Published: 2 October 2022
Accessible Document Specialist
When I found out that I had passed this exam, I was so excited that I announced it on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, sharing my Credly badge as widely as I could. So apart from the sense of achievement, why is it so important to me?
My job focus is really about web accessibility and ensuring that our websites, products and systems conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 and the Public Sector Bodies Requirements. This is really important, in ensuring that staff and citizens are able to access our services without any barriers. However every day, across the entire department, hundreds of thousands of documents are produced, mostly by individuals, and then emailed or shared online. The vast majority of these are less accessible than the worst website.
The thing is with document accessibility, we can all learn to get it right. Web development is a specialist field. It's not for everyone. Documents though... most of us use Word, Excel and PowerPoint at some point in our personal or professional lives. Many of us convert these to PDF. It is quite easy to learn how to make these inclusive and accessible for everyone.
I've published a whole section on how to create accessible Word documents. If I was to pick out a couple of things that I believe make the biggest difference though, they would be:
- Alt text for images - this is really important to people who use screen readers. Whenever you insert a picture, take a moment to right-click, edit alt text, and briefly describe the image. Preferably, keep it inline as well, rather than square wrapping it.
- Mark up headings correctly - you can usually tell a heading because it is on its own line, is big and bold and sometimes a different colour. Whenever you format something as a heading, go to the Styles in the Home ribbon, and choose the correct heading level. That way a screen reader user will know it's a heading too.
I'll be honest, I hadn't given Excel a lot of thought until recently. Again though, I have published a section on how to create accessible Excel spreadsheets. The two parts of this that stood out most for me are:
- Turning data into a proper table - because data on a spreadsheet looks like a table, it hadn't occurred to me that it didn't behave like a table. A table has headers, usually the top row and/or the left column. A screen reader announces the data in each cell but also the header relating to it. This is important so that people know where they are.
- Use of colour - I think this one resonated with me because I spent so many years as a teacher, colour coding children's progress using red, amber and green. Colour is a really common way of visually indicating status or progress but it cannot be interpreted by all. You have to provide another way too. Colour is fine, just not on its own.
I'm not the greatest fan of PowerPoint. It gets used for purposes that it was never intended for and this often results in a lack of accessibility. However, it has its place and I have published a section on how to create accessible PowerPoint slides. My two biggest take aways for this are:
- Reading order - the more items you have on a slide, the more important this is. A screen reader will read items in the order they were created, which is rarely the correct order, so you have to set it yourself for it to make sense.
- Create efficiently - each object you create will be read out by a screen reader, so avoid doubling up. If you want text in a coloured box, just create a shape and type directly into it. You don't need an additional text box.
PDFs are different. You don't create a PDF in the PDF software. You create it somewhere else and then convert it. This is not a process that generally works well for accessibility. So my top tips for PDFs are:
- Make the original document perfectly accessible - any error in your original document is likely to be multiplied when converted to PDF. Even silly little things like a line break get converted into an object. The better the original, the better the PDF... but no guarantees.
- Ensure that accessibility features are converted too - there is usually an 'Options' button when you save as PDF. This gives you the option to preserve accessibility and reflow. It is often not checked as default and results in a completely untagged, inaccessible PDF.
Because PDFs are so difficult to get right and require expensive software to check and fix, it's usually better to just send out the original document.
My qualification is valid for three years. If I want to renew it, I have to keep up with continuous learning and presenting information. I have to log this as credits. Unfortunately, work-related stuff doesn't count. So I will be looking for opportunities to speak at conferences, deliver training and so on. I'm particularly interested in doing this for schools and/or local authorities, as they are often very stretched resource-wise. Let me know if you're interested though.