Accessible Documents


“Headings communicate the organization of the content on the page. Web browsers, plug-ins, and assistive technologies can use them to provide in-page navigation.” (W3C) 

Imagine opening a newspaper and there are no headings, nothing to tell you what the images are, and instead of columns the paragraphs appear to be randomly scattered across the page. It would be difficult if not impossible to read with any comprehension. When documents lack structure, alt text, and other elements that increase legibility this is what the experience could be like for anyone using assistive technology. Luckily, there are tools and strategies for creating documents that we all can access. 

In most programs used to create documents, headings are tagged using built-in styles. The built-in styles must be used – changing the font weight, color, and/or size will not communicate to a screen reader that certain text is a heading.  

Heading Basics

Headings should be structured in a logical order that conveys hierarchy. Skipping heading level can be confusing and should be avoided. 

  • Heading 1 is usually the most important heading should be the title of your document. 
  • Heading 2 is nested under heading 1 
  • Heading 3 is nested under heading 2 
  • Etc.. 

How to Add Heading Structure 

In general, programs such as Word, Google Docs, InDesign, PowerPoint and Publisher have a ‘styles’ tool that is used to tag headings. Typically, you will highlight the text and then use the styles menu to assign a heading level.  

Microsoft video showing how to use Headings in Word

Document showing how to add headings in a Google Doc


If you are using images or graphics in your document, remember to add alt-text. This means either writing a short description of the image or designating the image as decorative.  

For more details on alt-text please visit the Alternative Text page. 


Many digital documents include hyperlinks. To increase accessibility of hyperlinks, they should be meaningful. A meaningful hyperlink provides a description of the item that you are linking. Along those lines, a URL is often not screen-reader friendly because they contain strings of letter, numbers, and other characters. Using human-readable text is preferred. 


If you include a table in your document check that you have designated row and column headers.  

In the table above, the first row is designated as the header row.  

Use an Accessibility Checker 

Most programs have a built-in accessibility checker. You can use these to identify any components of your document that needs to be adjusted for accessibility.

Using the Accessibility Checker in Office 

What about PDFs? 

A guiding principle for creating accessible PDFs is to do as much as possible in the original document (Word, InDesign, etc.). When you convert your document to a PDF it will retain your accessible features.  

Where to Learn More 

Hypertext Best Practices

Document and Media Accessibility

Creating Accessible Tables

Creating Accessible PDFs in InDesign