What sort of question is that that you might ask – but to someone who is visually impaired and possibly using screen reader technology, documents can vary significantly in their usability. By creating documents with a few small changes it is possible to improve their usability for everyone.

When we download a file from a web page or receive an email attachment, the majority of us can do a quick visual scan of a document to find the information we want. However, if there is no structure (where a larger font size and bold text has been used for headings), those using a screen reader will need to read the whole document to find the relevant parts – a time consuming process with a long document. Searching for a particular word/words could also miss relevant information. Adding structure will make the whole document navigable – easily done by using styles to construct a hierarchy of headings that can then be used to create a table of contents.

It might seem a chore to have to set up styles before starting to write your document, but spending a few extra minutes creating styles for documents longer than a few pages could assist all readers, whether or not they are visually impaired. Once you have set up styles or modified existing default styles, you will then be able to save time in the future and use this file as a template for further documents.

Here are some of the most basic things you could do to make a document more accessible:

  • Use a clear sans serif font of at least 12 point such as Arial, Calibri or Helvetica
  • Use a hierarchy of heading styles to add structure to your document that will also enable easy creation of a table of contents:
    • heading 1 – title
    • heading 2 – chapters
    • heading 3 – sections
    • heading 4 – sub-sections
  • Create a table of contents for longer documents with sections
  • Avoiding adding a blank line at the end of paragraphs using a hard return on your keyboard – incorporate space after a paragraph using paragraph styles instead
  • Insert a page break at the bottom of a page rather than adding a few blank lines
  • Text that is aligned left and not justified is easier to read
  • Use high contrasting colours between text and the background
  • Reverse text (a light colour text on a dark background) is difficult to read so is best avoided
  • Busy backgrounds cause problems reading text so using a plain one is preferable
  • Use Alt Text (alternative text) for any images in your document to describe the feature for those using screen readers

Bearing these points in mind when creating a document should only take you a little extra time and just doing these few simple things could make a big difference in usability for the reader.

Some helpful links:

Ways to make your Word document more accessible:

The Accessibility Color Wheel allows you to try out different text and background colours:

Adding Alt Text to your Microsoft document:

Suggestions for creating accessible PDF documents:

So, next time you start a new document, why not think about making it easier to read!