Structure and Description: Five Ways to Create More Accessible Articles and Papers

Library Resources | David Read| May 29, 2018

default image

Looking for ways to create accessible articles and papers for students who utilize assistive technologies? EBSCO’s Senior Analyst, Content Management, David Read, provides five tips to creating accessible content in our monthly accessibility series.

Whether you're writing an article or a paper, or giving advice to students or faculty, these five tips will help create content that users of screen readers and other assistive technologies (AT) can more easily access, navigate, understand and enjoy. Chances are that you and your faculty and students are using Microsoft (MS) Word to write your paper or article, so these tips are shown using examples in MS Word 2016. These best practices are also applicable for the creation of accessible web content in HTML.

First, I want to pass along an exercise that was shared with me that does a great job illustrating the experience of using a screen reader to a non-user. The exercise is called “A Tale of Two Rooms: Understanding Screen Reader Navigation.” The first part of the exercise asks a sighted participant to imagine opening the door of a conference room and taking in the contents by scanning the room and seeing the type of things that one would expect: a conference table, chairs, people, windows, counters with coffee pots, etc.

The second part of the exercise asks the participant to open that door and imagine that the lights in the room are off. The participant is then told that they have a small flashlight that they can use to scan the objects in the room one at a time. This is what it is like for the users of AT navigating an article, paper or a web page. This why it’s so important to create great structure and description within our content, so the AT user can more better navigate our content equivalent of a dark room, using only a small flashlight.
 

Five Things You Can Do to Create More Accessible Articles and Papers

1. Hierarchal Headings

The use of a hierarchal headings structure is probably the easiest and most important thing you can to make you content more accessible. Screen readers and other assistive technologies utilize hierarchal heading structures to allow the user to easily move from one heading to another and for the user to infer the main points the author of the content was trying to convey.

Example of use of Heading level 1 Microsoft Word

Example of NVDA screen reader Elements List view of three tiers of hierarchal headings
 

2. Descriptive Text for Graphics and Links

  • Alternative (ALT) text for Graphics: ALT text provides a textual alternative to non-text content such as images or graphical charts. Alt text can be presented in two ways.
    • Within the alt attribute of the element (Rt. click on graphic in MS Word, select “edit Alt text”)
    • Within the context or surroundings of the image itself
    • Note: Choose one option or another — presenting both will be read twice by the screen reader, creating a repetitive (and frustrating) experience for the screen reader user.

Example of alt text being added to an image of NVDA Headings Elements List using the “Edit Alt Text” function of Microsoft Word             

Example of alt text being added to an image of NVDA Headings Elements List using the “Edit Alt Text” function of Microsoft Word

  • Descriptive link text provides users with the proper context of where clicking the link will take them. Avoid phrases like “more” or “click here” and instead use descriptive text to allow for links to makes sense out of context as assistive technologies can group links together in lists allow for easy navigation.

Example of NVDA screen reader Elements List view of the same URL described three different ways. The option labeled “alt text best practices in HTML” is circled as the preferred choice over “click here” and the URL displayed in http format.

Example of NVDA screen reader Elements List view of the same URL described three different ways. The option labeled “alt text best practices in HTML” is circled as the preferred choice over “click here” and the URL displayed in http format.

3. Lists

Ordered and unordered list are another way to provide structure to a document that allows for users of ATs to more easily navigate content. In MS Word, this structure can be accomplished using bullets (unordered list) and numbering (ordered list).

A numbered list of the first five Bruce Springsteen albums using the numbering option in MS Word 2016

A numbered list of the first five Bruce Springsteen albums using the numbering option in MS Word 2016
 

4. Well-formed Data Tables

Tables can be exceptionally challenging for the users of assistive technologies. Here are a few things that can be done to make tables easier to understand and navigate. The options listed below can be accessed by right clicking on the table MS Word 2016 and selecting “Table Properties”.

  • Use a Simple Table Structure: The most important thing you can do to make your tables accessible is to keep them simple. Split complex tables into multiple tables for ease of understanding for all users.
  • Table Headers: Table headers are read to the user of assistive technologies along with the cell data, allowing the user to make programmatic associations between elements within the table.

A simple table with the header row declared using MS Word Table Properties
A simple table with the header row declared using MS Word Table Properties

  • Table Captions: Table captions are read to assistive technology users and are useful when the user is in table mode, which allows for easy navigation from table to table within a document.

Example of a table caption via the “insert caption” option in MS Word 2016

Example of a table caption via the “insert caption” option in MS Word 2016
 

  • Table Description: Including a quality description that summarizes a table is very valuable to users of assistive technologies. Complex tables, even with the best intentions made to tag for structure, can be almost impossible to understand for non-sighted uses. Note: best practice is to break your complex tables into separate tables for ease of understanding for all users.

Example of a table description via the “Alt Text” tab in “Table Properties” in MS Word 2016

Example of a table description via the “Alt Text” tab in “Table Properties” in MS Word 2016

5. Export to PDF Correctly

Many MS Word docs end up as PDFs. Without the proper export configuration, the conversion from Word to PDF can strip important structural and descriptive elements important for accessibility. Note: choosing the “Print to PDF” option in Word, will strip accessibility structure tags.

“Save As PDF” options in Microsoft Word 2016 indicating “Document structure tags for accessibility” box has been checked.
“Save As PDF” options in Microsoft Word 2016 indicating “Document structure tags for accessibility” box has been checked.
 

Continue the Conversation

These best practices outline starting points to create more accessible articles and papers. There is more we can and should be do to make electronic content accessible. Explore the resources below and hear more thoughts on improving the accessible content workflow from EBSCO’s Jill Power, Senior Product Manager of User Experience and Platform, and her co-panelists by tuning into the ALCTS Virtual ALA Pre-conference on June 5th-June 6th


More Resources for Creating Accessible Content

image description
David Read
Senior Analyst, Content Management, EBSCO Information Services

David Read has more than 15 years of experience in records, archives and library services. At EBSCO, while leading and contributing to continuous improvement projects, he is an advocate for accessibility, focused on working with internal and external stakeholders to find innovative and efficient ways to create accessible journal and database content.

Thanks for your comment!

Your comment will be reviewed by a moderator for approval.


Other EBSCO Sites +