Writing accessible documents

This is part of the content and publishing manual

What makes a document accessible

An accessible document means:

  • it is written in plain English and acronyms are not used
  • the reading order of the content is clear, logical and easy to follow
  • tables are used only for the purpose of setting out data and not for general page layout
  • images that convey useful information (not purely decorative images) have text alternatives (or 'Alt text')
  • it includes correctly formatted structural elements such as headings, a table of contents, links and bookmarks
  • text is formatted so that it is readable by people with vision impairments or cognitive disabilities (including dyslexia)
  • there is sufficient contrast between foreground and background colours

Styles and formatting

When starting your document make sure you're using the latest NRW accessible document template which is built into Microsoft Word. 

The default styling for all documents are:

  • write in a single language
  • body text should use the font 'Arial', size 12
  • text must be aligned to the left of the page
  • avoid using special font formatting such as bold, italics - only use for titles of publications and for Latin or scientific names for species, plants or animals
  • don't underline text that is not a link
  • don't use double spaces between sentences
  • don't use 'insert shapes', for example putting rectangles as holders for headings and sub-headings

When you are writing in Word, always use structural formatting for headings, body text, bulleted lists, numbered lists etc.

These are applied using the 'Styles and Formatting' panel. 

Set the document title

You will need to set the document title.

Do this by going to 'File', then 'Info'. On the right-hand side you should see 'Properties'. There you can edit the document properties, including the 'Title'. Change this to the document title you want. 

Making a contents page

Nearly all users will benefit from a properly formatted 'Table of Contents' providing active links to the various sections of a document. Especially in large documents.

You can create a table of contents by clicking the 'references' tab, then on 'Table of Contents'.

Create a table of contents based on the document's heading structure.

Headers and footers

Headers and footers must not contain useful information for readers. Most, if not all of the information within a header or footer is hidden from screen readers.

Logos within headers

Logos are allowed in page headers as long as the guidance in regard to graphics and images is followed. Read Add alt text to images, graphs, charts and graphics.

Page numbers within footers

Page numbers are allowed in page footers as long as the numbering is consistent throughout the entire document. Avoid switching between two or more different numbering styles within a document i.e. numbers and letters, or numbers and roman numerals, etc.

The same styling and formatting must be followed by referring to Styles and formatting.

Colour and contrast

Colour is one of the most powerful and often misused aspects of visual communication.

Just because it looks one way to you when you design your documents and web pages doesn’t mean it will look that way to your audience.

Follow these simple rules:

  • never use colour as the sole means of conveying information
  • never use colour alone to show emphasis
  • make sure your colours have strong contrasts between them

Instead you should use colour plus bold, colour plus size, colour plus patterns or shapes, or colour plus highlight to show emphasis.

These simple techniques can help improve information access for people in a wide variety of contexts and conditions:

  • colour blindness
  • low vision
  • age-related vision issues such as macular degeneration
  • monitors with incorrect or imperfect colour rendering
  • people trying to read your materials on their phone while standing in broad daylight


Assistive technology users rely on headings and subheadings to understand and navigate documents. To do this they need to be properly formatted.

To select the appropriate heading text, you need to:

Go to the 'Styles' section, and select the heading you want to use, for example 'Heading 1' or 'Heading 2'.

Headings should not be used:

  • in tables
  • in headers

Empty headings

Empty headings are headings which have no text assigned to them. They are very easy to miss when writing a document and are just as easy to amend.

There are two ways to find empty headings:

1. When hovering over a heading, a triangle symbol will appear to the start of the line. If a triangle appears when hovering over an empty line, this signifies an empty heading;

2. Use the navigation pane to remove empty heading.

You can:

  • delete the line the empty heading sits on
  • right click on the empty heading within the navigation pane and click 'Delete'
  • place the cursor on the same line as the empty heading and set the style to 'Normal'

Incorrect headings and headings order

Incorrect headings, or incorrect heading order; is when the heading level is incorrect. The correct order is: Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, etc. It is recommended to not go beyond Heading 3 or Heading 4.

The definitive way to determine if the heading order is incorrect is, whilst the cursor has the heading text selected, within the Home tab under the 'styles' column; the assigned style will show as highlighted/selected.


Pictures should only be included if absolutely necessary.

If you need to include any pictures they should be:

  • added as you are writing the text - don’t add the pictures to the document once you have finished writing
  • formatted so that it’s in line with text

This will make sure screen readers read them in their logical order.

If you want to add a figure, it is recommended to place these above or before your graphics/images.

You will also need to add alt text.

You should not group pictures together because this is not accessible.

Layered images

If you use several images to represent a whole it may look like one image to you, but screen readers will read each image separately. This may not work for the reader since what you wanted to do was convey just one idea.  

You will need to group the images.

You can take a snip of the image, pasting it to your document as an image and adding alt text. Or you can:

  • press and hold Shift and then click each image
  • Select 'Format' > 'Group' > 'Group'
  • Add alt text to the grouped image

Charts and graphs

Before using charts and graphs, you need to work out whether what you're trying to convey is best done with text, or a chart or graph supported by text. If you can convey the information in a clear succinct way with text, then you probably do not need a diagram.

Any charts and graphs need to be clear and easy to understand. Use high-contrast colours, or monochrome (shades of one colour). Consider using shaped data points or hatching for bars. Using techniques with black and white will mean people won’t need to use coloured toners. You can read further recommended advice on the Microsoft 'Change the shape fill, outline, or effects of chart elements' page

If you do need to include any charts or graphs etc, it is essential to provide comprehensive alt text that fully conveys all of the information contained within or conveyed by the image.

Always set your chart or graph inline. Go to 'Layout', choose 'Wrap Text' then 'Inline'.

If you want to add a key, it is recommended to place these above or before your charts and graphs.

Add alt text to images, graphs, charts and graphics

Alternative text or 'alt text' should be added to images, graphs, charts and graphics. This means screen readers can read the text and describe the image to the users who can’t see the image.

You do not need to include alt text for images and graphics that are purely decorative. In this case tick the box 'marked as decorative'.

The alt text should not be a description of the image or graphic. Instead, you should describe what the image or graphic is telling the reader. What information do you want the reader to gain from looking at the image?

Write in simple, precise language, and keep the explanation brief. Typically, no more than a few words are necessary.

If the alt text is longer than 16 words it should be included in the text of the document.

To add alternative text to your document:

  • either select an image and press the 'Alt Text' button in the Format ribbon tab (you will have to add this feature if it’s not already available)
  • or right-click an image and select 'Edit Alt Text'


If you’ve not used alt text before, you can also select 'Generate a description for me' to have Microsoft's cloud-powered intelligent services create a description for you. This takes a moment, after which you see the result in the text entry field. Remember to delete any comments Word added there, for example, "Description generated with high confidence."

Links are useful navigational aids. 

Sighted users visually scan pages for links to help them find what they're looking for. People using screen readers can pull up a list of all the links on a page.

Links should take people to the related landing page instead of a specific document. This helps avoid frustrating broken links.

If you have no other option but to link directly to a PDF, always make sure your link text tells people they are going to download something and tell them how big it is.

The links must explain to the user what it contains. Using 'read more' or 'click here' doesn’t make sense to the user. It can also be very annoying for screen reader users to listen to a list of the words "to read more”.

You should embed the link within your text. Do not cut and paste the full text of a link into a document like this:


Highlight the text you want to make into a link and use insert – link in the ribbon. It should look like this:

Apply to change an existing abstraction or impoundment licence

This describes where the link leads. And screen reading users won’t have to listen while their screen reader reads every single character of a URL.

You will improve the experience of all your readers when you take care to embed text that clearly explains what information your readers will find when they click on a hyperlink. 'Change an existing abstraction licence' is more descriptive than simply 'abstraction licence'. Never make the user click a link just to find out where it goes.

If you are writing a document that could be printed out, you must spell out the web address in round brackets after the hyperlink. You don't need to include the 'http://'.

Further examples:

Register online for our flood warnings service (naturalresources.wales/flooding/sign-up-to-receive-flood-warnings).

Don't forget you can keep up to date with our flood alerts on Twitter (twitter.com/natreswales).


Tables should only be used to set out data and not for general page layout.

It is important to make sure all tables are accessible to those using screen readers. This helps screen readers to make sense of the data contained in a table.

If you want to add a key, it is recommended to place these above or before your tables.

There are multiple parts to the process of making a table accessible:

  • make sure you include a header row and use column headings
  • column headings should clearly describe the information underneath
  • keep the table simple - avoid complex tables that include more than one level of heading
  • break complex tables into smaller tables
  • ensure there are no blank cells or any cells containing abbreviations without a legend/key present
  • avoid tables that break across pages - if you can’t then ensure that column headings repeat at the top of each page (select 'Table', then 'Table Properties' and under the 'Rows' tab check 'Repeat as header row at the top of each page')
  • never allow rows to break across pages - select 'Table', 'Table Properties', and under the 'Rows' tab, uncheck 'Allow Row To Break Across Pages' option for that row

Creating a header row for your table

To create a header row for your table you need to:

  • select the entire header row of your table
  • right-click in the table, and then click 'Table Properties'
  • in the 'Table Properties' dialog box, click the 'Row' tab
  • in the 'Options' group, make sure 'Repeat as header row at the top of each page' is checked
  • uncheck the box next to 'Allow row to break across pages'
  • click 'OK' to accept the changes

Table titles and keys

Table titles are recommended to exist outside of the table it represents. This is so that the first row within the table can be properly assigned as the column and row headings.

Figure 1. Bad example of table title placement

Table Title
Column 1 Column 2 Column 3

Figure 2. Good example of a table title placement:

Table Title

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3
Row 1    
Row 2    
Row 3    

Table design

The very first row and/or column are allocated as the table headings. These headings define the information within the table body. Use the table style options to ensure the screen reader can read the table properly. 

To set the table style options properly:

  • Ensure the desired table is selected
  • Head to Design, under Table Tools; in the ribbon at the top of the document
  • Under Table Style Options, tick the desired boxes:
    • 'Header Row' will style the very first row

    • 'First Column' will style the very first column

    • 'Total Row' will style the very last row 
    • 'Last Column' will style the very last column 

Table layout

To ensure a table is read properly, they must be wrapped/aligned with the text and must fit to the screen width.
To wrap the table in line with the text:

  • ensure the table is selected
  • head to the 'Layout' tab, under 'Table Tools'; in the ribbon at the top of the page
  • click 'Properties', under 'Table'
  • in the tab labelled 'Table', select 'None' for Text wrapping

Or you can:

  • right-click on the table
  • select 'Table Properties'
  • in the tab labelled 'Table', select 'None' for Text wrapping

To fit the table to the width of the screen:

  • ensure the table is selected
  • head to the 'Layout' tab, under 'Table Tools'
  • in the ribbon at the top of the page click 'AutoFit', select 'AutoFit Window'

Merged cells

We do not use merged cells. Merged cells are multiple cells, within a row or column; which have been merged into a single cell.


There are two types of lists available: Bullet lists, and numbered lists.

Linked or connected lists

Linked (or connected) listing is a common issue when lists throughout the page, commonly separated by headings; which are linked.

To determine if list items are linked, click an item within the list. All related list items will be highlighted in grey.

To fix the linked lists issue with numbered lists:

  • select the first item within the list
  • click 'Restart at 1'


  • select the entire list section you wish to reset
  • click on the 'Numbered list' icon
  • select the desired item under 'Numbering Library' not 'Recently Used Number Formats'

To fix the linked lists issue with bullet lists:

  • Select the first item within the list
  • Click 'Separate List'


  • select the entire list section you wish to reset
  • click on the 'Bullet list' icon
  • select the desired item under 'Bullet Library' not 'Recently Used Bullets'

Text boxes

You should not use text boxes or group images or graphics together, as they are not accessible.

Scanned documents

You should not include any scanned documents as they tend to be saved as images.

If you do scan any documents, you need to ensure that they are in a word file and not an image file. You will also need to include alt text. 


Select 'Layout', then 'Columns' to lay out text in columns.

Never use tables to simulate multicolumn text.

White space

To create a new paragraph, press the Return key once and once only. This means you shouldn’t add more than two spaces between paragraphs.

Similarly, the Tab key or the space bar should never be used to position copy on a page. Doing so is liable to render your copy as gobbledygook when read with a screen reader or when converted to plain text format.

If you finish your text part way down the page and want to move on to the next page, don’t use the 'Return' key or 'Tab' key to move down the page. It makes a series of empty boxes on the page which you can’t see but the screen reader will keep reading them out as ‘EMPTY’. Make a Page Break at the end of your text instead.

Paragraph marks

Follow the steps below to show or hide the layout markers. Alternatively, you may also use the shortcut 'Alt, H, 8'

  1. Make sure you are in the 'Home' tab of the document

  2. In the column labelled 'Paragraph', click the button with the ¶ symbol.

Inserting a page break

To insert a page break:

  • head to the 'Insert' tab in the ribbon at the top of the document
  • click 'Page break' or use the keyboard shortcut 'Alt, N, B'


  • head to the 'Layout' tab in the ribbon at the top of the document
  • click 'Breaks'
  • choose 'Page' or use the keyboard shortcut 'Alt, P, B, P'

Section breaks

Section breaks are similar to page breaks where they allow the separation of the desired information. Use a section break if you want to format the page layout separate to the rest of the document.


Footnotes should not be used.

Repairing PDFs so that footnotes appear in the right place in the reading order is essential for the content to make sense to a screen reader user. However, it is very time consuming to do.

Footnotes work even less well on mobile phone screens than they do on PCs, for obvious reasons.

You should also remove any links from the footnotes.

Check your document is accessible

In this section you will find some helpful tools to help check that your document is accessible.

Built-in accessibility checker

Although not entirely necessary, it could be useful for any. Follow the steps below to show or hide the built-in accessibility checker. Alternatively, you may also use the shortcut 'Alt, R, A, 1'

  1. Make sure you are in the 'Review' tab of the document

  2. In the column 'Accessibility', click the button labelled 'Check Accessibility'

Follow the steps below to show or hide the navigation page. Alternatively, you may also use the shortcut 'Alt, W, K'

  1. Make sure you are in the 'View' tab of the document

  2. In the column labelled 'Show', tick the box labelled 'Navigation Pane'

  3. The navigation pane should appear

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