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Designer guidelines - Accessible Word docs, PDFs and InDesign files

Guidelines for designers for creating accessible documents using Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat.

These guidelines have been developed to help people working in the Victorian Government create online information that is accessible for people with a disability.

People with disabilities can find it difficult to access online information. Disabilities such as hearing loss or deafness, impaired vision and learning difficulties can impact a user’s online experience.

The most inclusive approach to providing information is the HTML-first approach. If there's a need to publish information contained in a document on a Victorian Government website, this approach means publishing it as web content (HTML) instead of uploading the document to a web page.

If there's still a need to provide a downloadable document, a non-accessible PDF is acceptable as long as you have the HTML version.

If you don't have a complete HTML version, you must ensure one of the documents is accessible and complies with:

It’s quicker and easier to apply accessibility principles from the start and more work to fix problems discovered later in development.PDFs can be made accessible, but generally people find it easier to create an accessible Word document.

Create accessible Word documents


Use Word's built-in headings to give a document a hierarchical structure. Users of screen reading software can scan all headings in a document and jump to a chosen heading.

To apply headings:

  1. Highlight the text.
  2. Click on the Home tab. You can scroll to select a style name in this pane or click the small arrow in the bottom right of this tab to display the whole list of styles in your document window. You can modify the appearance of styles by right-clicking on a style name in either view.


Informative images must have alternative (alt) text applied. Alt text should be accurate, succinct and provide information that isn't already provided in the surrounding text.

For decorative images, Word doesn't provide the ability to enter a null alt attribute.Add 'decorative' as the alt text or a brief description, such as 'image of a middle-aged man sitting on a park bench'.

To apply alt text to images:

  1. Right-click on your image, select Format picture, then click Alt text.
  2. Complete the description.

Data tables

Add properties to tables so users of screen readers can identify which is the header row.

  1. Put your cursor anywhere in the header row of the table, right-click and select Table Properties.
  2. In the Row tab, select the check the second option 'Repeat as header row at the top of each page.'
  3. In the Alt text tab, provide a description of your table in the Description field. You can leave the Title field blank.
  • Use descriptive link text that doesn’t rely on context from the surrounding content. Sometimes screen reader users skip from hyperlink to hyperlink to explore a document.
  • Keep the amount of text in the link succinct.
  • Use underlined text with a colour that stands out from surrounding text. Word has an inbuilt style called Hyperlink that it automatically applies when you add a hyperlink.

Breakout text/boxes

  • Avoid using breakout boxes in an accessible Word document.
  • Create and apply a style so the text is indented or stands out instead.

Things to avoid

  • Using multiple or two-column layout.
  • Using nested tables (inserting a table within a table).
  • Merging fields in tables, as screen readers skip this content.

Create accessible PDFs from a Word document

See Setting up an accessible document in InDesign below.

When creating an accessible PDF from an accessible Word document, you need to complete a few steps in Adobe Acrobat. (Note you can't do this in the free Acrobat Reader, you need Adobe Acrobat.)

  1. Correct the table row header tags.
  2. Set the document title and language.

You can run an accessibility check in a PDF using the Accessibility tools section.

Design and colours


  • Use simple colours.
  • Test any colours or images used with Vision Australia's Colour Contrast AnalyserExternal Link . Adjacent colours should have a minimum of 5:1 colour contrast (Level 2). Where possible, aim for 10:1 for Level 3 compliance.
  • Check foreground and background colours have a minimum contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for normal text or 3:1 for large-scale text.


  • Use graphic objects such as shapes that overlap to create effects.
  • Use colour to convey information, for example, using red to highlight an error. It is useful to apply a treatment, i.e. bold, underline and colour to differentiate the information, not just use of colour alone.
  • Present text with background graphics, patterns and watermarks behind the text.



  • Use serif fonts, unusual fonts or drop shadows. Use the approved Vic font or Arial.


  • Avoid use of italics, bold and all-capitals.
  • Check you've used a minimum 12-point font size and, where possible, 14 point or larger on brochures and advertising.



  • Write in plain English.
  • Use short sentences and bullets. Avoid long paragraphs.
  • Check the reading level is right for your audience. You can check your content reading level using the Hemingway App. Aim for a reading level of no higher than Grade 8.
  • Make sure content is in a logical structure – organised into chapters, headings, paragraphs and sections or special elements (figures, tables and footnotes).
  • Create meaningful descriptions for hyperlinks instead of the website address or 'click here.'
  • Format content to make sure that there are no double (hard) returns and set style sheets to include paragraph spaces before and after, to increase spacing between styles. Remove double spaces between words and spell check your content based on the English UK dictionary.
  • Structure headings by a hierarchy, using headings 1 to 6.


  • Use idioms and obscure jargon.
  • Use underline to emphasise text or headings. You can use underline for links. Links should be checked to make sure they're taking users to the correct web page.
  • Use acronyms unless necessary, and always expand each acronym the first time it is used on a page.
  • Hyphenate words that carry over from the end of one line to the next. This affects readability and the flow of text, especially for readers with a disability or dyslexia. (Print materials only)



  • Use break-out text boxes. If a break-out box needs to be used, make sure it is linked from one text box to the other.
  • Use a 2-column layout.


  • Use a single-column layout.
  • Ensure 'leading' (spacing between the lines of text) is at least 25-30% of the point size.
  • Image result for good leading or spacing between text.
  • Use equal spacing used between words and letters.
  • Use generous spacing between paragraphs.

For more guidance on design elements for print documents, read Accessibility guidelines for government communications.

Setting up an accessible file in InDesign

These instructions are for InDesign version 6 or later.

Before beginning, review our design principles and check you have access to a PDF editor like Adobe Acrobat Pro, to create an accessible PDF.



  • Use images as text –anything that must be read should be in text.


  • Left-align text.
  • Include alt text for informative images –a description of the image that is used by screen readers or empty tags (2 x double quotes; " ") for purely decorative images, which tells the screen reader to skip it.
  • Make sure the text, graphics and images can be extracted and reused for other purposes. For example, copying text or imagery into another application, searching the document content or converting content into HTML.

Tagging tools

  • Once you've completed your InDesign document, go to Type > Paragraph Styles > Export tagging
  • Choose the tag that represents your heading's logical nesting in the document structure

Paragraph text and lists

  • You don't need to tag paragraph text or lists.
  • Paragraph text will automatically be tagged as <p> and bullet lists will be tagged as <l>

Data tables

Help users who cannot see to understand the relationships between table headers and table data.

  • Create a new table with one row of headers: Table > Insert Table.
  • Image result for table insert table InDesign.
  • Specify the number of header rows. Cells in these rows will be tagged as <th>.

Note: InDesign will not allow you to assign columns of row headers. You'll need to add after export using PDF Editor.

Informative images (infographics)

Images are tagged as <Figure> elements by default. You need to apply alt text:

  • Object > Object Export properties
  • Alt Text tab > Alt text source: Custom (add ‘alt’ text)
  • Tagged PDF tab:
  • Apply tag: Based on Object
  • Actual text source: Custom

Image result for making images accessible InDesign

Decorative images

These are images that add design flair but don't communicate additional information to accompanying text.

Decorative images should be hidden from screen readers.

  • Object > Object Export properties
  • Tagged PDF tab > Apply tag: Artefact

Anchor images into the text flow

Make sure your images are precisely where you want them to be read, by anchoring them into the text flow:

  • Add image: File > Place
  • Anchor your image: Drag the ‘blue square’ in the image border to its place in the text. Once anchored the ‘blue square’ becomes an ‘anchor’

Image result for anchor image in InDesign

Export settings

Apply the following settings to ensure your tags are retained in the PDF after export.

  • File > Export (choose Adobe PDF (Interactive) file type)
  • Name your file
  • Export to Interactive PDF settings:
  • View after exporting
  • Embed page thumbnails
  • Created Tagged PDF (checked)
  • Use structure for Tab Order (checked)
  • OK

Finalising your PDF

Once your PDF file has been created from the original InDesign file, you need to complete a few more steps using Adobe Acrobat for people who will use a screen reader:

  • Correct the table row header tags.
  • Set the document title and language.

Hint: use the Accessibility Checker in Adobe Acrobat to make sure you've covered all accessibility requirements

Reviewed 20 March 2023

Single Digital Presence

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