Accessible resources: documents, presentations and spreadsheets

An accessible format is one which can be read by 'assistive' or 'enabling' technologies (screen reader programs, screen magnification programs and voice input programs). An accessible document is one where information is accessible (i.e. searchable, selectable and screen readable). It is worth noting that most students with most impairments will need no extra provision if departments routinely provide information in a timely and accessible electronic format.

How to make your publications accessible


  • Jisc - Alistair McNaught, Subject Specialist, Accessibility and Inclusion.
  • King’s College London - Carol Regulski, Senior Accessible Formats Assistant, Library Services.
  • University of Kent - Ben Watson, Accessible Information Adviser.
  • University of Southampton - EA Draffan, Senior research Fellow; Abi James, Research Fellow.

Accessible design is good design. A document that can be accessed by everyone is more likely to have a greater impact, will be discoverable in key platforms and supports the Open Access ethos. The following simple steps will help to maximise your impact by maximising your audience. The basic principles are the same for the main content creation platforms.

1. Make sure the text is accessible to other applications.

Why this matters:

Text that is selectable and accessible to other applications adds significant value to users relying on a wide range of support tools from referencing software to text-to-speech and screen readers. For text to speech and screen readers, the reading order may need to be tagged and non-essential repeat information (such as headers or footers) removed from the reading order. Otherwise sentences across page breaks will be scrambled by the insertion of footer or header text.

What this involves:

  • Check your text can be selected and copied to another program – this helps with a range of study activities (eg making notes, checking definitions and translations, reading aloud text).
  • This should include any content that will be read by the reader. Consider also text in images and equations.

2. Structure your text with style sheets/semantic tags

Why this matters:

Navigable headings, sub-headings and bookmarks benefit all users, especially people with print impairments. Content can be rapidly skimmed. Hierarchies of ideas can be more readily assimilated.

What this involves:

3. Ensure text can be personalised and reflows when magnified

Why this matters:

This aids those reading on small screens, people with visual impairments or people reading for different purposes (eg low magnification for skimming .versus. higher magnification for close reading).

What this involves:

  • Text reflows to fit the screen when the size is altered and the reading order is maintained.
  • Ensure that colour contrast between text and background is sufficient and can be personalised.

4. Use short image descriptions known as alt-tags

Why this matters:

If images have no alt tag, screen reader software will automatically read the file name. This is distracting and confusing. If you can give a ‘null alt tag’ (alt=””) the screen reader remains silent. This is helpful for ‘eye candy’ images but makes other more meaningful images invisible to the screen reader user. We advise that, as a minimum, significant images should have a simple alternative text descriptions (alt tags) to act as a signpost to content they might otherwise miss.

What this involves:

  • Include the title of the diagram or keywords to allow screen reader to recognise the existence of the image and understand the context
  • Convey important information about images, graphs and tables within captions or associated text
  • Avoid empty (i.e. blank) alt-tags at all costs to stop the file name being read out.
  • Use null tags (double speech marks - “”) for imagery that does not provide significant information such as ‘eye candy’ that is there only for aesthetic value.
  • Produce accessible equations, symbols, graphs and tables (eg following Benetech Diagram Guidelines.

5. Give preference to multimedia with captions, transcripts and/or audio descriptions

Why this matters:

Video and audio content that lacks text alternatives creates barriers for all users. It can be difficult to navigate to specific information, to have confidence about the spelling of key content or to quote content accurately and efficiently. It can create particular barriers for readers with sensory impairments.

What this involves:

  • As a minimum, video and audio resources should have text summaries of the key information
  • Preference should be given to resources with full transcripts (audio/video) or captioning (video).
  • Audio description will be important for some contexts.
  • Scene description is a complex and skilled process better done by the learning provider.
  • Useful guidance is available from WebAim covering captions, transcripts, and audio descriptions.

6. More information

Accessible Word documents

Accessible PowerPoint presentations

Accessible PDFs

  • Select Save As on the Word File tab.
  • Ensure the file name is correct. From the Save as type drop down list select PDF.
  • Click on Options and ensure Create bookmarks using: is checked and Headings selected.
  • Ensure Document structure tags for accessibility is checked.
  • Click on OK and Save.
  • Remember you can use Sensus Access Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on PDFs that have been scanned from hard copies to ensure text is fully accessible to screen readers.
  • To ensure that a PDF is accessible it should be checked by opening it in Adobe Reader and listening to it being read by selecting View then Read out loud.  (You will have to Activate Read Out Loud first if you have not already done so, and then can select Read this page only or Read to end of document).
  • How to convert a Word document to PDF
  • Text to speech in PDFs
  • Creating accessible PDFs: how to make PDFs that everyone can use.

Captions, transcripts, and audio descriptions for multimedia

  • You can add lots of different types of media to a presentation. With multimedia it is likely that the audio and visual content are both key to the meaning and delivery of the message so adding captions, subtitles and audio descriptions will make material accessible to hearing and visually impaired users.
  • Captions, transcripts and audio descriptions.
  • How to create a basic transcript from a YouTube Video
    • Please check ethical approval/data protection requirements before using this process.



  • If you need to insert a symbol within text or in an equation, then use unicode to encode it. This ensures that your equations will always appear in the same format if copied between application and are more widely support by assistive technologies than xml entities. Use the STEMReader symbol dictionary to check the encoding for symbols.
  • Instructions on setting up Microsoft Word and other Office applications to produce MathML equations.
  • EquatIO allows you to type or handwrite virtually any mathematical expression directly on your keyboard or touchscreen.

Graphs and spreadsheets

  • The same rules apply as with adding images - add meaningful alt text and use captions to summarise the main points.
  • A navigation sheet can make it easier to find your way round complex data.
  • Use colour or shading to highlight key areas and add relevant images. Add pop up comments where appropriate to give explanations or instructions.
  • You can use data validation to reduce the likelihood of learners accidentally adding the wrong values and conditional formatting can help to highlight key values.
  • When presenting learners with large spreadsheets make them aware of pivot tables and how they can help to easily navigate complex data sets. 
  • When users are dealing with a large spreadsheet they can work more productively and efficiently if they know how to freeze panes, filter and sort columns. Although these are not specific accessibility features they reduce barriers for people who lack confidence or are easily overwhelmed by numbers.
  • If learners collect results and add them to the spreadsheet, set up a graph to plot the values from the results table. As the data is entered learners will see the developing trends on the graph. This helps them move beyond numbers to what the numbers actually mean.
  • By using slider bars you allow learners to experiment with different values on a graph or in a formula. The use of 'IF statements' can allow you to create self marking exercises and multiple choice exercises.
  • Spreadsheets don't suit all learners and they can cause problems for blind users so it is important to understand the primary teaching objectives of an exercise before adapting the resource. An interactive economics graph showing demand varying with price adds great value for a dyslexic learner but could be far more effectively explained to a blind person using pipe cleaners or Wikki Stix.
  • Creating accessible spreadsheets.
  • Using Microsoft Excel.


  • You can use these to send readers directly to information within the same document, to a different document or to a web page. Best practice with hyperlinks includes using screen tips to provide further information about where the link takes the reader.
  • Give hyperlinks unique and descriptive names; try and avoid “click here.” Instead, use a more recognisable link: “To learn more about our service, read our About Us pages.”
  • Creating accessible hyperlinks.

Images and diagrams

Large print

  • Question: A delegate has asked for large print handouts for a conference. Is it best to present the original handouts on larger paper or use the same sized paper but with the formatting made larger and running to more pages?
  • Answer: The delivery of large print may come down to personal preference. The former may be easier to supply (e.g. A4 to A3 photocopy) but can be awkward for users to handle and carry with them. The latter can be more user-friendly but may need more preparatory work to ensure that images are on the same pages as related text etc. Wherever possible it would be best to offer a number of format options and check with individuals what would suit them best.
  • It is also good practice to try and send any materials electronically in advance wherever possible in order that people can come prepared with notes already on their laptops/mobile devices in a display that works best for them.
  • Electronic documents can be converted to a more accessible format (e.g. create editable text versions of images or convert documents so that you can listen to them) by using the Sensus Access file conversion tool on the university web pages.
  • Guidance video on using Sensus Access.

Posters and notice boards

  • A great deal of information at Kent is displayed on posters and notice boards, and given out in handouts and booklets. Students with print disabilities can miss out on a lot of this information. It is therefore important that information should be provided electronically wherever possible to ensure they have the same access to opportunities as everyone else. Where you cannot access a digital original of the information you wish to share, try following the guidance for scanning a document so that you can hear it being read aloud.

Sensus Access

  • Electronic documents can be converted to a more accessible format (e.g. create editable text versions of images or convert documents so that you can listen to them) by using the Sensus Access file conversion tool on the university web pages.
  • Guidance video on using Sensus Access.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) resources


  • Read aloud maths in accurately but without overloading user.
  • Highlight the equation as it is read.
  • Provide users with different options for speaking equations.
  • Based on MathJax conversion of MathML & LaTeX.

Word processing of maths notation


  • Keep the structure simple, and bear in mind that screen readers will read the content from left to right when deciding on a structure.
  • Specify the header rows and make sure they are repeated if your table crosses multiple pages. Add alt text to explain your table to visually impaired readers and make sure it is meaningful - an informative caption can also be helpful. 
  • Creating accessible tables.

More information

Student Support, University of Kent

The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NZ, T: +44 (0)1227 764000

Last Updated: 31/08/2018