How to improve accessibility…without really trying
I had never really given much thought to the structure of my documents until I started the ITR12 course. I don’t really know why, it had just never been something that had cropped up I guess. And that’s a large part of the problem here – PR. Making documents structured isn’t difficult or time-consuming and it doesn’t need any expensive software; all it needs is an increased awareness.
So, what’s the point?
Well, there’s the obvious answer to this question, and the less obvious answer too. The obvious answer is that by making your document structured, you make it easier for screen readers to ‘understand’ your document, and as a result make it more accessible to the person using the reader, thus giving them a better chance of understanding it. The less obvious answer is that there are benefits of structuring your document anyway – it is easier for anyone to navigate around; it can be a more dynamic document with hyperlinks to other sections; it’s portability is increased (eg for export to PDF or conversion to HTML) and apart from anything else after an initial period, it should be quicker to create than an unstructured document.
All that glitters is not gold
The most important part of making a structured document is formatting your document properly. For the most part this means using headings to break your document into sections. “Easy,” I hear you cry, “I do that all the time anyway!!!!” But do you really? When you are putting a heading into your document, do you select font size, type heading, select heading text, Bold, Underline, return, change font size back & Un-Bold, Un-underline? Yeah, me too. So that must be good, right?
Wrong. Whilst this may look like a structured document, there is no ‘metadata’ attached to this structure to allow it to be correctly identified. What you need to do is open your word processor up and have a look for a bit of the interface that you have probably largely ignored until now – the styles section. You know the one….
By using the style settings to apply styles, we can create a document that is capable of providing screen reading software with the information it needs to ‘make sense’ of the document. Now, this seems very simple – and it is. After an initial period spent setting your styles up the way you want them (choice of font, font size, font style), it actually makes it quicker to format your document than marking each heading out as you need it.
That can’t be it. What else do I need to do?
Well, that’s the main thing, but there are another couple of things to bear in mind too. The first of these is remembering to add alternative text (alt text) to any images that you put into your document. This will allow screen readers to provide a description of the image for a reader who cannot see it. Care needs to be taken with the alt text – if the filename is used as default for instance, this is likely to be something pretty meaningless and user-unfriendly, such as image (1).png. Providing a short but accurate description of the image (eg ‘style options from Word’ for the image above) .
The same principle applies to any links you add to your text. Hyperlinking to another blogpost on this site, the address to use would be http:is much more useful//h-blog.me.uk/?p=365. Now, if a screen reader reads that out, it isn’t going to mean much to the reader. The title of the blog post “EduBlogs Awards – My Nominations” would make a lot more sense. Adding this descriptive text to a hyperlink can be easily achieved by typing (or cutting and pasting) the desired text into your document, selecting it and right clicking and choosing ‘edit hyperlink’.
As well as these three main principles, font size needs to be considered, and should be at least 12 points. Underlining text should be avoided, as this can make reading text more difficult, as can using block capitals. Text should not be justified, as the differences in word and letter spacing can cause problems with reading; rather it should be left-aligned. Any bulleted or numbered lists should be formatted using the relevant tools rather than numbered/bulleted by hand. Similarly, columns should be added using the correct formatting tools rather than by ‘tabbing’. For larger documents, a table of contents should be considered – this should be easy to create for a document that is properly structured!
To help you out….
If you are lucky enough to be using the 2010 version of Word, there is a built-in accessibility checker that can help you spot accessibility issues in your document. It will highlight these to you, advising how important it feels the error is and offering advice on how to fix it. Similar extensions are available for OpenOffice and LibreOffice.
So why aren’t we all doing it? All the time?
That is a very good question. I think it is possibly a lack of education about the benefits of structured documents as well as how easy it can be to provide that structure at the time of writing. As excuses go, it’s pretty flimsy; so perhaps it’s time we all took a bit of responsibility for sharing the information with our colleagues.