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Accessible documents (attachments)

Do you need to have a document online?

We try to add content and information as HTML webpages rather than documents wherever possible.

  • HTML webpages are a more accessible format than documents.
  • Web browsers have accessibility tools to adapt web content and work with assistive technology.
  • It can be hard to find information contained in documents (content not visible to search engines).
  • Broken links in documents are not picked up by automated quality assurance checks
  • It is harder to customise documents for ease of reading, and they may not work as well with assistive technology like screen readers. 

  • are intended for print (formatted to be printed, hardcopy) or for direct distribution
  • contain promotional content more suited to use in social media and other communications channels
  • partially or fully replicate the content already on the webpage. This can cause a frustrating user journey for our customers who may end up reading the same thing twice.
  • have no clear benefits to being in a document format
  • have been created in a format or programme which cannot be converted successfully to PDF (see - 'Are you using the right format for the source document?')
  • cannot be reduced to 2mb max file size when creating the PDF
  • fail automated or manual accessibility checks in the original programme or the PDF once converted
  • are already published on other (external) websites - it may be better to add as a hyperlink.

It may be better to retain the content as a document for:

  • detailed information or reports with more than 10 pages
  • resource materials eg Easy Read
  • content where the design and layout is critical to the information being presented (archive docs or maps)
  • content that does not need to be searchable by search engines

Some examples of documents that may be added as downloads alongside web content.

  • Agendas and minutes
  • Architect drawings
  • Charts or plans
  • Financial reports
  • Notices and Orders
  • Policies, terms and conditions
  • Strategies and service delivery reports
  • Feedback reports
  • Scanned documents

You must use the right programme to create your documents. Text type documents should be created in Microsoft Word.

  • Word accessibility tools and checker allow people to navigate around a text document using a structured hierarchy of headings, whereas other programmes do not do this.
  • Any text document created in PowerPoint is difficult to make accessible.
  • Microsoft Excel accessibility tools are to help people to navigate around a spreadsheet. Once converted to PDF an Excel spreadsheet is likely to be inaccessible.
  • Although PowerPoint has an accessibility checker, if you have used it to create a leaflet or poster, it will not check it based on this format. (PowerPoint is for presentations).

Please supply the source document and the web team will convert to PDF. This is so we can do advanced checks and reduce issues that can surface during conversion process to PDF.

Why we upload PDF documents

Adobe PDF is a document format that can be opened and read in a web browser. All current browsers and operating systems have PDF reading capability built in. Users browsing our site can clicks on the link to a PDF, it opens in the browser, it is a seamless experience. Word documents must first be downloaded. Due to the number of versions available, the user may have issues opening the file if they don't have the latest version of Word, or a compatible reader.

There can also be compatibility issues between versions of Word, some formatting can change, so it harder to control what the user will see. PDFs will always display as formatted, no matter where they are viewed.

PDF stands for Portable Document Format: it is designed to look the same across operating systems, programs, and browsers. Think of it like printing out your page to paper (but in a digital environment).

Not all users have Microsoft Office on their device as it’s now paid for rather than a free package, so many users may open Word documents in other software such as google docs, and there can be conversion issues between software.

We can make advanced accessibility edits within Adobe Acrobat Pro (PDF creation and editing software) for digital sharing, that we can't do in Word. The free PDF reader has accessibility features built in and the user experience is then controllable.

By saving a document as a PDF, we can shrink the size of the file to make it smaller than the Word document’s file size, when the document contains lots of images. 

It’s easier to open a PDF on a phone than a Word document.

There are some types of content that are exempt from accessibility regulations:

  • Heritage collections like scanned manuscripts
  • PDFs or other documents published before 23 September 2018, unless users need them to use a service – however we should try and make all documents that we publish long term as accessible as we can where possible
  • Maps – but we need to provide essential information in an accessible format like an address or a text description of the contents of the map
  • Third party content that’s under someone else’s control (link to it, rather than embed though)

The source/original document remains the responsibility of the author/creator. If your documents do not meet accessibility standards we could be breaking the law if publishing them on our website/s. 

See our Accessibility guidelines page for details of legislation and guidance.

Supplying documents for publishing

There are steps you need to take before your document can be published online.

Documents should be made accessible when they are created, rather than at the point of being supplied for publishing on a website. It is a lot harder to make a document accessible retrospectively.

Third party / commissioned work

If you have paid a third party to supply a PDF, you should be asking for it to be supplied as an accessible document for the web (Web accessibility is different to 'print design' accessibility/legibility).

In-house documents

You should have already done an automated accessibility check (see 'Top tips and common issues', below. You should have used the information and resources available to fix common issues before providing your content to us.

The 'Website team' will decide whether documents are accessible and suitable for publishing on our public website. There are many complex considerations to ensure compliance with 'Public Sector Accessibility legislation'. We will make manual checks before online publication.

  • Please supply the original source documents, as incorrect 'conversions to PDF' can create issues.
  • We provide a manual approval process to ensure documents are accessible
  • We can provide advice and support if we recommend further changes to your source document are required.
  • Depending on the issues we may fix and supply the original back to you.
  • If a document is supplied in an unsuitable format, we may ask you to recreate it in alternative software.
  • We do not save or store your supplied documents. 

The 'communications team' will refuse to publish supplied material that does meet current digital accessibility standards. You must allow time for us to manually check and advise on any changes, that you must then make before it can be published. 

SCULPT your document

Always run the inbuilt Microsoft accessibility checker and ensure any issues are fixed. The SCULPT process below also covers manual checks and good practice.

Microsoft Word accessibility checker is the easiest way to check your document in the first instance. If any issues are found it will tell you where they are and what you need to do to fix them. Further information and a video - using the accessibility checker (Microsoft website).

People who use a screen reader, or those who are unable to use a mouse need to be able to navigate a document using keyboard shortcuts or tabbing. Clear relevant headings also help a user to decide if they want to read the following text.

Break up your document to make it more readable. Use meaningful headings and subheadings, also use bullet points, numbered steps. Use the icons for bullet lists (Home tab). That way, a screen reader will recognise the formatting and read out the content correctly. A heading should summarise all the content underneath it. Do not add content under a heading which is unrelated to it, or screen reader users may not be able to find it?


A good heading structure is often the most important accessibility consideration in Word documents - especially as it requires human processing to set up and check.

Screen reader users can navigate Word documents by headings. For example, access a list of all headings in the document, jump from heading to heading, or even navigate by heading levels. However, this only works if Word's Heading styles are used. Unfortunately, it is a common practice to create a "heading" by highlighting the text and applying a different font, a larger font size, bold formatting, etc. using Word's Font styles. These Font styles will provide visual headings but not the document structure needed for navigation by assistive technology.

Heading levels should represent the structure of the document

  • A Heading 1 is for the cover title / first heading depending on the design of the materials, only use one H1 in your document
  • A Heading 2 should identify the core subject area or concepts.
  • A Heading 3 is a sub-section of the Heading 2. Use this to break up the information still related to previous heading 2.
  • A Heading 4 is a sub-section of the Heading 3, and so on.

You should not skip heading levels, such as using a Heading 4 after a Heading 2. Return back to Heading 1 or 2 for each new content group.

Note: Word supports Heading 1-9, but web pages and PDF files only support 6 levels of headings. For this reason, we recommend limiting yourself to Heading 1-6, although 4 headings is often more than enough.

Using heading styles

  1. Select the text you want to turn into a heading

  2. On the Home tab (In the ribbon), select a heading style (Styles selector), for example, Heading 1 or Heading 2.

Your Styles may only include heading 1 and heading 2 initially on new documents - after using heading 2, heading 3 will be added to the Styles selector for use. Don't worry about what the headings look like, you can modify the look of these headings.

Modify heading styles

Right click on each type of heading, select “Modify” and then change the font, colour, size, space after and space before.

Note: Although not as essential for accessibility, making good use of styles is a huge timesaver, and good for consistency. Consider setting up styles for various body text styles, captions, pull quotes etc. When you create a document that uses style sheets, you can modify the style and this will change all the instances of that style on your document - useful to make final changes such as a colour change.

Check document structure

  1. On the View tab (In the ribbon), select Navigation Pane (in 'show' section).
  2. You will now see a pane on the left of your screen - select 'Headings' to view your content as a Hierarchical tree of headings - this should also read logically, similar to scan reading a document.

Further information and video (headings)

Improve heading accessibility (Microsoft)

Version issues

You need to save your documents in the latest version of Microsoft Word (office 365 docx), as older compatibility versions such as '1997-2003' can create issues with accessibility checkers and conversion to PDF.

The 'save as PDF' function or 'export as PDF' function in Microsoft software, can create issues during conversion. When supplying documents please supply the original as these additional conversion issues can then be avoided.

Document title

It may look like you have a title for your document - the file name - but you also need to check the 'document title' in the document metadata and add your title here.

Click File > Info > then in the right column enter your document title.

Document language

The language must be defined - most of the time this happens automatically, but may be missing on older documents or documents you have not created yourself. The language must be defined correctly for screen readers.

Click File > More > options > Language (in pop up window) > and check the appropriate default language is set.

Further information and video (document setup)

Create accessible file names and set up document properties (Microsoft)

People who are blind, have low vision or are colour blind might miss out on the meaning conveyed by colours alone so use other distinguishing factors too such as labels, patterns or text alternatives.

Use sufficient contrast for text and background colours

The Word accessibility checker, will analyse the document and find insufficient colour contrast. The tool checks the documents for text colour against page colour, table cell backgrounds, highlight, textbox fill colour, paragraph shading, shape and SmartArt fills, headers and footers, and links.

However if you have any doubts, or using combinations of colours you haven't before, manually check your document. Double check any text that may be hard to read or distinguish from a background colour, or background artefact (such as water mark, or pattern).

  • Company logos do not need to meet WCAG 2.1 accessibility criterion ("Text that is part of a logo or brand name has no contrast requirement"). However, if you have flexibility with the logo design and can make it pass contrast guidelines, that's a great thing to do. As the logo is an image, it will require alt text though.
  • Hyperlinks should be underlined to define them (not just colour) this is also why you should not use underline for any other design/style purpose.

The WebAim website provides a colour contrast checker. You can choose the font, and background colours using the RGB codes and then see if they are accessible for normal and large size text. You can adjust the shades until you find a colour combination that is accessible. Make sure it passes WCAG AA standard.

Alternative text is a textual substitute for non-text content. When a screen reader arrives at an image or object in a document, it will read out the contents of the alt text field to the user to describe it.

The 'Accessibility Checker' will highlight where alt text has been missed, but human processing is required to identify what description is required.

Alt text function in Word documents:

You can add "Alt text" text to Pictures, Shapes, Charts, and SmartArt. To add alt text in a Word document, right click on the image or object, select 'Edit alt text' and then fill in the description field, or if 'decorative' select the check box.

Alternative text 'description' should be:

  • Accurate and informative – present the content as the image does - eg "A chart showing the team structure" would not be correct for a team structure chart. In this situation you should describe in alt text exactly what you can see in the chart, names, positions and direct reports.
  • Succinct – a few words are usually enough; and shouldn’t be longer than a short sentence or two.

Alternative text 'descriptions' should not:

  • contain duplicate information that is in the surrounding text or caption.
  • use phrases such as 'image of' or 'graphic of' - screen readers identify images and objects so the user may hear "image image of an apple.
  • be included where the image, or object is purely to enhance the design of the document. These need to be marked up as 'decorative' instead of using alt text. See below.

Decorative images and objects

Decorative objects add visual interest but aren't informative (for example, stylistic borders or lines). People using screen readers will hear these are decorative so they know they aren't missing any information. All elements on a page must have alt text set, but do not have to have an 'alt text description' if the 'decorative image' checkbox is selected.

Complex diagrams or maps

If there is too much information to be succinct, or the image information is critical to the main content, the information should be explained in the surrounding text. Avoid using images that have lots of text within them. This information should be presented as text within the document rather than in an image.

Further information and video

Improve accessibility with alt text (Microsoft)

When creating a document for publishing online, the information in our writing style guide and Plain English guidance applies to documents also. All information published online should be in Plain English and have a reading age between 9-13 years old.

Visually a user could scan a table to make associations between data in the table and their appropriate row and/or column headers. Screen reader can make these same associations if the tables are structured correctly. The tools for creating accessible tables in documents are limited, so keep tables simple, or break up complex tables into multiple tables.

Only use tables for displaying 'data' and not an alternative way of laying out information in a grid or for design reasons. Consider whether your data really needs to be in a table. Could you display it as a list or content sectioned by sub headings.

Table properties

A screen reader will announce the table format to the user, along with the number of rows and columns and the table description text. This allows the user to get an insight into the table structure and to skip the table if not relevant to them).

You must include a table description that explains briefly the content/purpose of the table. You can add a title here, but this is not supported by PDF, so we recommend you add a title before the table using an appropriate Header style.

From any cell in the table Right click select table properties go to Alt Text tab

Table header row and cells

Screen readers keep track of their location in a table by counting table cells. If a table is nested within another table or if a cell is merged or split, the screen reader loses count and can’t provide helpful information about the table after that point. Blank cells in a table could also mislead someone using a screen reader into thinking that there is nothing more in the table. Screen readers use header information to identify rows and columns and make the association to relevant data.

  • Always create a table using Word’s built-in functionality
  • Make sure each header corresponds to the data it relates to
  • Split long or complex tables into shorter ones.
  • Make sure you don’t use merged or split cells in your table
  • Avoid using colour as the only way to convey information in a table
  • Keep all the lines visible on the table for columns and rows
  • Gaps in your data must be identified with text. A screen reader will not announce punctuation, dashes or spaces aloud.

Insert table using the Insert tab on the ribbon and select size of the table.

To choose a row as a header:

  1. select the row you want to change
  2. right-click and choose Table Properties
  3. select the Row tab and check ’Repeat as header row’
  4. Optional, but recommended - uncheck, ‘Allow row to break across pages’.

It is recommended you style your table using the defined styles (Table design tab in ribbon when table selected) Tick the Header Row checkbox to allow the style to visually display the header row style.

Further information and video

Create accessible tables (Microsoft)

Automated checks are not perfect

Automated accessibility checks can help you check for issues but have limitations. You will also need to manually review your document.

Automated checks:

  • won't recognise text with a bigger font size, bold, or different colour as a heading.
  • don’t understand if the content under each heading is suitable, or where to use a heading to break up content.
  • don’t know if the alternate text is ‘meaningful’ to the user, or ‘excessive.’
  • will not know if you have incorrectly used a table to create columns for layout purposes.
  • won’t ensure you have 'meaningful' hyperlink descriptions.
  • don’t know if an image should be marked as decorative.
  • will not understand the intended use. For example, Microsoft PowerPoint is for presentations, slides and notes. Passing checks, does not mean content will be accessible as a booklet or poster.

The bullets above are for awareness, and not a comprehensive list.

Microsoft guide explaining the rules and limitations of their accessibility checker, and the distinctions it makes between Errors, Warnings, and Tips.

Once converted to PDF there are further checks to do. Adobe Acrobat Pro can often highlight further accessibility issues with PDF. These issues are sometimes better to do in the source document rather than the PDF.