility mark up, and paragraph spacing and text alignment that provides appropriate white space and division of text.

While these are great, I’ve seen some interesting accessible template inclusions that again lead me to ponder where accessibility kicks in. Among these are instructional inclusions to activate macros to delete template sections if a section’s not required, but an instruction of “click here” on the page itself (not a hyperlink) is not usable for a screen reader user. In this instance I used a shortcut key to navigate to the macro list but the macros on the list were not clearly named, meaning I couldn’t delete the section through this method.

In a separate template I came across an option to insert alt text on an image, but it required my cursor to be placed on the image. While I could tab or arrow to the left or right of the image, I could not navigate via the keyboard so my cursor was hovering over the image. The alt text option on this template would not then be available to a screen reader user.

There’s no denying that the standardisation of document creation has come a long way: from not having consistent styles and branding, to the introduction of templates, and now to the use of templates that produce accessible documents. The next step is the true introduction of accessible templates, as for now, an ‘accessible template’ can often be a stumbling block for a content creator with a disability.

Accessibility ribbons

Another issue can involve accessibility ribbons, which are generally free or by-donation downloads that add a tab to your MS Word ribbon and are often included in an accessible template. Within the tab are all the structural and design options pooled together that can improve document accessibility. This is a good start, but sometimes you still need further hints or instruction to understand the implementation of the options.

For example, an option for setting alternative text for images is a great start, but none of the ribbons I’ve come across hint at the limit in the number of characters that screen readers, in particular the most commonly used JAWS, will read out before returning to the main body content. This is besides the fact that the alternative text description box lets the content creator type as much as they like.

Contrast of colours between text and background is a common area of surprise when access checkers return a ‘fail’ result. But what do the ratios mean? What really is ‘normal text’ and ‘large text’? I’m often asked by content creators, “Can’t you just send me a list of all the accessible colours?”

So while an accessibility ribbon can bring all the access options together, they may not necessarily provide the background information required to correctly implement them.