Accessible Documents 101: Creating Accessible Course Content

Written by Angie Portacio
June 20, 2018 • 5 minute read

This article will 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. 

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. 

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

The UDL principles are:

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

Learn more about UDL on USFteach

This means that even when creating something as “simple” as a text document, there are several best practices to follow in order to ensure that your course content is accessible to learners of all capabilities. Accessible documents have the additional benefit of being well structured and intuitive, helping foster increased comprehension and retention.

We’ve outlined best practices to consider when writing an accessible document. Some word processing programs (such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs) 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, 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 improved comprehension. You should use a “Header 1” (H1) format for a title and a “Header 2” (H2) format for the titles of sections in a document. For any sub-sections, you should use a “Header 3” (H3) format. This document models that format. Avoid excessive nesting whenever possible.

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 then formatting the text to direct to a URL is a best practice to keep in mind.

Have you tried copying a link from Amazon and sending it to a friend? Or do you send the phrase "red stand mixer" and associate that with a URL It is usually easier for someone 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 clicked on a linked URL, linked word, or linked phrase within a document.

Consider these principles from WebAIM (Web Accessibility in Mind) on creating accessible links:

  • Use descriptive link text that does not rely on context from the surrounding text.
  • The less text in a link, the better.
  • Use underlined text with a color that stands out from the surrounding text.

Alternative Text for Images

Images can support understanding of a text in a document while giving readers a break from walls of text. 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, otherwise known as alt text. 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 alt text will describe the dog in the image within the document. The alternative text should be viewable just under the image it describes.

Alternative text should:

  • Be accurate and equivalent – Present the same content or function as the image.
  • Be succinct – No more than a few words are necessary; rarely is a short sentence appropriate.
  • NOT be redundant – Do not provide information that is already present 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 …"
Shiba inu laying in a bed
Alt text example: Shiba inu laying in a bed


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

College/School Undergraduates Graduates
College of Arts and Sciences 3,700 909
School of Management 2,102 779
School of Nursing and Health Professions 862 868
School of Education 0 1,047
School of Law 0 606
Special Students 81 64

The table displays the demographic differences between undergraduate and graduate student populations at the University of San Francisco's schools and colleges.

In a table, there should be data in every row or column so screen readers know there is data there. A "0" is entered for schools without undergraduate students enrolled. Be sure to use commas when numbers are greater than 999; screen readers will appropriate announce the correct number to a 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 a numerical list so users can follow the instructions sequentially. If you want to group items that do not need to be followed sequentially then use a bulleted list. This is another way to organize and chunk information for users.

Next Steps

Try applying these tips in an existing document, or create a new document using your preferred word processing program. Explore its capabilities! Start with headers, then work your way through the other items mentioned. If you are working in Microsoft Word, save your document and use the Check Accessibility tool to score your document. if there are items requiring attention, this tool will provide guidance on making corrections.

Are you or someone you know finding success incorporating Universal Design principles in your course? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Email to share your story.

There are various educational technologies that can help you implement UDL principles into authoring accessible documents. The University of San Francisco provides access to Google Apps (DonsApps) and Microsoft Office for word processing and more.

Whether you don’t know where to start or have a particular educational technology in mind, we are here to help! To learn how to apply educational technologies to your course, request an Instructional Design consultation.

Contact Instructional Technology & Training to schedule a training session and access self-guided training materials.

Request Instructional Design Workshops
Our Instructional Designers offer a two-hour workshop (in person or via Zoom) on UDL and digital accessibility. Learn more about the foundations of UDL and how to tailor course content towards providing digital access to all students.

For more information, email the Instructional Design team.