Tips for Making Online Documents Accessible: Word, PowerPoint, Excel & PDF

July 30, 2015 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: February 22, 2018

Web accessibility means committing to making your website accessible to all users, regardless of their physical or sensory ability. But inclusive design extends beyond your website. To be truly accessible, any documents provided as links to download must also be accessible.

This is often overlooked on university websites and online courses, which must comply with certain legal accessibility standards for education. It’s very important to make sure that all of the documents that people can download from your site are indeed accessible.

In our webinar “10 Tips for Creating Accessible Web Content with WCAG 2.0,” presenter Janet Sylvia of the University of Georgia’s Web Accessibility Group shared a wealth of resources and tools to make sure your online documents comply with WCAG. Below are some of her recommendations.

For more insights, read highlights from the Q&Atips for making web video and audio content accessible, or watch the full webinar recording here.

Universal Tips for Creating Accessible Documents

These accessibility tips apply to just about any document (PDF, HTML, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc). They are best practices for making documents accessible to people who use screen-readers or keyboard navigation. Make sure you’ve taken these steps before posting your documents online.

Page Titles, Headings, & Semantic Structure

  • <title> should match Heading 1 <h1>
  • Properly nest headings. There should be 1 H1 tag. Use H2 tags for headers, H3 for sub-headers, H4 for sub-sub headers, etc. Never choose a header tag just for the styling; it has to make sense semantically.
  • Use <ol> for Ordered lists and <ul> for Unordered Lists, instead of using dashes or numbers
  • Use <strong> instead of bold and <em> instead of italics

Descriptive Hyperlinks

  • Make sure anchor text makes sense when read out of context
  • Anchor text should describe the link destination
  • Use unique anchor text for each unique hyperlink
  • Avoid hyperlinking only vague calls to action like “click here, “email me,” or “download now”

Add Alt Text for All Non-Text Content

  • Every image requires Alt text. Alt text should concisely describe the image to a user who does not see it.
  • Include a long Description when Alt alone is not enough; for example, a map showing directions from point A to point B, describe the path taken.

Accessible PDFs

We’ve actually hosted another hour-long webinar devoted to PDF accessibility. Watch the full recording, review the slides, or read the transcript on our webinars page.

Another great resource is the US Department for Health and Human Services’ checklist for making PDFs Section 508 compliant.

Accessible Word Documents

In addition to following the recommendations above, try this checklist for making MS Word documents Section 508 compliant.

WebAIM has a comprehensive article about Word doc accessibility for Word 2000-2003, 2007, 2010, and Word for Mac.

Accessible Excel Documents

Excel accessibility remediation is similar to that of Word documents. Follow this checklist to make sure your MS Excel documents are Section 508 compliant.

Accessible PowerPoint Presentations

HHS provides a great checklist for making PowerPoint documents Section 508 compliant.

If your presentation includes video, screencapture recordings, or audio content, make sure to add captions. Check our tutorial for how to add closed captions and subtitles to PowerPoint presentations.

Other Accessible Web Design Resources

Watch the video or read the transcript of the full webinar on WCAG design.


Read the free report: 2017 State of Captioning.

The closed caption CC icon shown in the middle of a TV.