Making an Accessible Document

Download a thorough guide on making documents more accessible. This guide will walk you through step by step to ensure Section 508 compliance on all of your documents.

Section 01

Users With Disabilities

Digital Accessibility

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires Federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Roughly 20% of the U.S. population has a disability that impacts computer and Internet use. This means more than 25 million people rely on documents being accessible. Individuals involved in the design, development, distribution, and use of documents are responsible for ensuring that those documents comply with Section 508.

Types of Disabilities

Digital documents can often create barriers for people with disabilities. Many of these barriers are easy to remove with education around how people with disabilities use technology. People with disabilities are impacted by inaccessible digital documents in different ways.

Disabilities can vary person-to-person but, with digital documents, we look into four categories:

  1. Visual
  2. Auditory
  3. Motor
  4. Cognitive and learning

People with visual disabilities

  • Visual disabilities can include users that are blind, have low vision, and/or have color-blindness.
  • In most cases, users who are blind use a screen reader to access electronic documents. A screen reader uses the structure of a document to present the text to the user. Images use alternative text to convey their meaning to the user.
  • Users with low vision may enlarge document content so that it is more legible to them.

People with auditory disabilities

  • Auditory disabilities can be a mild or moderate hearing loss in one or both ears, known as hard-of-hearing.
  • Auditory disabilities can also be substantial and uncorrectable hearing loss in both ears, known as Deaf.
  • Occasionally, a person with an auditory disability can hear sounds but sometimes not sufficiently enough to understand all speech, especially in the presence of excessive background noise. This includes those who use hearing aids.
  • Provide captions and transcripts to all audio or multimedia content to ensure accessibility to users who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing.

People with motor disabilities

  • Motor disabilities are also known as physical disabilities.
  • These can include weakness and/or limitations of muscular control such as involuntary movements including tremors, lack of coordination, or paralysis and limitations of sensations, joint disorders, pain that impedes movements, and missing limbs.
  • Some users with physical disabilities can have difficulty using a mouse. Therefore, a document should be structured to be navigable with just a keyboard.
  • Some users will use a mouth stick, eye-tracking device, or a sip and puff device in place of a traditional keyboard.

People with cognitive and learning disabilities

  • Users with cognitive and learning disabilities are one of the largest disability groups.
  • Cognitive, learning, and neurological disabilities involve neurodiversity and neurological disorders, as well as behavioral and mental health disorders.
  • These can impact how well people hear, move, see, speak, and understand information.
  • Because users with cognitive and learning disabilities can vary widely, designing content and structure to be easy to use and understandable will help address accessibility.

Assistive Technology

  • Many users' accessibility needs are met with the use of assistive technology, which includes screen readers, screen magnification, and high-contrast settings.
  • Assistive technology products include a wide variety of both software and hardware.
  • Assistive technology works through a standard keyboard interface and accessibility frameworks that report information about the content and structure of a document to screen readers and other assistive technologies.


Some of the most common forms of assistive technology include:

  • On-screen keyboards: these enable people to use a pointer in place of a keyboard to type text.
  • Voice-recognition software: converts spoken word into typed text.
  • Screen readers: converts text into spoken word or other forms of communication such as Braille.
  • The Narrator screen reader: part of Windows that has a touch mode that can perform screen reading tasks by processing touch gestures.
  • Screen adjustment programs: these can adjust the display or areas of it such as high contrast themes, dots per inch screen settings, and a magnifier tool.

Screen Readers

  • Screen readers provide access to text within a document by rendering it into spoken language or a Braille output.
  • The most important information that a screen reader needs in order to help users understand or navigate a document is proper document structure.
  • In addition to a screen reader vocalizing what is appearing on the screen, a screen reader offers a wide range of keyboard shortcuts to navigate through the document with greater ease.
  • Screen readers can be used both on a mobile device as well as a desktop.

Braille Displays

  • Users who are blind or have low vision can use Braille displays.
  • Braille displays complement the standard keyboard and screen reader.
  • The content of the document is transcribed into Braille.

Ensuring Proper Document Structure

  • There are several types of structural elements built into a document that aid in navigation and organization of a digital document.
  • Having structure ensures all users understand the content of the document.
  • Assistive technology uses the structure of a document to allow the user to navigate using specific commands to jump to or skip through headings, lists, and bookmarks content.
  • An assistive technology user relies on the keyboard to activate objects and navigate within a document. Therefore, it is important the document has both accessibility and meaningful text.
  • Hyperlinked text should clearly describe the content to be found or action to be performed.
  • People who use screen readers sometime scan a list of links.
  • To preserve tab order and to make it easier for screen readers to read documents, use a logical heading order and built-in  formatting tools.

Accessible Text

  • Some users have sight limitations that make it difficult for them to read text unless it has adequate contrast against the  background.
  • Some users have difficulty reading text that is simply too small.

Section 02

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1)

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are a set of guidelines that help explain how to make web content and electronic documents accessible to people with disabilities. The overall goal of WCAG is to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments. WCAG has 12 guidelines grouped under 4 principles:

  1. Perceivable
  2. Operable
  3. Understandable
  4. Robust.

Together, these create a solid framework for accessibility.


  • Perceivable makes it so all users can receive and recognize content regardless of their disability.
  • Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people may need. This can be large print, Braille, speech, symbols or simpler language.
  • Provide alternatives for time-based media.
  • Create content that can be presented in different ways without losing information or structure.
  • Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.


  • Operable makes it so all users can navigate and interact with document content and functionality.
  • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
  • Provide users enough time to read and use content.
  • Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
  • Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are in the document.
  • User interface components and navigation should be operable.


  • Understandable makes it so all users can interpret and process the content.
  • It should be readable, legible, comprehensible, and consistent.
  • Make document pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
  • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.


  • Robust makes it so all users can utilize content and functionality using an assistive technology device.
  • Maximize compatibility with current and future assistive technologies.

Guidelines and Success Criteria

To maximize accessibility for people with disabilities, WCAG contains
12 guidelines. Guidelines include:

  1. Text alternatives
  2. Time-based media
  3. Adaptable
  4. Distinguishable
  5. Keyboard accessible
  6. Enough time
  7. Seizures and physical reactions
  8. Navigable
  9. Input modalities
  10. Readable
  11. Predictable
  12. Input

Success Criteria are used as a tool for testing to measure conformance with the guidelines. The three levels range from A to AAA

Level A is the minimum level for accessibility. If the document does not reach a Level A Success Criteria rating, a user with disabilities is most likely being excluded from the document.

To reach Level AA, your document must meet all the Level A requirements first. Level A/AA is typically used by the Department of Justice as a standard for document accessibility.

Types of Documents

A document is considered accessible if it meets certain technical criteria and
can be used by people with disabilities. This guide will focus on Word
documents and exporting as PDF.

  • To improve performance for interactive viewing, PDF defines a more structured format than that used by most PostScript  language programs.
  • PDF also includes objects, such as annotations and hypertext links, that are not part of the page itself but that are useful for  interactive viewing and document interchange.
  • A logical tagged structure tree is used within each document to provide a meaningful reading order for content, as well as a  method for defining structural elements role and relationship to page content. Within this tag structure, other properties such  as alternative text and replacement text can be provided.