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Creating Accessible Documents

Word, Excel, PowerPoint, & PDFs

About PDFs

Accessible PDFs

When making a document, it is always best to create it by using accessible software (Microsoft Word) and then export it to an accessible PDF. This way, if the document is edited later, its accessibility features will still be intact and be passed to the PDF when it is exported again. 

If the original document is not available, accessibility features can be added to the PDF by using Adobe Acrobat Pro.

step by step instruction on how to convert documents to Accessible PDFs (doc)

The argument against PDFs

Presenting digital documents and web content as PDFs should be a practice that is rarely used. Not only do they cause accessibility issues for people with disabilities, but they also present problems for people without them. Here are a few reasons PDFs are problematic and should be avoided:

  • Google and other search engines can't crawl the content of a PDF. This means that if you put important information into a PDF, it won't be found on a Google search. 
  • They are not mobile-friendly because PDFs are sized for paper, not screens. A PDF will scale to fit the size of your cell phone or tablet, which means they will have to zoom in close up and scroll left to right to see any of the text.
  • They are static and users can't engage with them. This means they can't click on email addresses or links which makes it impossible for visitors to act immediately on something, such RSVPing, emailing for more information, or fill out a form.
  • You can't track reader engagement. If the information was instead in a webpage, you would be able to tell how many visitors are accessing the information, how they got to that page, and how much time they spent there.
  • PDFs take users away from your website. The only way to get back to your website is the back button instead of having access to the navigation menu or other links. If the information was in a web page instead, users would be able to interact with the information or choose where on your site they would like to go next.
  • PDFs can be slow to load and even slower to download. 


Alternatives to PDFs:

  • Put the information into a web page if at all possible. This will make it easier for Google to find the information so it will show up in search results. It is also easier to edit the web site than it is to edit a PDF and upload it again. 
  • Create the document in an accessive platform such as Word


  • Never choose a "Print" to PDF option in Office, or in any other program. A screen reader user may still be able to access the text of a PDF created in this way, but heading structure, alternative text, and any other tag structure will be lost.
  • Google Docs and Slides are not able to export as an accessible PDF. We recommend sharing the original document with view-only permissions. Users will be able to download the document in different formats with the view-only link.
  • If you must save your Google Doc as PDF, it's recommended to download the Google Doc as a Microsoft Word file. Review the document to ensure it retained the heading structure and any alt text you added. Then save as a PDF (best for online distribution and accessibility). 

Creating Accessible Word Documents

Heading Styles

Heading styles make it easier for assistive technology (AT) users to navigate your documents.  Each heading style represents a different level in the content hierarchy and communicates the structure of your document to users. Use Word Styles (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.) in a logical order so they’re nested properly. 

Adding Alternative Text

Create appropriate alt-text for all images, graphics, shapes, videos, and other visuals to detail their content and function, if applicable. Alt text can be read in a Word file by a screen-reader and should remain intact when exporting to a PDF.

Columns and Layout

Use the Page Layout features offered by Word.  Set margins, columns, or indentation instead of using tabs or spaces. Also, use page breaks, not multiple hard returns. 

Numbered and Bulleted Lists

Use true numbered and bulleted lists to emphasize a point or a sequence of steps.  If the order of the items matters, use Word-formatted numbered lists. Don’t number the items manually. If the order of the items doesn’t matter, use Word-formatted bullets. Don’t insert characters instead of bullets.

Link Text

Word automatically creates a link when a user pastes a full URL onto a page. These may not make sense to screen reader users, so be sure to create meaningful link text and not 'click here' or 'visit us'.  The text should describe the link destination so it makes sense as stand-alone text. For example, instead of using “” as the link text, use “Washington University in St. Louis”.

Data Tables

Accessible tables need a clear table structure and table headers to help guide a screen reader user. Use the Word table tool, not tabbed or columnar content. Keep it simple and avoid merged cells, split cells, blank rows, blank columns, and nested tables. 


Ensure that font size is sufficient (around 12 points) and that there is enough color contrast between the text and background.  Underline hyperlinks only and not other text for emphasis. Don't use all caps since screen readers will read the words one letter at a time as if it's an acronym. 

Accessibility Checker

Word includes an accessibility resource that identifies accessibility issues and tips for making repairs. Since no automated checker will ensure that a document is accessible, they are a good starting point, not the end-all, to check your documents for accessibility.

Save the Word doc

Set the title and author in File > Properties > Show Document Panel. Save the document as a Word doc. If you're offering this document as a Word doc, you are finished.

Save as a PDF

If you need to create a PDF, save the document as a PDF. (File > Save As Adobe PDF)
In the Options section, check the boxes to:

  • Convert document information
  • Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF
  • Create Bookmarks
  • Convert Word Headings to Bookmark

Never choose a "Print" to PDF option in Office, or in any other program. A screen reader user may still be able to access the text of a PDF created in this way, but heading structure, alternative text, and any other tag structure will be lost.

Additional Resources for Accessible Documents