Creating Accessible Documents

The following are guidelines to ensure digital documents created in word processors, emails, and text-based webpages are accessible. Proper formatting and descriptive language help people with visual or motor impairments navigate digital content using a screen reader. If you're curious, here is an example of how screen readers work.

The following is a tutorial on recognizing and adding accessibility features to documents you're creating in Google Docs or Microsoft Word:


Use Heading Styles

Headings allow a sighted person to scan text, gather some basic information at a glance, and perhaps skip to a specific section. Headings also make this same type of behavior possible with a screen reader. Without them, a screen reader would just read an entire text from beginning to end without any organization mechanism. The key is that your text doesn’t just look like a heading but is actually coded as a heading. If you simply adjust the font size and make things bold, this does not mean anything to a screen reader. It might look like a heading to a sighted reader but it will be recognized as just regular text. In HTML code, a heading tag looks something like this:

<h1>This is the heading</h1>

To designate heading in a Google Document (for example), highlight the text and select an appropriate heading style from the headings drop-down menu:

A Google Doc with Document Title selected, the Headings menu expanded, and Heading 1 indicated with an arrow.


Keep Headings in Numerical Order

Headings need to go in sequentially nested order starting with Heading 1. For example, you shouldn't just skip from Heading 1 to Heading 4, even though Google Docs and Word will allow you to do this. Think of your headings as the outline of your content: they help organize how your concepts fit together.

You may be tempted to choose headings based on appearance. Don’t! Once you have the appropriate format selected, you can then play with the options to change the font size or make it bold, underlined, or italicized. Just make sure that the format of the text is Heading and not Paragraph.


Include Alt Text for Images

Images can provide helpful information to your audience. For those who cannot view the images, it’s important to provide some alternative text (or "alt text") so that they do not miss the images' meaning.

Alt text should be brief (1-2 sentences), descriptive, and neutral in tone. It should convey the image’s content and function, which varies depending on context. For example, if I'm making an event page about an upcoming Claude Monet exhibition and I'm including an image of his famous painting "Stacks of Wheat," I could write something like "Monet's 1891 painting Stacks of Wheat, depicting two stacks of wheat in autumn." If the image is in a less Monet-specific context, I would leave out specific details like the date.

When writing alt text, imagine that you're describing the image to someone over the phone so that they can understand it. Avoid phrases like "image of" or "picture of," since screen readers will already announce that the content is an image.

In Microsoft Word, click on the image and then in the main menu, select Format > Picture:

In the side menu, click on Layout & Properties and select Alt Text. You will then be able to enter a title and a description for the image.

Note: In newer versions of Microsoft Word, after selecting the image click the Picture Format tab. In the Picture Format pane, click Alt Text to open the description box. It does not offer the option for a title.

Image of Microsoft Word's Picture Format pane with a green box highlighting Alt Text.

In Google Docs, you can enter alt text by right-clicking on the image and selecting Alt text...

If you are using an image for decorative purposes, you can include blank quotation marks ("") in place of alt text. If your word processor provides the option, you may also be able to mark the image as decorative. This will tell the screen reader to skip over the image.

For additional information on how to write good alt text, check out the Alternative Text section on the WebAIM website, and also this Alt Text Decision Tree.


Images in Emails and Webpages

Please be mindful of how you use images in emails and webpages. A picture of an event invitation, for example, is not accessible because screen readers don't have access to the text inside that picture.

A screen reader will not be able to read this information: An invitation for a picnic. The text is part of the image.

If you choose to make your invitation an image, reiterate all the information above or below the image in plain text, like this:

You are invited to a Picnic Celebration
Location: Southside Park, 555 Central Drive,  San Francisco, CA
Date: Saturday, July 5th, 3PM
Please RSVP by June 20th to

For your reference, here's a general policy guide on sending mass emails.


Use Descriptive Language for Hyperlinks

When a screen reader reaches a hyperlink, it states that the text is a hyperlink and then reads the text of the link. It’s always best for the visible text of the hyperlink to be descriptive rather than the exact web address or "click here."

For example, if I wanted to reference ITG’s website, I would write it the following way: the Instructional Technology Group’s website (instead of or "To get to the ITG Blog click here").

"Click here" is not helpful to someone using a screen reader, and no user ever wants to listen to a screen reader spelling out a URL to an article without knowing where that URL redirects to.

Also, if the link ever broke, your audience would have more contextual information to work off of should they need to find the website on their own. Check out WebAIM’s section on Links and Hypertext for additional information.


Format Lists

Another type of formatting option that you might use is the bulleted or numbered list. These options appear as follows in the Google Docs Rich Text Editor:

Numbered and bulleted list options in the Goolge Docs rich text editor.

Please use these formats when it makes sense. Perhaps you weren’t thinking of your text as a list, but if you’re describing a series of steps or perhaps have a list of definitions or names, why not make it appear as a list? It’s going to make your text look more organized visually and will provide another way for a screen reader to make sense of your text.


Colors and Graphics

Color might not make a difference to a screen reader, but for someone with limited vision, color contrast is important. You are going to get the best contrast using black text on a white background. Avoid associating the color of text with meaning since members of your audience may be color blind. Finally, avoid using gifs or videos that may be seizure-inducing. This includes anything with a strobing, flickering, or flashing effect.

For your reference, WebAIM has written a comprehensive guide on Contrast and Color Accessibility. They also built an online Contrast Checker.

Types of Digital Documents

When selecting electronic texts to include in your course, keep in mind that some formats are more accessible than others:

HTML Pages

HTML pages, or texts contained directly on web pages, tend to be the most accessible kind of electronic document. Here’s an example of an accessible HTML page. Helpful indicators like headings and alt text are built into HTML, making these great alternatives to scanned documents when available. Headings are essential for those using screen readers, since they allow the user to make sense of where they are in a document and navigate accordingly.

HTML pages also have searchable text, meaning text you can select, copy, or search for. Screen readers function by reading searchable text; they can't read a document without it.

Hint: This guide is an HTML page!

Word Docs

Microsoft Word doc/docx files and other digitally-created documents (files from Pages, Open Office, Google Docs, etc.) are searchable and allow for easy designation of headings, placing them among the more accessible choices.

Check out this guide to adding headings to Word docs, including a video demo at the bottom.


PDFs (Portable Document Files) can be more or less accessible depending on the document. Digitally-created PDFs, such as those typically found in library databases, tend to be accessible. Scanned PDFs are less accessible because they often have contrast issues, illegible fonts, crooked or curved pages, or contain handwriting that can’t be converted to searchable text. Any PDFs you require students to use should, at minimum, be clear and easily readable.

You can significantly improve a PDF's accessibility by ensuring it has searchable text. Searchable text can be selected, copied, pasted, etc. To check if a PDF (or any electronic text) has searchable text, try clicking and dragging your mouse across a sentence. If you can select the text, it's searchable. If you can't, the PDF is only an image, and assistive technology like screen readers won't be able to read it.

A clearly-scanned PDF can have searchable text added via a process called OCR (Optical Character Recognition). This ideally occurs while the document is being scanned, but can also be done afterward.

If you need help finding alternatives to scanned PDFs, submit the library's Reserve Request Form. If you need help fulfilling a text-to-speech accommodation, contact ITG. We'll work with SAS and the library to help you provide accessible documents.

Ally's Alternative Formats Menu

The Ally tool in Canvas will automatically generate alternative formats of any document you upload to your Canvas course, including OCRed versions of clearly-scanned PDFs, and make them available to your students. We recommend showing your students where to find the Alternative Formats menu. This is the easiest way to provide more accessible documents!

Tips for Improving PDF Accessibility

  • The best time to make a PDF accessible is during its creation. See this guide to creating high quality scans.
  • If an OCRed version of a PDF is not available in the Alternative Formats menu, you can also run and correct OCR in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC.
  • If you build an accessible Word document, don't let all your hard work go to waste when you export it as a PDF. You can save your document as an accessible PDF in Office.
  • Always check if the library has a digital version of a document before scanning it. Versions of documents that are created digitally and available in the library tend to be more accessible than scans of physical documents.

Remediating PDFs

Remediating PDFs (making them accessible) is a complex and time-consuming process that includes running and correcting OCR, tagging, and adding metadata. That’s why we recommend finding documents that are already accessible, such as HTML pages, ebooks, or Word docs with added header styles. If you have a student who needs fully-accessible PDFs for an accommodation, or would like help remediating PDFs for a fully-online course, contact ITG.

If you're curious about the full remediation process, this Adobe Acrobat Pro guide shows you how to run a process that tries to automatically make a PDF accessible (as an automated tool, it's imperfect). It also covers how to run a full accessibility check on your PDF.

What am I Responsible For Regarding PDFs?

Faculty are responsible for providing clear, easily readable PDFs that can be OCRed as outlined in Emerson's accessibility guidelines.

Students can formally request accessibility-related accommodation while a course is running via Student Accessibility Services.

Best Practices for Digital Documents

  • Instead of scanning a handwritten text, consider typing it into a Word document or, even better, directly into a Canvas page.
  • Instead of scanning an article or book chapter, try searching for an HTML or e-book version on the Iwasaki Library website or via Google Scholar (you can log-in with your Emerson account). Library resources and ebooks are more accessible than scans.
  • If you must scan a document, try to keep the text as straight, sharp, and well-lit as possible to ensure the highest quality scan. If there’s an option to create a “searchable” or “OCRed” PDF from the scan, do so.
  • If you want to share an online article with students, simply copy-and-paste its link into a Canvas announcement, page, assignment, or discussion. Or, if the article is available via the library, use its permalink. Avoid saving web pages, including online articles, as PDFs and uploading them to Canvas. Web pages are HTML pages: they are more accessible than the PDF you can save them as.
  • Instead of including a PowerPoint file in your course, copy-and-paste your slides' contents into one or more Canvas pages. If you must include a PowerPoint, follow these accessible PowerPoint guidelines from WebAIM.

Want to know more? Reach out to!

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