Authoring accessible documents


Following best practices

Most document authoring tools produce documents that are accessible, as long as good accessibility practices are followed while designing and authoring them.

Accessible document design practices include:

  • Using sufficient colour contrast.
  • Choosing legible fonts in suitable sizes.
  • Following simple, clear layouts.

When formatting documents, you must use the controls provided by the authoring tool. For example, use the list styling elements to make ordered or unordered lists; do not just format regular text to look like a list. If you do that latter, assistive technologies (such as screen readers) will not be able to identify the list as such.

Keep on reading to learn tips about the most common settings and elements you need to know!


  • Define the main document language to make sure that assistive technologies such as screen readers can read the document with the right voice synthesizer.
  • The place where to set the document language varies between authoring tools; sometimes it is in the document settings or properties, sometimes part of the document info, etc.
  • If any part of a document differs from the main document language, you should specify that as well (unfortunately, this may not be possible with all authoring tools).

Document title

  • Just like HTML pages, documents must have a title that is accurate, descriptive, brief, and unique.
  • The file name, document title, and top-level heading (equivalent to H1 in webpages) should be very similar (or identical), because they offer the same information: a quick glimpse into what the document is about.
  • In some authoring tools, the document title is automatically derived from the top-level heading.


  • Headings provide structure to a document and allow users of assistive technologies (such as screen readers) to quickly browse the contents of the document without having to read it in its entirety.
  • There must be only one top-level heading. Subsequent headings are then used to introduce subsections and should be used in hierarchical order (for example, don’t go directly from the second to the fourth level).
  • Headings can have different names depending on the authoring tool used; for example:
    • Title, Heading, and Subheading (on Google Sites).
    • Title, Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3 and Heading 4 (on Google Docs).
    • H1 to H6 (on many HTML- or markdown-based tools).
    • Heading 1 to Heading 6 in Microsoft Word.


  • Information can be organized into lists using bullets (unordered lists), or numbers or letters (ordered lists).
  • When creating lists, unnecessary words can be omitted and the list items do not have to be complete sentences (although they certainly can).
  • Lists offer a clear way to summarize information and to break large portions of text into more digestible chunks, so they can be very helpful to people with cognitive disabilities.


  • Tables, much like lists, help organize information. Since they are matrixes with two dimensions (rows and columns) they can communicate relationships between sets of data.
  • Format the tables with row and column headers if necessary.
  • Do not use tables to create multiple columns in your document or otherwise change its layout, because that will confuse users of assistive technologies. To control the layout of your document, use the layout options of the authoring tool.

Image content and text alternatives

  • There are two types of image content: informative and decorative. Informative image content must have a descriptive text alternative. You can learn more about this on our text alternatives page.
  • Many modern authoring tools allow you to enter text alternatives in a way that is hidden from users who don’t need them. For example, on Google Docs you can secondary-click on an image element (such as images, drawings, and graphs), select “Alt text” from the menu, and enter the text alternative.
  • If the authoring tool does not natively support text alternatives, you must enter the text alternative as regular text next to the image content (for example, as a caption). For complex charts and graphs, you should include the data in table form.
  • In charts and graphs, never use colour hue as the only means of conveying information; include other visual cues such as patterns and textures, as well as text labels.
  • The visible text of hyperlinks must be unique and informative. For example, instead of using “read more here”, go with “read more about authoring accessible documents”.
  • If the URL of the hyperlink needs to be visible (for example, if the document is likely to be printed out), use a URL shortening service. It’s unnecessary and tiresome for screen reader users to listen to a long URL starting from “http” and often ending on a random string of letters and numbers.