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Digital files are required to adhere to the same Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 standards as websites. This is a broad categorization of content, and includes file types like Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel files, and PDFs.
Without intentional actions, most digital files are not accessible out-of-the-box. This page lists ways to make several common file types more accessible.
Minimizing the use of linked or downloadable documents, especially PDFs, is the single best thing you can do to improve the accessibility (and overall user experience) of your digital content and services. Whenever possible, add content directly to your website instead of uploading documents. Many departments have institutional inertia and resist this change; here are some reasons to stop uploading documents:
Making PDFs accessible is time-consuming and laborious, and even the most accessible PDFs are less accessible than properly formatted web pages. All PDFs require manual review and revisions before they can be uploaded and published. Even if the source document (like Microsoft Word) is formatted perfectly, and Word’s accessibility check reports no errors, you will need to make manual changes within Adobe Acrobat Pro after you export it to a PDF.
Simple documents can be reviewed and published in 10 minutes apiece. Complex documents, especially those with forms and tables, can take hours to review and revise.
If the content on your document changes frequently, like a staff directory for a large department, you need to make these accessibility changes on the PDF every time it is edited and re-exported to a PDF.
These efforts do not scale. If you have 100 pages on a website, and realize there is the same accessibility error that affects all of them, a developer can make a code change in one place, and it will fix the error on every page on the site in one pass. If you have 100 PDFs with the same accessibility error, you’re making the same change, manually, on 100 different documents, then uploading 100 different updated documents.
You might create and manage most content on a desktop computer, but most content is consumed – especially by the college-age demographic – on mobile devices. PDFs do not display well on smaller screens. They don’t resize, requiring people to zoom in to read the content, and the content doesn’t present in a single column layout, as it does on most mobile websites. The user needs to scroll both horizontally and vertically to read the content, and large PDF sizes can be especially prohibitive for users who are not connected to WiFi.
For users on mobile devices, PDFs aren’t just less convenient, they frequently don’t get read at all.
If you have business-critical information, you don’t want to bury it in a PDF. Some search engines are able to index content in PDFs, but not all. Putting content in a PDF means fewer eyes will see it.
The only recommended use case for PDFs is for documents that are intended to be printed. In other cases, create pages on your website to host this content. Once you are familiar with the content editing interface within your content management system, it’s frequently easier to create this content as pages on your website, especially if you update this content frequently.
There may be a higher initial effort to create content as a web page, but depending on the functionality of that page (e.g. a web form) the automation that can be built into web pages may have a lower long-term cost.
If you opt for hosted documents, follow these accessibility techniques, which apply to all file types and all platforms.
Images are inherently inaccessible to people who are unable to see them. All common content editing software allows the content editor to add an image description, commonly called alt (alternate) text, to an image.
It is important that colors sufficiently contrast against each other so all content on your media is readable. This applies to text against solid backgrounds, and to text in front of images.
To ensure the links in your documents are accessible, they should have meaningful link text, and be visually identifiable by some means beyond color alone.
Most content editing software has pre-formatted options for presenting content. For example, Microsoft Word and Powerpoint have different tiers of Headings available, as do Google docs and Slides. Headings will make the text larger, change the color, add line spacing, amongst other stylistic changes. Using these types of structured data to convey content organization and hierarchy is always recommended. Using structured data also adds metadata to the content, information that is not visible on screen, but allows assistive technologies to understand the layout and structure of the document content
Directly editing styles does not add meta data and is less accessible. Only revise these styles (font family, color, size, etc.) after you’ve already marked up your content using the options in the Styles pane.