Making text accessible

When we talk about accessible text, we mean both the text on a webpage and the text within any documents (eg PDF or Word files) that are available from a website. (See Making Word files accessible and Making PDFs accessible for more information on including documents on websites.)

Accessible text has several aspects; this section covers:


Accessibility takes into account the reading and comprehension abilities of your audience. Your audience can range from the general public (which may include groups with limited literacy) to world experts in a particular field. See Making text readable for information on connecting with your audience and making content readable, and Clear and appropriate language for guidance on creating clear and understandable text.

Ensuring that your text is understandable by people with limited reading skills is essential for some types of text (eg a patient consent form to participate in a clinical trial), but less critical for others (eg a technical report that is intended only for people in a highly specialised field).

Use your judgment about what is appropriate for your content and your audience. For example, if a technical report will also be available to the general public, consider including plain-English definitions of technical terms. You can also explain unusual words, idioms, abbreviations and pronunciations (eg in a glossary).

When text requires reading ability that is more advanced than a lower secondary education level, provide supplementary content or a version that does not require advanced reading ability. This is helpful for content intended for a broad audience, including the general public.

Avoid instructions that include directions, colours, sizes or shapes (eg the menu on the leftclick the round buttonhighlighted in red). Rewrite the instruction so that people using assistive technologies can perceive this information.

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Tagging and headings

For a screen reader to successfully read a piece of text, all the elements must be appropriately ‘tagged’ with a specific style – for example, Paragraph <P>, Heading 1 <H1>, Heading 2 <H2>, List Item <LI>, Image <Figure> or Table Data <TD>. Tagging defines the reading order, providing a logical structure that governs how the content is presented through assistive technology.

Tagging is done using paragraph styles (see Styles and templates for more information on how to set up and use styles). Content is usually created in Microsoft Word before being converted to HTML or transferred to a graphic design program to generate a designed PDF. Many built-in paragraph styles in Microsoft Word transfer directly to other software. These include:

  • Heading 1 – used for section or chapter names

  • Headings 2–5 – used for subsections

  • Normal – used for the main body text.

Tagging headings correctly is key to making your content accessible. To ensure that your headings are accessible:

  • use a logical heading order – see Using headings wisely

  • do not make headings too long – they should be no longer than 1 line

  • make headings information-rich – do not make them too abstract or cryptic; make sure the user has enough information to choose whether they want to read the section

  • use enough headings – screen readers use headings as pointers for the reader to move through the text, and more headings allow the reader to accurately identify where they want to be in the document

  • do not skip heading levels (eg Heading 2 must be followed by Heading 3 and should not skip straight to Heading 4); check this in Outline View in Word.

Reminder. Applying paragraph styles for headings, rather than manually applying bold, italics and so on, is important for accessibility.

Using paragraph styles will also help you to control the amount of space before and after each paragraph, so you are less likely to insert blank lines in your document to create space. Blank lines cause accessibility problems because they often signal to screen readers that there is no more content. For the same reason, use page breaks instead of multiple blank lines when starting a new page.

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Tricky words

Some screen readers may have difficulty with words that have entered English from a different language, or with homographs (words that are spelled the same and pronounced differently).

English has many words and terms drawn from other languages. Many of these have accents (also called diacritical marks) to indicate their pronunciation. Using the accents can help the screen reader to read the word correctly, especially when the word might be confused with another English word pronounced differently (see Accented characters for more information on using accents in English). The words should be tagged in Word as the original language so that they are pronounced correctly:

  • jalapeño
  • née
  • pâté
  • exposé vs expose
  • resumé vs resume

Screen readers vary in how well they deal with accents, and some can work out homographs correctly from context. However, this depends on the screen reader and the particular word – less common words may be confused by some screen readers:

Ali will read the book vs Jonas read the newspaper

Tom will refuse to eat the zucchini vs We threw out the soiled refuse

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The purpose of each hyperlink should be recognisable from the text alone. This is because assistive technologies allow users to tab through the links on a page or list them to get a feel for the content. The purpose of the link must therefore be clear when it is taken out of its immediate context.

Link meaningful words within the text; do not just provide the URL. Do not include phrases such as read more or click here as link text. Instead, use a few words to describe the target of the link – for example, the title of the webpage it navigates to or the heading it anchors to within the document. As for other aspects of writing for the web, links should start with a keyword or at least include one. You may need to rewrite a sentence so the link text flows better:

Writing descriptive links can be difficult, so click here to learn more.
Writing descriptive links can be difficult. Learn more on our page on writing accessible link text.

Read more about climate change.
Read more about climate change.

Instructions on how to use the software are available here.
Instructions on how to use the software are available online.

Links should be visually distinct from other text. The accepted convention is to make the text blue and underlined (this usually happens automatically in Word when the Hyperlink style is applied).

If the link in a webpage will download a file or open another program on the user’s device, include this information in the link by indicating the file type and size (eg Making content accessible online []). This allows users to decide whether they want to download a file of that size or continue browsing.

If you want to put online a Word or PDF file that contains hyperlinks, think about whether users are likely to print the document. If so, you may want to include the actual URLs as well as the hyperlinks. If you do need to provide a URL in a document:

  • do not put it within the body text of a document, add a footnote or endnote instead

  • consider whether you need to shorten the URL by using a service such as Tiny URL.

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Text design

Choose legible fonts. Sans serif fonts (eg Helvetica, Arial, Verdana) are often considered to be easier to read than serif fonts on computer screens and mobiles, especially in longer stretches of text. However, serif fonts that have been designed for onscreen use (eg Georgia, Merriweather) may be better in low-light conditions and on low-resolution screens. Familiarity of the user with the font style also plays a large role in how legible it is.

Do not use images of text rather than text unless essential. Making images accessible requires more effort, and reading images requires more effort from assistive technologies. If you want to show text, present it as text.

Do not use repeated blank characters (eg spaces, line breaks, paragraph breaks). When a screen reader identifies blank characters, this is often a signal to the reader that the information has ended in that location.

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