Accessibility and Your Thesis
To mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day on Thursday 19 May 2022, we wanted to look at the accessibility of theses. At the University of Melbourne, PDFs of final theses are usually made open access in the University’s Minerva Access repository. In this post, Dr Zachary Kendal, Scholarly Communications Consultant, shares some advice for making thesis documents more accessible.
Many aspects of thesis writing can be daunting, but one is often overlooked: the complexity of authoring a long document. Something too often overlooked in the production of a thesis document is its accessibility.
An accessible document is one that can be navigated and read by everyone, including individuals with vision impairments and other disabilities. Since the PDF of your final thesis will typically be a public document, it’s important to make it as accessible as possible. An accessible document will also be easier to for search engines to find and index, making your work more discoverable.
So, if you haven’t already, now would be a good time to think about how to improve the accessibility of your thesis. Below are some tips for improving the accessibility of your thesis, with links to further guidance and accessibility tools.
Headings and other styles
When creating chapter headings, section headings, and sub-headings, use your document editor’s in-built styles. Instead of selecting text and changing font, font size, and formatting, select the appropriate heading level from the “Styles” on offer.
It’s easy to change these pre-set styles, if you’d like to use different fonts or formats, and it will help keep your document consistent.
Be sure to use heading levels appropriately and consistently. Your chapter heading, for example, might be Heading 1; chapter sections would then be Heading 2; sub-sections within those would be Heading 3. A quick way to check if your headings levels are correct in Word is by going to the “View” ribbon and clicking “Outline”.
There are also separate styles to maintain consistent formatting of normal text, footnotes and endnotes, captions, hyperlinks, and more. Styles can be customised with ease, in turn updating all text of that style.
For instruction on how to use heading styles in Word, see the Microsoft Support video: Improve heading accessibility.
Margins, indents, spacing, and lists
It’s always best to change margins and indents using “Paragraph” settings, or by using the margin indicators on your word processor’s rulers.
It’s important that you don’t rely on manually adding spaces or tabs to indent text or simulate margins – these can interfere with screen readers and other accessibility tools.
Similarly, if you’d like more space before or after paragraphs, change this through the “Spacing” section of the “Paragraph” settings, instead of hitting the Enter key multiple times.
The same principles apply when creating and formatting lists. Always use your word processor’s inbuilt unordered (bullet points) and ordered (numbered) lists, as these are more accessible.
Tables can sometimes be difficult for screen readers to handle, so they should only be used when needed. When they are used, it’s important to take some steps to make them accessible.
The first thing to do when creating an accessible table is to identify the header row. In Word, you can do this by clicking in the first row of a table, opening the “Table Design” tab in the ribbon, and ticking the “Header Row” check box.
For longer tables, it is best to repeat the header row on each page. To do this, select a cell in the first row, then go to Table Properties, open the Row tab, and tick “Repeat as header row at the top of each page.”
For more guidance, watch the Microsoft Support video: Create accessible tables in Word.
If you have any coloured text, or text against a coloured background, ensure it is high contrast and easy to read. Take a look at the University’s Accessible Colour Combinations page for 406 examples of accessible high-contrast colour combinations.
TPGi’s Colour Contrast Analyser (CCA) is a helpful app for checking contrast colours against accessibility standards. The Government of South Australia’s Online Accessibility Toolkit also has a helpful page on Colour and contrast.
A fundamental requirement for accessible documents is that alt text (alternative text description) is provided for all images. This will mean the images can be understood by people relying on screen readers.
You can provide alt text in Word by right clicking on an image, selecting “Edit Alt Text…”, and entering a brief description of the image in the “Alt Text” panel to the right of the window. For tips on writing helpful alt text descriptions, see: Everything you need to know to write effective alt text.
For step-by-step guidance on adding alt text in Word, see the Microsoft Support video: Improve accessibility with alt text.
Colour blind accessibility
When using graphs and charts to visualise data, be mindful of accessibility for readers with colour blindness.
Do not rely on colours alone to communicate essential information. Instead, consider using colours with high contrast in addition to patterns and text.
Microsoft Word Accessibility Checker and further advice
If you’re using Microsoft Word, you can review the overall accessibility of your document using the “Check Accessibility” feature. This will indicate where improvements can be made (images without alt text, for example) and make it easy to remedy them.
You can find the “Check Accessibility” feature in the “Review” tab of the Word ribbon.
For further tools and guidance on creating accessible Word documents, check out these links:
- Microsoft Word add-on: Document Accessibility Toolbar | Vision Australia
- Improve accessibility with the Accessibility Checker | Microsoft Support
- Video: Check document accessibility in Word | Microsoft Support
- Make your Word documents accessible to people with disabilities | Microsoft Support
- Office Accessibility Centre | Microsoft Support
For your final thesis submission, you’ll need to save your Word document as a PDF. Unfortunately, PDFs are not ideal for accessibility, but if you have been following the advice in this document you should be well on the way.
The best way to create an accessible PDF is to use Adobe Acrobat DC, if you can. The Adobe Creative Cloud suite is discounted for students and free for staff. When generating a PDF, use the Acrobat ribbon in Word or select “Save as Adobe PDF” form the “File” menu. You can then use Adobe’s in-built accessibility tools to check and improve the accessibility of your document.
If you do not have access to Adobe Acrobat DC, your best option is to save the document as a PDF using Word’s in-built capabilities. From the “File” menu, select “Save a Copy”, then change the file type to PDF.
Although it is possible to “Print” documents to PDF, this will usually result in a PDF with very poor accessibility. Some text may become images in the resulting PDF, rendering them inaccessible and unreadable by screen readers.
You can do some checks on the accessibility of your PDF by listening to it read aloud by Adobe’s in-built “Read aloud” feature, or another screen reader.
For more about creating accessible PDFs, explore the following links: