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Creating an Accessible Syllabus and CV, Part 1 [Video]

Think of all the bazillions of different things you can do in a Word document. The options are limitless. But because we have that freedom, we don’t have an option for easily converting all documents to accessible formats.

It’s important to create accessible documents so that people who use assistive technologies such as screen readers can process your information the way you intended. Screen readers detect the structure and features of a document by looking at the underlying code. When the document is coded correctly, it is accessible.

An accessible Word document for a syllabus or CV uses proper heading structure, descriptive hyperlinks, appropriate document text styles, correct table formatting, and image alt tags. When you convert your document to a PDF, those same elements will be available in your final document.

Making these modifications isn’t difficult, but it may involve changing a few of your processes. The good thing is you can save some of your preferences, which may help you work more efficiently in the future. Let’s give it a try!

Use the Right Software Versions

Before you begin, please make sure you are using acceptable versions of both Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat. In Microsoft Word, make sure you can save your document as a .docx file. For Acrobat, make sure you have Adobe Acrobat Pro, NOT just Acrobat Reader.

If you find that you are using outdated software, call the IT Helpdesk at 942-2911 to get upgraded.

Follow an Appropriate Heading Structure

One of the most important things you can do to you document is apply appropriate heading styles using the Styles Pane in the Toolbar at the top of your document. If you don’t like how the default heading styles look, you can always create your own.

Here’s a quick Heading styles checklist:

  • Heading styles have been used and are nested appropriately with no skipped heading levels (i.e., Heading 2 is used as a sub-heading to Heading 1).
  • The Title style has been used only once in the document.

Revise Document Text Styles and Hyperlinks

You know how you have that one statement in your syllabus that you really want to stress so you put it in bold? To make sure it gets coded correctly for accessibility, make that change from the Styles Panel using the “Strong” style. And while you’re at it, follow these other guidelines for hyperlinks and document text styles:

  • If you want to use columns, use the columns tool as opposed to formatting with the Tab key.
  • If you want to display text in bold or italics, use the “Strong” or “Emphasis” styles in the Styles Pane.
  • Where applicable, use the Bulleted List or Ordered List styles in the editor toolbar to format lists.
  • Do not include hyperlinks of urls. If you want to include urls in your document for print purposes, include them as endnotes.
  • Write descriptive hyperlink text that makes sense when read out of context. Avoid phrases like “Click Here” and “Read More.”
  • If you are repeating a hyperlink in your document, make sure you use the same descriptive link text everywhere it is used.
  • Make sure you have unique descriptive link text for all the different urls used in your document.

Things to Avoid:

  • Do not use text boxes or paragraph frames to set blocks of content apart. These features are not distinguishable to assistive technology. Instead, add borders to a selected area of text.
  • Do not use text art.
  • Do not hit return several times in your document to create space.

Correctly Format Tables

It’s fairly common to include a schedule or calendar in a course syllabus, but it’s important that we format that information correctly. For starters, don’t just use the Tab key to create new columns of information. Opt for a table instead. Here are a few pointers to help you:

  • Right click on the header row of your table and select “Table Properties.” Set the Header row to “Repeat as header row at the top of each page” regardless if the table spans multiple pages or not. Then uncheck “Allow row to break across pages.”
  • Include captions for tables, when appropriate.
  • Create simple tables that do not use merged or split cells.

Things to Avoid:

  • Do not use tables for layout purposes.
  • Do not use the Draw Table tool. Instead, use Insert>Table.
  • Do not use Heading styles in tables.
  • Do not use blank rows or columns to create spacing.

Add Image Alt-Tags

To prepare your document for assistive technology, all non-text elements such as images, logos, clip art, charts or graphics, need to have alternative text descriptions that convey the same information.

In Word, follow these steps to add alt text:

  • Right click the image and select “Format Picture.”
  • Choose the Layout and Properties icon.
  • Leave the title blank, but do write a description of the picture. If the image is for decorative purposes only, type quotation marks, space, quotation marks (“ “). This will prevent a screen reader from reading anything for the image.

Here are a few other considerations to keep in mind:

  • Set the image wrapping style as “In line with text.”
  • Try to keep the image within the margins on the page. Otherwise, you may run into some issues with the reading order.
  • Provide captions for images when appropriate. Captions are visible for everyone, while alt text is only read by people using assistive technology.

Things to avoid:

  • Do not use images of text.
  • Do not start your description with “Image of.” The screen reader will let users know that it is an image.

Add a Document Title

To avoid modifying your document title in the PDF format, follow these instructions:

Word 2013

  1. Choose File > Properties > Description.
  2. Enter a title in the “Title” text box.
  3. Click “Initial View,” and then choose “Document Title” from the “Show” drop-down list. 
  4. Click “OK” to close the Description dialog box.

Word 2016

  1. Choose File > Properties.
  2. Select the “Summary” tab and write in the Title
  3. Click “OK to close the dialog box.

Wrapping it Up

We’re almost finished prepping your Word Doc! Here are a few final steps to follow:

  • On the Review tab, click Language to set the correct language for screen readers.
  • On the Review tab, click Check Accessibility to run an accessibility report on your document. Then view the inspection results and make changes, if necessary.
  • Under the View dropdown, you should be able to find Navigation or Document Map. Use this tool to view your headings as an outline and ensure that all headings have been tagged at the appropriate level.

Additional Resources

This post was meant to give you a quick overview of how to prep your Word doc to convert it to a PDF. However, if you feel like you need more in-depth information about any of the items mentioned above, please refer to these resources:

Jayna Phinney
Jayna Phinney

Jayna Phinney is the Instructional Technology Specialist for the ASU College of Science and Engineering. Contact her at or 325-486-6264.



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