What does it mean to have structure in a document?
When a document is properly structured, various tags are embedded that a computer or similar device can recognize and use to generate useful accessibility tools such as a table of contents, a navigation panel/document map, and supplementary descriptions for pictures and graphics.
So how much difference can these tools make?
I buy a lot of ebooks to read on my kindle. As a reader, I do a lot of jumping back and forth within a book. What drives me crazy is that a lot of the new ebooks aren’t properly structured. So, instead of being able to use a contents page to give me an overview of what the book is about or to find a target page, or being able to access navigation shortcuts and activate a link to take me to a specific chapter or section, I’m often limited to just searching backwards and forwards on a line by line, page-by-page basis. Very irritating and time consuming.
Imagine then the potential for frustration of a similarly unstructured document, for users who already find print difficult to access, such as those with a visual impairment or dyslexia. Their use and understanding of a document be dependent on the way it’s been formatted and it’s potential for accessibility.
But it sounds like it’s hard to do.
Actually, it’s really simple – so simple you wonder why we all aren’t all doing it already. Just apply:
- heading styles to headings (it also cuts out the usual hassle involved in highlighting, setting the font size, activating bold, activating underline etc);
- lists styles to lists;
- some simple alternative text (alt text) to your images and graphics so that a screen-reader provides a description for a reader who cannot see it
- care with the labeling of your hyperlinks for the same reason.
- and if using tables, structure them for easy navigation
In case you’d like some quick and easy tips about how to use the above the following link is a useful ‘how to’: create accessible word documents
Word 10 even has a useful accessibility checker that can help test your document for you. You can check out how it works with find-and-fix-accessibility-issues-in-word-2010
A couple of other tips
Taking a bit of extra care with your document’s layout and text can also improve its accessibility. Just follow a few easy rules such as left align your text, use a font size of 12pt or bigger, line spacing of 1.15 -1.5, and lighten up on the use of underline and italics, and your document will not only be easier to read but it will also benefit from a clearer and cleaner design. http://rnib.org.uk/tips for accessible print
So give it a go
There’s no disadvantage to structuring your documents. It’s straightforward, takes minimal effort and you can even save your formatted document as an accessible PDF (for PDF conversion advice for Windows, see Katrina’s blog post Windows and accessible pdfs and for PDF conversion advice for Mac, see Carol’s blog post Mac and accessible pdfs).
You’ll be creating documents that can be more easily used by everyone, an important attribute in this day of digital documents.