Documents: An accessibility conundrum


It’s been over three years since the accessibility legislation came into effect, and for many of us, despite the steep learning curve, heading structures, meaningful alt text and contextual link text are now part of our everyday life. 

What’s interesting is that more and more, we’re seeing the accessibility of digital platforms move out of the realms of being the responsibility of the digital or web team. Instead, we’re starting to see the transition to accessibility becoming embedded within organisations, which, if you ask me, is how it should be. Accessibility is everyone’s responsibility, it makes lives better.

The great conundrum

However, the conundrum I see time and again is around documents. When I run accessible content training workshops, this is when attendees realise that they’ve got a lot of work to do – this doesn’t make me very popular!

The main issue is typically centred upon the huge quantity of documents (Word docs, PDFs etc.) which are essentially “hanging around” on public sector websites – this is especially prevalent to local councils.

My three-tier approach to documents

With documents I have a three-tier approach:

  1. Remove them being sure to archive the content elsewhere
  2. Turn them in to HTML content
  3. Make the document accessible

One thing I will say is that it is rare that you can go with just one of the above, and in reality you’ll end up having to choose a combination approach when tackling your documents.

The plot thickens

However, once you start digging into the issues with your documents, it is not always as easy to fix as you might at first hope, for example:

  • What do you do about third party documents?
  • What about documents that are automatically produced by a supporting system?
  • Don’t forget forms!

I should add that the below isn’t official or legal advice, but instead how I would personally approach each scenario. 

I am very interested in hearing more from people who have tackled any of these issues, and what outcome you achieved, so if you want to chat please get in touch.

So what are the solutions? Let’s take them one by one.

accessibility and third-part documents

Accessibility and third-party documents

This is a tricky one. The phrase I have seen most frequently is that the document is exempt because it has been produced by a third party and the public body didn’t pay for it. However, the thing that niggles me is you have control of your website, so you can choose whether to publish this document or not. In some cases, it’s a small change that transforms a document into being accessible.

My preferred approach? I really like Worcestershire County Council’s Digital Accessibility Requirements, as an example of best practice. Its no nonsense, no exceptions approach should ensure that all documents produced by a third party are accessible or they’re not going on the website. I have seen this approach adopted by other councils too, and it is definitely effective.

documents produced by a supporting system

Documents produced by a supporting system

First things first, establish if this is a bespoke in-house system or one that is widely and/or commercially available.

For the former, have a talk with your in-house team and explain what needs to be done to make the output (in this case a document) accessible. It might be easier to fix than you think.

For the latter, I would start by going direct and asking the supplier. If they support similar public sector organisations, then there is a chance they’ve been asked this before and will have a plan to fix the issues, or already have and you will need to be upgraded. If you’re met with reluctance, questioning or having to explain your organisation’s position, then it might be time to check when the contract is up for renewal. Write your requirements into your spec and re tender when you can.

documents produced by a supporting system

Creating Accessible Forms

PDF or Word document forms are a pain. Ideally of course you invest in a forms package or a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform which blends seamlessly with your website. This h can provide not only an accessible option but also a better user experience for all – ever tried completing a PDF form on your phone?!

If this isn’t an option, has your Content Management System (CMS)  got a built in forms package? If so, this may offer an accessible user experience, but also act as a step change for your customer contact.

Failing that, you can try to make your PDF or Word forms accessible, it’s not always the prettiest and there are challenges. This should, in my opinion, be your worst case scenario as the  other two options are infinitely preferable. 

Thinking wider

In this meander, or blog if you prefer, we have really been talking about documents you want to add to your website, which date after September 2018. Documents created before then, unless deemed essential to accessing a service (such as application forms or how to guides) are exempt.

However, for me the move towards accessible documents should extend beyond just what you publish on your website or digital platform. For example, if you send a letter in the post and the customer prefers font size 18 are you providing that? What about the guidance you email out when a customer calls, is that formatted in an accessible way?

If you can move document accessibility out of the digital realm and into the wider world of businesses and good customer service, by taking the time to train your staff on how to create an accessible Word document as part of their induction for example.  Taking this approach moves accessibility from something you do if you need a document published online, to how your organisation works and interacts with people – for me I see no downsides.

Accessible documents are not just for websites.