Global Accessibility Awareness Day Post Two: Accessibility is a Matter of Style

Global Accessibility Awareness Day Post Two: Accessibility is a Matter of Style

Without some simple but thoughtful styling, your document is little more than a disorganized mess of text. The careful application of headings, paragraphs, tables, and lists provides your document with much needed structure, so that it can be easily reviewed and understood.


Headings are one of the most powerful and simple tools in a document creator’s arsenal.  Headings are used to provide structure in a document.  They are visually distinct from body text, but are also semantically unique, so that blind users utilizing screen access information can jump between them in order to move to the appropriate section of a document just as quickly and easily as a sighted user can skim through it. Headings can be created in Word, PDF, HTML and other documents and make it easier for all users to find relevant content in a long or complex document. Here are a few ground rules:

  • Any given document should contain only one heading level 1.
    • The heading level 1 is the main idea of your document, or the main content of your webpage.
    • Other heading levels can be used as much as makes sense.
  • Headings should be hierarchical, for instance a heading level 1 should always come before a heading level 2, and level 2 before level 3.
  • If headings are laid out hierarchically they can be used to create a table of contents or outline for the document you are presenting.
  • Headings should be relatively short, because short headings are easier to navigate with screen access software, and keep documents looking and feeling less cluttered for other readers.
  • There are six levels of headings in PDF documents and on the internet. In Word, up to nine heading levels are available, but in order to ease transition between document formats, it is beneficial to limit the number of heading levels used to six.

Accessible Table Creation

Tables are critical for conveying certain types of information. They make it much easier to make sense of data, and to draw conclusions from large amounts of information. Therefore, it is critical to ensure that tables are produced in such a way that they can be read and manipulated with screen access software.  The following tips should help to guide you in building tables that everyone can use.

  • Avoid creating pseudo tables, which are only visually presented as tables, and not semantically created as tables in the software package you are using. For instance, some people will use tab stops to create “tables” in Word, but they cannot be understood as tables by screen access users as they are really just text so far as the software is concerned. These pseudo tables are also far less flexible for designers, and more difficult to update and change than if the creator of the document used the table creation command in Word.
  • Use as much structural markup as is available in your chosen design tool. For example, in HTML or PDF, a creator can specify header rows and columns as well as a brief summary of the purpose of any given table.  These elements should all be used to assist users reading the table.  
  • It’s important to avoid having empty header cells. Since header cells provide context for users, of screen access software, empty cells will create confusion when reviewing a data table.
  • Layout tables, tables intended to create a visual appearance, and not provide information in a tabular form, are especially difficult to make useful to all users. They make it harder to resize information, can confuse reading order for screen access users, and can make it much harder for mobile device users to find information on a page or document that will make sense. Avoid them wherever possible.
  • Wherever possible, attempt to make flat tables. Tables with merged cells and other complex layouts are more likely to confuse users,sighted and blind. Even if a cell contains “duplicate” information it is easier to read if the table is laid out as a proper grid.  


Other strategies can also be used to give a document structure including:

  • Ordered (or numbered) and unordered (bulleted lists)
  • Proper tables with a brief summary and row and column headers.
  • Ensuring that columns, text boxes, asides, and other content are created using a method that allows for proper reading order of the document to be maintained when it is read with a screen access package.