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Digital Accessibility

The George Washington University is committed to making all web properties and web content accessible and usable for everyone, including people with disabilities, by employing principles of universal design and striving to conform to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1, Level AA or better. Our commitment includes electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) that are published in GW's institutional repository, GW ScholarSpace

As the author of an ETD, you share this responsibility for ensuring that your work meets accessibility standards so it is available to all interested researchers. This page will provide you with resources to walk you through the process before you submit the final version of your manuscript.

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Creating Accessible Documents

The best and most efficient way to create an accessible PDF is to start with an accessible Word (or other type) of document. Setting up your original document with accessibility in mind as you're writing will save you time later. The following tutorials provide instructions for creating accessible documents and preserving that accessibility when converting them to PDF.  

Creating Accessible PDFs from Microsoft Documents

Adobe: Creating Accessible PDFs from Microsoft Word


What Makes a Document Accessible?

The foundations of accessibility are the same from document to document, but the steps are achieved differently with different software tools. Listed below are the building blocks found in an accessible document. Please scroll down for resources on using different software tools to create an accessible ETD. 

Use (Built-In) Headings

Much like a person without a disability might quickly scan a document to find what they are interested in, a person using a screen reader should also be able to easily scan through a document. Creating proper headers that automatically identify themselves to the screen reader enable quick scanning. While a fully sighted person can identify differences in larger and bold fonts, those aren't apparent to a screen reader.

Using built-in headers on an authoring tool will form an outline of the page content for screen readers. Using the built-in header feature correctly (assigning Heading 1 to the title or main heading, Heading 2 to the first level of sub-headings, Heading 3 to the next lower level of sub-headings, and so on) enables screen reader users to understand how the page is organized and to quickly navigate to content of interest. Most screen readers have features that enable users to jump quickly between headings with a single key-stroke.

Include Alternative Text for all Images

Alternative text (often called alt text) describes an image for people who use a screen reader as well as for those with low-bandwidth connections that make loading images difficult. Alt text serves the same purpose and conveys the same essential information as the image.

When adding alt text, focus on writing brief, useful, information-rich content that gives the context of the image relevant to the overall content of the page. For a detailed discussion of the attributes of good alt text, refer to the Wikipedia Manual of Style

Particularly complex or information-rich graphics, such as charts and graphs, may require additional steps beyond adding alt text. Detailed information is available on Penn State's Charts and Accessibility page and University of Nevada, Reno's Making Graphical Data More Accessible page

Create Meaningful Text for Links

Most screen readers allow users to quickly scan the links in a document to find what they need, but this feature is useless if there are multiple links in a document with the text "click here." If a URL is used as the text, the screen reader will read every letter, which is also frustrating for the user. 

Links in a digital document should inform the user where they are going when they click it. For example, “learn how to convert documents to PDF.” Do not use the word “here” when linking to other content. This is wrong: “read our page Converting Documents to PDF here.” 

For documents that will be circulated as print material, use a URL shortening service to create a customized and meaningful link name.

Create (Built In) Lists

Similar to our discussion of headings above, users of screen reader technology don't know when they encounter a list unless the document conveys that information to the screen reader. When lists are intentionally created using the built-in lists feature of a document authoring software, such as MS Word, it communicates to the screen reader how that content is organized.

Any content that you want to organize as items in a list should be created using the list controls that are provided in your authoring software.  Most authoring tools provide one or more controls for adding unordered lists (with bullets) and ordered lists (with numbers).

Identify the Document's Language

The primary language of a document must be identified so that multi-lingual screen reader software knows to read the page in that language. You should also identify the language of any content written in a language other than the document’s primary language so that screen readers can switch languages as needed.

Most document authoring tools provide a means of identifying the document language as well the language of specific parts.

Use Table Editor for Tables, Not for Layout 

Organizing content into multiple columns solely for visual impact, when it is not meant to convey data in a table, should never be done with the Table function of an authoring software. Doing so will be very confusing to a screen reader user and make that content inaccessible to them.

When creating a table, clearly identify column and row headers. These are the important labels both a sighted person and a screen reader need to know in order to understand how the table's grid structure works. In the case of nested columns or rows with multiple headers for each cell, screen readers need to be explicitly informed as to which headers relate to which cells in the complex table.

Preserve Accessibility When Exporting

Don't let your hard work go to waste! In order for an Adobe PDF document to be accessible, it must be a “tagged” PDF, with an underlying tagged structure that includes all of the features already described on this page. Some authoring software supports this and some do not. In addition, some will strip out this information if the document is saved to PDF the wrong way. Visit the University of Washington Creating Accessible PDFs from Word webpage for details.


Checking a PDF for Accessibility

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC makes it easy to check PDF documents for accessibility. It is free for all GW students, faculty, and staff as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud

Below are three steps to check PDFs for accessibility. WebAIM provides much more detailed instructions in their tutorial for checking PDF accessibility

Ensure the PDF Isn't a Single Graphic

You can test this by checking whether or not you can easily highlight text in your PDF. Select text using a mouse, or select all text using Edit > “Select All” from the Acrobat menu.

If you can't select text, this is an image file and is not accessible. Covert your PDF to accessible text using View > Tools > “Recognize Text.”

Check for Tagging

Open the document in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC. Click on "File" in the main menu and then "Properties" in the drop down.  At the bottom of the dialog box, look for "Tagged PDF:" If it says "Tagged PDF: Yes" then you can move on to the next step. If it says, "Tagged PDF: No" the document is not accessible and needs to have tags added. 

Tags are fundamental to PDF accessibility. Detailed instructions for checking and adding tags are available on the Adobe: Examine and Repair Tag Structure webpage.

Run the Accessibility Checker

Open the document in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC. Click on "Tools" in the main menu and then "Accessibility" and "Full Check."

If "Tools" does not appear in the main menu, click the Accessibility icon (a purple stick figure inside a circle). Click "Accessibility Check" and then the "Start Checking" button. This will produce a report with prompts to fix the outstanding issues. 

Adobe: Analyze PDF files and add enhancements to make documents accessible to all users provides detailed instructions for checking all aspects of PDF accessibility. 


Recommended Resources

GW Instructional Core: Digital Accessibility

GW Libraries: Digital Accessibility Workshops 

University of Washington: Creating Accessible Documents

LinkedIn Learning: List of accessibility videos

University of Alabama: UA Technology Accessibility YouTube Channel

Penn State: Creating accessible equations from MathML, LaTeX, etc.