Good Habits to Consider When Creating Accessible Documents

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Have you heard the phrase AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act)? The accessibility movement is a global phenomenon that has implications for all stakeholders in education.  In Ontario, colleges and boards expect (I hope this is not too much of a generalization) that materials produced for instructional purposes comply with accessibility standards based on the media being employed.  Media includes printed documents, electronic documents, web based offerings, and interactive and passive multimedia presentations. The United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States have also passed accessibility legislation.

I have found that following good practices to create accessible digital documents results in an improved experience for all.  Some general guidelines to improve document readability are

  • consistent titles,
  • legible fonts,
  • easier to understand tables ,and
  • colour contrast considerations.

Last year, I attended accessibility certification workshops. Four days of training involved document accessibility design, mobile App design, video captioning, and web accessibility design and usability.  The amount of information was overwhelming.  After the sessions, our team met to discuss how we were going to move forward with these new tools, techniques, and concepts.

I am in the process of reviewing and revising our good materials preparation practices, and hope to share these through TESL Contact.   Today I can provide a basic list of good document preparation practices for creating a basic word processed document that can be printed or shared as a PDF document through a network. Many instructors and developers in Ontario will already be performing these good habits.  However, there may be some instructors that can use the items below to improve the accessibility of their documents.  Please be aware that this is not a comprehensive accessibility resource, but a gentle nudge for interested instructors.

In all of the examples below, it is assumed that the instructors are using Microsoft Word.


Use the word processor’s Styles feature, and use it consistently for section headings.  Using common text modifiers such as bold, font size, italics, or underline only allow the sighted user the ability to distinguish titles and section headings in a document. Headings or section titles such as Heading 1, Heading 2 or Subtitle, when used consistently, allow audio screen-readers to read text and produce audio for users that require audio cues. Use the Style functions in an ordinal fashion.  Heading 3 always follows Heading 2, which always follows Heading 1. Consistent heading structure in longer documents allows all readers to follow the document more easily, as it allows for quick and reliable creation of a document table of contents.   To use Styles with MS Word, select the Home tab, and the ribbon should display the styles.  Styles are also useful when a document is converted from MS Word to either PDF or HTML format.

Image Considerations

Using ALT text

When creating documents containing images, there are a few basic practices that can improve the accessibility of your document.   In word processed documents, images have two important associated characteristics. These are the ALT description text and the word wrap layout of an image. The ALT text is a written description of the image that does not appear on the document but the text is coded for screen readers.   This text is read aloud for those using a screen reader.  In some cases, technology may not display the image and the ALT text will appear providing the reader with an understanding of what the image represents. To include ALT text with an image, right-click on the image, and choose Format Picture.


Screen readers also need to know the order of elements in a document so that when the content is read out loud, the sequence of the audio is what was intended by the document’s author.  To ensure that the image is in the correct order in the document, the image should be set to a text-wrapping setting of “In Line With Text.” To set the text –wrapping of an image, right-click on the image and choose Wrap Text, then choose, “In Line With Text”.


Another easy practice is to never use watermarks.  Watermarks are graphics that are embedded into the background of a document and are usually set at a low opacity. A very common watermark is the word “Draft” as it ensures that the document will not be mistaken for a final or official. Document readers might read the watermark’s ALT text out of sequence and confuse the end user or person reading the document.


Tables are frequently used to display data specific topics.  Creating structured tables will help everyone understand the information in the table and its purpose. If a table is complex, consider breaking it into two or more simple tables. Tables should be designed to be read from left to right and top to bottom. As well, insert a column heading row with descriptive headings for each of the table’s columns.  Take care to add a table ALT description, as in image ALT descriptions, to describe the table’s contents.  To create a table ALT description, right click on the table, click on the Table Properties option, choose the ALT text tab, and enter the table description.


Fonts that are clear and not excessively decorative are preferred over ones that imitate handwriting, calligraphy, or themes such as Halloween.  Choose a font size that balances the document layout but is still conducive to easy reading.  Ensure that the text colour and page background offer a high contrast.  Black text on a white page is an example of high contrast.  Red text on a pink background is an example of low contrast.


When creating lists in your documents, use MS Word’s built-in features for creating both numbered and bulleted lists. This provides navigational structure that ensures that document readers follow the author’s intended order.  In addition to this, using the provided bullet styles ensures that list indentation and line spacing are consistent throughout your document.

White Space

Many of us press the Enter key a few times to add extra white space between paragraphs.  It is a better practice to use the paragraph settings.   To access these options in MS Word, right-click on the paragraph and alter the settings in the pop up.  To create horizontal white space, instead of holding down the space bar and eyeballing the insertion point for the next character, use the tab feature to create this horizontal white space, which is in alignment with best accessibility practices.  Screen readers reading these repetitious characters may indicate to the end user that the end of the document has been reached.


Links to web resources should clearly express the destination and provide a brief description of the website’s content.  Avoid using terms similar to “click here”, “link” and “go to site”.


I hope that these tips are useful for those who have had little exposure or support in creating documents with accessibility in mind.  Microsoft Word has an accessibility function that instructors can use to see exactly what elements of their document may not align with accessibility norms.   In MS Word, click on File, click on the Check for Issues button, and finally select the Check Accessibility option.   A report appears in a column to the right of your document.  If your institution or centre offers accessibility support, it might a good idea to reach out to them for guidance on accessibility issues.  If you’ve already had experience making accessible documents, what are some tips you would recommend?


Hi—I'm John Allan. I am an educator who works in the technology enhanced language learning field. I create online learning opportunities and mentor instructors on the Avenue project. I have experience teaching ESL and EFL in Canada and the Middle East. I hold an MSC in Computer Assisted Language learning, a M.Ed. in Distance Education, TESL B. Ed., a B.Ed. (OCT), and a variety of TESL relevant certifications from TESL Canada, TESL Ontario and the Ontario Ministry of Education. For more articles, learning objects, projects and blog links see


7 thoughts on “Good Habits to Consider When Creating Accessible Documents”

  1. Hi John,

    Thank you so very much for this. This is really important, and many of us are going through basic training on the Act, but will require much more practical tips such as these, going forward.

  2. Jessica, thanks for your kind words. I am currently building workshops, blended courses and learning objects with accessibility as an integral part of the planning and development. I will follow this post up with some more practical tips from this experience.

    best regards,


    1. Hi John,

      In the meantime, can you suggest any informative websites? Looking forward to learning from your experiences.


  3. Thank you very much for this. It’s timely for me since I’m just setting up a new website. I certainly do want it to follow best practices for accessibility. I’ll be sure to go back and put in alt descriptions for any images, etc. This will probably take me a while to get used to, but after a while complying with these standards should become second nature.

    1. Sounds great Kelly. I hope to have more comprehensive article in TESL Contact this year as well, I will be posting more tips and best practices for materials creators/instructors on this blog .

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