EDUCAUSE, a leading research group on prevailing issues and trends in higher education, recently surveyed its membership on the most important concerns and opportunities in teaching and learning for 2018. Accessibility and Universal Design ranked #2 as 2018’s Key Issues in Teaching and Learning. It’s probable that the combination of increased attention from high profile legal actions against universities like Harvard and UCLA, in addition to the lack of awareness and resourcing around this issue on most higher ed campuses has caused some stress and confusion. One way to be proactive in accessible design and enabling universal access is to author accessible documents.

This blog will cover best practices to assist you in creating an accessible document using any word processor program and will define reasons to apply this formatting when you create new documents.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) offers this definition, Universal Design for Learning or UDL is a framework and set of principles to “increase access and reduce barriers to learning.”

The UDL principles are:

  • Presentation – Multiple ways of teaching content
  • Action and Impression – Opportunity for different outlets where students can express their questions, opinions or ideas
  • Engagement – Creating different ways for students to be motivated and have interest in class.

To learn more about UDL, read our blog post on Universal Design for Learning.

Best Practice Tips to Creating an Accessible Document

The following are best practice tips to consider when creating an accessible document. Some word processing programs may have different layouts to apply these, but the principles are the same.


A Header is important because it defines the structure of the document. For screen readers, an assistive technology for visually impaired individuals, headers will guide users through the structure and determine the different sections of information of the document. Imagine picking up a book for the first time, first you read the synopsis, then open the book and look at the table of contents to see the different topics covered in each chapter. Headers can help all readers more easily parse the written content for better understanding and digestion. You should use a “Header 1” (H1) format for a title and a “Header 2” (H2) format for sections in a document. For any sub-sections, you should use a “Header 3” (H3)  format. This document models that format.

Labelling Links

It’s common for digitally-viewable documents to have embedded links that refer out to other resources such as articles or websites. Many software programs will automatically create a link when detecting a URL address being typed (usually starting with “http:” or “https:”). Some links are short and direct while others are very long and daunting. Creating text that describes a resource and then formatting that text to point to a URL is a best practice. Have you tried copying a link from and sending it to a friend? Or, just sending the word “red stand mixer”, for example, and associating that word to a URL as shown here? It is usually easier for the friend to understand and access the resource by clicking on the word or phrase. Labelling will help users know exactly where they will be going if they click on a linked URL or linked word or phrase within a document. See my link above, which directs you to our blog about Universal Design for Learning.

Consider these principles from in creating accessible links:

  • Use descriptive link text that does not rely on context from the surrounding text.
  • Keep the amount of text in the link to a minimum.
  • Use underlined text with a color that stands out from the surrounding text.

Alternative Text for Images

Images can support understanding of text in a document while giving readers a respite. If you are going to use images, it is a best practice to use images that relate to the content in the document. When you use images in a document, it is important to add “alternative text” to the image. Alternative text helps provide non-visual context on the meaning and function of the image. For example, if you are writing about different types of dogs and have images of those dogs within the text, then the alternative text will describe the dog in the image in the document. The alternative text should be viewable just under the image it describes.

For example:

Dog on the mountain

Alternative text example: Blond dog on a mountain.

Alternative text should be:

  • Accurate and equivalent—present the same content or function as the image.
  • Succinct—no more than a few words are necessary; rarely a short sentence or two may be appropriate.
  • NOT be redundant—do not provide information that is in the surrounding text.
  • NOT use descriptive phrases—screen reading software identifies images, so do not use phrases such as “image of…” or “graphic of…”.


Many users use tables to format text to look structured or pleasant to the eye, but the purpose of tables is to present data only. The data is presented in a grid or matrix format to display the association and differences between data. See the example of a table below:

University of San Francisco Enrollment (Sept. 2016)




College of Arts and Sciences



School of Management



School of Nursing and Health Professions



School of Education



School of Law



Special Students



The table displays the differences between the undergraduate students and the graduate students for each of the schools or college at USF.

In a table, there should be data in every row or column so all users know that there is data there. As you can see there is a “0” entered for schools that do not have any undergraduate students enrolled. Also be sure to use commas when numbers are higher than 999. Screen readers will appropriately announce the correct numerical data to the user.


Lists structure text as related items or provide ordered instructions for the user. Most word processing programs have different types of list formatting options you can choose from such as bullets, numbers, or arrows. Use the list function in your word processing program so users can better understand the structure of the content.

For step by step instructions, use the numerical lists so users can follow the instructions sequentially. If you want to group items that do not need to be followed sequentially then use the bullet lists. This is another way to organize and chunk information for users.

Next Steps

Try applying these best practice tips in an existing document or create a new document with your word processing program. Explore the capabilities of your word processing programs. Start with headers then work your way through the other items mentioned above. If you are working in Microsoft Word, save your document and use the Check Accessibility tool and check the results of your document. If there are any items that need attention, the tool will let you know and also give you tips on how to correct them.

Using these techniques takes time and practice, the more you practice the more fluid you will become. This is way you can be proactive in creating universally accessible documents. It is advisable to practice now, as this could very well be mandated by law in the future for all educational content.

If you want to do more or learn more, read our other blog entries:


WebAIM Creating Accessible Document: Microsoft Word

YouTube Video: Screen Reader User’s Experience and MS Word

EDUCAUSE: 2018 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning

Website: Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)

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