Publishing accessible documents
How to choose an accessible format and make non-HTML documents meet accessibility standards.
Documents published on GOV.UK or other public sector websites must meet accessibility standards. This is so they can be used by as many people as possible, including those with disabilities.
If your document does not meet the standards, you could be breaking the law.
Organisations who publish PDFs and other non-HTML documents on GOV.UK must also publish an accessible documents policy.
Writing accessible documents
Follow these steps when you write a document. If you have questions, contact your website publishing team.
1. Think about format
Wherever possible, publish as an HTML webpage. It’s the best way to reach as many people as possible.
Documents like PDFs make your content harder to find, use and maintain. And it can be difficult for users to customise them for ease of reading, and often they do not work very well with assistive technologies like screen readers.
Contact your website team to find out more about publishing in HTML.
If you do need to publish a document, it should be in addition to an HTML version.
2. Keep the language simple
Write in language that’s as simple as possible.
Simple language makes your document accessible to people with cognitive impairments and learning disabilities.
And research shows that everyone prefers simple language, including specialist audiences. Because it allows them to understand information as quickly as possible.
Where you need to use technical terms, abbreviations or acronyms, explain what they mean the first time you use them.
3. Keep the document simple
Give the document a meaningful title.
Keep sentences and paragraphs short.
Use a sans serif font like Arial or Helvetica. Use a minimum size of 12 points.
Use sentence case. Avoid all caps text and italics.
Make sure the text is left aligned, not justified.
Avoid underlining, except for links.
Make sure any link text clearly describes where the link will go. It should also be understandable on its own, even if you read it out of context. This is important because some screen reader users scan through the links on a page one by one to find what they need.
Documents with single, continuous columns of text are easier to make accessible than documents with a more complex layout.
Only use tables for data. Keep tables simple: avoid splitting or merging cells.
Do not use things like colour or shape alone to get across meaning. This is because instructions like ‘click the big green button’ rely on the user’s ability to see the page.
If you’re using images or charts, think about how you’ll make the content accessible to people with a visual impairment. Two options are:
- make the same point in the text of the document (so people with visual impairments get the information they need - the image or chart is there as an extra for people who are able to see it)
- give the person converting or uploading the document for you alt text (‘alternative text’) for the image or chart
It’s also best to avoid images containing text, as it’s not possible to resize the text in the image.
Avoid footnotes where possible. Provide explanations inline instead.
4. Give the document a structure
Break up your document to make it more readable. Use bullet points, numbered steps and meaningful subheadings.
Do not use bold to mark up subheadings. Use styles to create a hierarchy of headings: ‘heading 1’, ‘heading 2’ and so on. Also use styles for things like tables and bullet lists. That way, a screen reader will recognise the formatting and read out the content correctly.
Ask your website publishing team if you’re not sure how to do this.
You should also follow the guidance on structuring and tagging your document in an accessible way if you’re using:
5. Forms, complex documents and other office formats
If you’re creating another type of office document (for example a spreadsheet or presentation), there’s guidance on how to make it accessible on the Accessible Digital Office Document Project website.
If you’re creating a form or other document with complex formatting, you can follow the instructions on making accessible PDFs in InDesign (PDF, 1.4MB).
Saving documents as PDF/A
After you’ve made sure your document is accessible, save the information in the PDF/A archiving format using one of the following:
- Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional and above
- Microsoft Office 2010 and above by checking the PDF/A box when saving
Saving as PDF/A alone will not make the document accessible, but it’s still important. It means the document will continue to work for a long time after it’s published, even if things like the fonts you used to create it are no longer supported.
If you are using pre-2010 versions of Microsoft Office, you must convert a standard PDF into PDF/A. However, when converting from a standard PDF to PDF/A you will lose:
- audio and video
- some forms of compression
- transparent layers in PDF/A-1
Google’s G-Suite does not currently support PDF/A, so you also must convert a standard PDF file.
The PDF association has more information on the PDF/A standard in its PDF/A in a Nutshell booklet.
Creating a PDF from a scanned document
If you’re creating a PDF by scanning a paper document, use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to make the PDF accessible to screen reader users.
Converting or uploading a document
Wherever possible, create content in an HTML webpage. If you need to publish a document in another format, it should be in addition to an HTML version.
If you do need to upload a non-HTML document, follow this guidance:
- how to convert a Word document to accessible PDF format
- how to format a Word document so it’s accessible
Check a PDF for accessibility
Once you’ve followed the steps to make your PDF accessible, check it before publishing.
You can pick up many accessibility issues by running some automated tests on your document.
You’ll also need to do manual testing to check your document fully meets accessibility standards. Use the accessibility checklist created by 18F (the US government’s digital agency) to help you with your manual testing.
To check that your PDF is accessible you can use Adobe Reader or Adobe Acrobat Pro. You should also test your PDF is accessible using a screen reader.
You can use Adobe Reader to find out if your PDF document is correctly tagged and structured. People using screen readers need these to be able to access your document.
Go to ‘Edit’ then ‘Accessibility’ and select ‘Quick check’. To fix any issues, you’ll need to either fix the original document in Word or use Adobe Acrobat Pro.
Adobe Acrobat Pro
Follow Adobe’s instructions on using Acrobat Pro to check if your PDF is accessible.
The PDF should pass the full check for WCAG Level AA without any warnings.
Quick screen reader check
Ask a screen reader user to read through the PDF. If no-one is available to do this, use one of the following options instead.
If you’re using Windows
Non Visual Desktop Access (NVDA) is a free open source screen reader for Windows. It can be installed to the desktop or run from a portable USB drive.
With NVDA running, open the PDF and use the following commands to check the PDF:
- from the top of the PDF (with the numlock off), use Numpad 0 + Numpad 2 to read the PDF from top to bottom and check the reading order
- use the tab key to move through the PDF and check the tab order
- use the h key to move through the PDF and check the heading structure
- use the g key to move through the PDF and check for text descriptions
These commands will also work with the Jaws screen reader from Freedom Scientific.
If you’re using a Mac
All Apple Macs have VoiceOver built in. Turn VoiceOver on (or off again) using Command + F5. With VoiceOver running open the PDF and use the following commands to check the PDF:
- from the top of the PDF use a double finger down swipe, or ‘Control + Option + a’ to read the PDF from top to bottom and check the reading order
- use the tab key (repeatedly) to move through the PDF and check the tab order.
VoiceOver does not provide shortcut keys for navigating by headings or graphics.
Check a Microsoft Office document for accessibility
Once you’ve followed the steps to make your document accessible, check it before publishing.
You can pick up many accessibility issues by running some automated tests on your document. To see if Word, Excel and other Microsoft Office documents are accessible, use the Office accessibility checker.
To check your document fully meets accessibility standards, you’ll also need to do manual testing. Use the accessibility checklist created by 18F (the US government’s digital agency) to help you with your manual testing.