Annex: Making documents more accessible

From: Employment and Social Development Canada

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Note: this annex accompanies the guidance on making the following documents available in certain alternate formats:

This annex includes links to Government of Canada and other resources that provide tips and information relating to accessibility. By providing links, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) is pointing to possibly helpful information, but not endorsing it. Consult the terms and conditions for more about links to non-Government of Canada resources.


A few basic steps can make your documents more accessible from the start. Even simple formatting measures like font size, headings and image descriptions can make almost any document more accessible. Creating an accessible document from the start also helps with lower the volume of requests for alternate formats.

You can also use the tools included with most word processing software to check the accessibility of your document. Some of these tools will even suggest changes to improve accessibility.

This annex offers tips and recommendations for removing common accessibility barriers in your documents. It also includes links to some resources you may find helpful. You can also consult:

Language and writing

No matter what document you are creating, there are language and writing guidelines that can make it more accessible.

  • Use simple, clear, and concise language
    • Keep sentences short
    • Use an active voice instead of a passive voice when this is possible, and when it does not make your sentence more difficult to understand
    • Use common words and terms that most people are likely to understand
    • Use technical language or jargon only when necessary
    • Consult the guidance on simple, clear, and concise language for more tips and recommendations

Text and document format

Many popular word processing software and publishing applications allow you to format documents to make them more accessible.

  • Use a font size of 12 points or larger to ensure visibility
  • Use fonts that are sans serif (for example, Helvetica, Calibri, Arial, Geneva, or Verdana)
    • Serifs are small decorative elements, like hooks or curls, that can make some fonts more difficult to read
      • Times New Roman and Garamond are examples of 2 popular fonts that use serifs and should not be used
  • Use plain text whenever possible
    • Words in italics can be difficult for some people to read
    • Words in all capital letters can also be difficult to read, especially to those using assistive devices like screen readers
    • Words in all capital letters can also be difficult to read for people who rely on word shape to read
    • Abbreviations and acronyms can be confusing or unclear, especially if the document includes a lot of them
  • Use bold text sparingly, and only for emphasis as bold text will not be recognized by a screen reader
  • Align text to the left
    • Centred text, especially in long sections, can be difficult for some people to read
    • Justified text can also be difficult to read, especially for people with cognitive disabilities or if people use assistive devices like screen readers
  • Use the program’s built-in spacing features to make space between sentences and paragraphs
    • Spacing that you create by skipping lines (such as by pressing the “enter” key multiple times) may be confusing for people who use screen readers
  • Make sure there is strong contrast between text colour and background colour
  • Do not rely only on colour (such as text in red), emphasis (such as text in bold) or asterisk to indicate important information
    • This may not be accessible to readers who are colour-blind or who use screen readers
    • It also may not be accessible to some readers with learning, reading, or memory disabilities
    • Hyperlinks are an important exception
      • They can be underlined, and should appear in a different colour of text when possible

    Instead, you may use key words, such as ‘’important information’’, or a sentence such as ‘’the following information is important’’, to indicate to the readers the information is important

  • Update your document’s file properties to reflect its contents, making them more accessible to users of assistive devices like screen readers
    • Make sure that the “Title” field includes the document’s title
    • Make sure your document’s language setting (such as French or English) is correct


Formatting your document’s headings properly will make your document more accessible. People who use screen readers or other assistive devices use headings to navigate documents.

Do not create a heading only by highlighting the text. Do not use a different font, colour, or emphasis (such as bold, italic, or underlining) to create a heading either. These headings may look distinct, but screen readers or some persons with disabilities may not recognize them.

Use the “Heading” style function included in most word processing software instead. Heading levels should represent the structure of the document.

  • A heading 1 is the title or main content heading of the document
    • A document should usually have only one heading in the Heading 1 style
  • A heading 2 is a major section heading
  • A heading 3 is a subsection of heading 2
  • A heading 4 is a subsection of heading 3, and so on

Do not skip headings levels (for example, using heading 4 after a heading 2, with no heading 3 in between). This can pose problems for screen reader users.

Alternative text for images and other visual elements

Images can be a good way to make information more accessible to some persons with disabilities. Diagrams, maps, and charts can help communicate complex information in ways that are easier to understand.

At the same time, images may be hard to understand for some persons with disabilities. For example, persons with low vision may magnify documents or web pages. Images can appear pixelated and become hard to understand when magnified.

You should use images only to enhance information that is already available in the text, not to replace it. If you include images, also include descriptions of the images in captions or alternative text (also known as alt text). This will allow people who use screen readers and other assistive technology to know what the images contain.

There are 2 ways to include descriptive text for your document’s images:

  • use the “alt text” function in your word processing software
    • you can typically add alt text to visual elements like pictures, shapes, charts, SmartArt, Icons and 3D models
  • provide descriptive text near the image in the document itself
    • some word processing software includes a “caption” feature that will allow you to connect a description to the image
    • you could also include a written description just before or just after the image

Keep the following tips in mind when preparing descriptive text for images:

  • describe the content and function of the image accurately
  • be simple, clear, and concise
  • there is no need for descriptive phrases (such as “an image of…” or “a graphic of…”), as screen-reading software can already identify images
  • Images containing text should comply with the colour contrast guidance presented in the ‘Text and Document Format’ section as described above


Tables can be a good way to present a large amount of data. However, they may need additional formatting to be accessible. While the most accessible approach is to avoid tables altogether, this may not always be possible.

If a table is necessary, keep the following tips and recommendations in mind:

  • use the “Table” function in your word processing software to build the table
  • include proper headers
  • avoid common barriers like:
    • merged cells
    • empty cells
    • rotated text direction
    • poor colour contrast between text and cell backgrounds
  • remember that people who use screen readers or other assistive technology may navigate the table by pressing the “tab” key
    • test navigation by pressing the “tab” key multiple times to check the reading order in your table


Hyperlinks to other web pages or locations also often need additional formatting to be accessible. When adding hyperlinks to your document:

  • use underlining or a different font colour to distinguish hyperlinked text from plain text
    • this is one of the few times you should use underlining or font colour to distinguish one piece of text from another
  • remember that people who use screen readers may navigate the document by moving between elements, including hyperlinks:
    • use descriptive text explaining to the reader where the link will take them, for example:
      • write: “Read the Accessible Canada Act to learn more about how federally regulated entities must identify, remove, and prevent barriers” (descriptive text)
      • instead of writing: “Click here to learn more about barriers” (not descriptive text)
  • do not copy and paste an URL into a document
    • the URL should be embedded behind descriptive text, for example:
      • write: “the Accessible Canada Regulations require that federally regulated entities prepare and publish accessibility plans” (descriptive text with embedded URL)
      • instead of writing: “The Accessible Canada Regulations require that federally regulated entities prepare and publish accessibility plans. Read more at:” (not descriptive with full URL link)

Indented lists

Use the bullet list or number list functions in your word processing software to create indented lists. Do not use the “tab” key to indent content in lists. Screen readers cannot navigate indented lists using the tab function. You should also ensure that bullet list entries are simple, clear, and concise.

Watermarks or background images

Avoid watermarks or background images in documents. They can reduce the contrast between text and background. This can make the document more difficult to read.

Table of contents

Include a table of contents for longer documents with multiple sections or chapters. This can help readers navigate the document. If possible, use your word processing software to create a table of contents automatically. An automatic table will include your properly formatted headings. It can also allow each table entry to serve as a hyperlink to that section of the document.

Accessibility checking tools

Once you have completed your document, some word processing software allows you to check its accessibility. However, keep in mind that using these tools does not ensure a fully accessible document. You will need to review your document for a more complete level of accessibility.

The Accessibility Checker function in Microsoft Office programs is an example. This feature identifies accessibility issues and suggests changes. Clicking on an item in the checker’s results highlights that item in the document. It also describes the problem and suggests a repair. However, it does not check for such things as colour contrast, text styling, logical order or skip-level headings.

Accessible presentation slides

Digital presentation slide decks are a common way to present information. They may also present barriers for some people. Many of the tips and recommendations for making text documents more accessible also apply to presentation slides. Programs like Microsoft PowerPoint and Google Slides also include features to support accessibility.

To create more accessible slide decks, keep the following principles in mind:

  • start with the design theme for your presentation
    • choose from the themes included with your software program; they are usually designed to be accessible
    • choose a theme with a strong colour contrast between the text and background
    • avoid distracting visuals, such as animations and slide transitions
  • use a sans-serif font large enough to be read easily from a distance (at least 18 point)
  • use built-in spacing features
    • do not press the “enter” or “tab” keys multiple times to skip lines; screen readers cannot navigate such features
  • make sure each slide has a short, unique title
  • do not fill slides with too much information
    • use bullet points rather than paragraphs
    • aim for a maximum of 3 to 7 bullet points per slide
    • format them using the built-in bullet or number function
  • make sure the reading order in your document makes sense and is correct
    • test the reading order pressing the “tab” key repeatedly
  • consider writing your content in a word processing program first, and then pasting each section into your slides
  • ensure any images in your slides include captions or alt-text descriptions

Links and resources

Explore more tips, tools, and information on creating accessible documents through the links below.

Government of Canada resources

Other resources

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