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Best Practice: Formatting Accessible Documents

About Accessible Documents

Content that is created in Blackboard using the content editor is automatically formatted in HTML following accessibility standards. You can link to or pull in content from other sources using the content editor or other Learn tools. Content you add as an attachment or a linked file is not automatically formatted. Make sure all your students can read and interact with your attachments and linked files by making them accessible. When your document is formatted using styles and tags, it will be accessible to your users who rely on assistive technology such as screen reading applications (screen readers).

Accessible documents have a structure that is based on styling elements or tags. This structure provides a hierarchy of information. The most important information is identified as the top-level in the document, and supporting information is identified as lower levels. Illustrations, graphs, and tables that appear in a document have specific tags based on what type of information they convey.

Screen readers use tags to convey an information hierarchy of a document to users so that they can understand the organization of the material. Tags are also used to provide other information to users such as descriptions of visual content and the organization of data arranged in tables.

Adding a structure to documents using styles and tags during the writing process is the fastest, more reliable way to create accessible documents. In almost every case, styles and tags added in an application such as Microsoft© Word transfer when you save the document to another format such as Adobe PDF or HTML.

Using Documents in Learn

Many areas in Learn allow you to add documents, including content pages, assignments, and tests. Format any files that you distribute in your class using styles and tags. This will ensure that all of your students can participate fully no matter what technology they use to read documents.

Encourage your students to format documents that they exchange in groups and for group assignments and group presentations using styles and tags. Promoting accessibility among your students raises awareness and increases student achievement, retention, and satisfaction.

How to Make Microsoft© Word Documents Accessible

Use Headings

document supports textCreate a consistent heading structure in Word using styles. This is different from just changing the font size or making the font bold. Set up your document styles or use one of the templates that Microsoft includes with Word. In Word 2007 and 2010, to change a block of text, select it and then click on the appropriate style from the tool bar. Different versions of Word have slightly different ways of accessing and setting styles, so use the help in your version for specific instructions.

As a general rule, use no more than one Heading 1 <H1> on a page. The <H1> tag identifies the highest level of information in the document structure. Heading 1 is used for chapter titles, main section headings, and other divisions that represent the top level of information. Use Heading 2 <H2> and lower number headings to identify the sub-levels of information in your document.

When adding heading tags, be consistent and include each level in the hierarchy where appropriate to reflect the organization of the document. Be sure that H1 is followed by H2, then H3, and H4. Don't go from H1 to H4  just  for formatting purposes. Instead, change your styles for each heading to change the way it looks.

Alternative Text for Images

Screen readers use alternative text (alt text) to provide users with information about images. In most versions of Word, right-click an image and select Format Picture... In the dialog box, select the option for Alt Text, and then type in your alt text. Be specific and succinct so that users will quickly understand what is being described. Different versions of Word have slightly different ways of entering alt text, so use the help in your version for specific instructions.

Word 2010 has two fields for text, Title and Description. Type your alt text in the Description box so that when you convert Word documents to PDF or HTML the alt text is converted to the new format. Titles are not converted to other formats, so you would have to enter them again in the new format.

Data Tables

In accessible documents, tables are never used for formatting layout on a page because it is difficult for screen readers to understand the information architecture and what is being presented. Tables are only used to present data. For screen readers to interpret data in a table so that users can understand how the data is organized, the screen reader needs to be able to identify which cells are part of the header row and which cells contain data. You can indicate that a row repeats on the top of each page in the Table Properties menu in Word. When saved as a PDF, the first row is detected as a table header. If the Word file is saved as HTML, the table headers are not maintained. Instead, the cells are tagged as <thead>. Data cells are tagged as <tbody>.

When you convert to HTML from Word, you can edit your HTML document using a text editor or other application such as Adobe Dreamweaver to add specific table tags. Use <th> to tag table headers, <tr> to identify the beginning of each new row, and <td> to tag cells that contain data. See the following example. Unfortunately, there is no way to tag these individual elements in Word.


            <th>Column Header 1</th>
            <th>Column Header 2</th>

            <td>table data in column 1</td>
            <td>table data in column 2</td>


It is easy to create links in Word by pasting the full URL into a page. When you press space or Enter, Word automatically creates a link. Change the link text to something descriptive because the URL that is automatically created may not make sense to a screen reader. If you are creating a Word document that may be printed as well as read electronically, consider including both the URL and the descriptive link in the text. For example:
Getting Started with Creating Accessible Course Content (

Windows Word 2010 Accessibility Checker

If you are using Windows, Word 2010 has a built-in Accessibility Checker. This is a good resource to help you identify and repair accessibility issues. Access the Accessibility Checker from Files > Info > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility.

How to Make PDF Documents Accessible

PDF (portable document format) is an open standard for formatting documents. PDF creates files that look the same when printed as when exchanged electronically. When you share a PDF file, almost everyone can read it using free Adobe Reader® software or the Adobe Reader mobile app.

Most PDF files are converted from an application such as Microsoft © Word. Many programs and plug-ins can create PDF files, but very few create tagged PDF files. PDF tags provide a hidden structure and textual representation of the PDF content so that it can be read by a screen reader. PDF tags are similar to HTML tags and Word styles.

Adobe Acrobat is the original application for creating PDF documents and converting other documents into PDF. Too many different combinations of authoring software and PDF converters exist to describe each one in this topic. If you are converting a Word file to PDF and you have created an accessible Word file using heading tags, alt text for graphics, and so on, Office 2010 can created tagged PDFs natively. You can also download and install the Adobe add-in, called PDFMaker, to create PDF files from Word. If you are using earlier versions of Office, you must have the add-in to create tagged PDF files.

If you are using the Adobe add-in, click Save as Adobe PDF from the File menu. In the PDFMaker dialog box, click Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF from the Settings tab. If you are using the native save, click Save as PDF. Before you save the file, click Options, and then select Document structure tags for accessibility.

Adobe Acrobat X and later has an accessibility checker that scans your PDF and alerts you to any problems. The accessibility checker will help you correct any issues. You can also correct table coding using Acrobat's TouchUp Reading Order Table Editor. To learn more about using Adobe Acrobat to create accessible files, visit and search for "accessibility."