For many students, having access to computer equipment and appropriate software makes written information accessible. Today’s technology allows students to do the majority of their research online, share documents via email or online sharing platforms, and download lecture notes from school websites or learning management systems. With written text converted into a format that is readable on the computer, it can be accessed visually with screen magnification software, or through auditory means with screen reading software or text-to-speech technology.

Click here to find out how to create e-text.

General Considerations About E-Text

The most common four file types of electronic formats used in the education setting are Microsoft Word, Portable Document Format (PDF), PowerPoint, and Excel Spreadsheets. Below are some general guidelines when creating these formats:

  • There is a contents list or summary at the beginning of the document for ease of navigation for the user
  • A document has a logical, easy-to-follow reading order
  • The font colour is set to default or auto so it would not interfere with display settings on screen reading software.
  • Special symbols are not used
  • Images conveying important information should be accompanied by a text description or addition of alternative text in Microsoft Word and PDF format. This ensures access to the same information for students who are auditory readers.
  • Graphical elements set to float behind or in front of text are generally not accessible. These floating graphic functions are not only visually distracting, but they also block pertinent text information and make visual tracking of content difficult. For individuals living with neurological disorders, some flashing patterns may trigger headaches and possibly seizures.
  • Different screen reading or text-to-speech software programs have different compatibility needs. Some may be specific to a browser or set of software programs. Make sure the format you create documents is compatible with your students’ technologies.

If you are familiar with e-formats mentioned above and would like to acquire a step-by-step template to creating accessible office documents, read more about the accessible templates created by Accessible Digital Office Documents (ADOD) Project.

Microsoft Word Documents

Students use Microsoft Word to write essays, complete assignments or take notes during class. Educators may also create forms on this program for students to fill out or assignment questions for students to answer. There are many features and functions which make it particularly accessible with the latest screen reading and magnification software. Students can select from a wide variety of templates to create reports, move entire sections of text to another paragraph, undo errors made on the page, etc. When creating a document for students, using the heading function enable screen reader users to effectively navigate through document topics. Documents that are designed and styled properly within Word can benefit all users to work more efficiently, inclusive of students with disabilities.

With a few exceptions, most of the features within Word are accessible with the latest access technology. Properly designed and styled Word documents are conversion ready, to accessible formats such as audio, large print, and Braille.

Considerations when creating Word Documents

  • Headers and footers – although they are accessible by screen reader software, the user needs to know that they are there. It can’t be assumed that students will automatically look for headers and footers. It may be appropriate to include a line to say that information is contained in the header or footer or simply to ensure that important information is also repeated in the main body of the text
  • Images and graphics are set to be in line with text can be made more accessible by either applying a descriptive caption or by providing some alternative text from the Format picture menu
  • Use proper headings (“styles”) and lists when formatting the document. Try to avoid empty lines or extra spacing that is created using ENTER, TAB, or SPACE. Use the tools that change line spacing after a paragraph or adjust the indent.
  • Depending on the device the student is using, they may ask you to save the file in an alternate format (e.g. *.TXT, *.RTF), which may lose some of the benefits described (e.g. headings).

Portable Document Format (PDF)

Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format created by Adobe for the interchange and viewing of files originally created in various different formats. The PDF file format is popular for providing downloads from websites because it prevents changes made to the original file. Research articles, forms, and other educational material are often saved in this format. Adobe PDF files or image PDFs are traditionally inaccessible to persons using screen readers. Newer versions of the creation and reader software for PDF files can support accessibility; however, much depends on how it was created. An accessible PDF document will have properly styled heading levels, saved as a tagged PDF, with alternative text added to images. For students using screen magnification software or text-to-speech technology that highlights the word/sentence as it is being read, it is important to test out the document, as the highlight may or may not align with the text being read.

To ensure accessibility, it is good practice to also offer any PDF document in an alternative format such as plain text or Word. Further information can be found on the Adobe Accessibility web site.

Considerations when creating PDF files:

  • The document is saved as a searchable text file to allow students to find keywords within text
  • If using online forms, ensure that form elements have text descriptions and a preset tab order. The document settings must be enabled so students can enter text into form fields electronically
  • Graphics and links have alternate texts
  • Navigational aids such as links and bookmarks have been included
  • The document uses fonts that allow characters to be extracted to text
  • Security settings are not set so that they interfere with screen readers


PowerPoint has a number of features which aid accessibility that is compatible with the latest screen reading and magnification software. PowerPoints are commonly used in post-secondary schools for lectures. Using templates for creating slides will maintain heading and subheading levels for ease of navigation, provide a consistent slide design, and increase the speed of production. A properly designed PowerPoint presentation based on templates can be easily converted to alternative formats with little editing. It allows educators to produce accessible handouts directly from their presentation slides. For print design guidelines, refer to recommendations from CNIB’s Clear Print to ensure accessibility.

Considerations when creating PowerPoint:

  • Text boxes: floating graphical elements such as text boxes can cause accessibility problems. Floating graphics are always a particular issue and these are, as yet, generally not accessible and any text within them will not be exported in the production of accessible formats.
  • Transitions, animations and video: Visual effects in PowerPoint can be difficult for people with low vision to appreciate, and in some cases can be uncomfortable to view.


Microsoft Excel is often used to depict information in a logical table format or spreadsheets. It can help clarify materials using comparison tables, financial information, and keeping track of data. Although these spreadsheets can be navigated effectively via the keyboard, much depends on the accessible design and structure of information in the table. For example, it is important to define the name of column headings and row headings so the screen reader software can verbalize these titles while reading through a table. If there is more than one table in the document, the first worksheet should be reserved as a hyperlinked content and index page to ensure ease of navigation to tables on additional worksheets. This design will assist students who use screen readers to navigate content more effectively.

Considerations when creating Excel spreadsheets:

  • Merged cells – Visual effects such as merged cells can cause disruption to the overall structure and logical layout of a table and therefore create accessibility issues for keyboard users.
  • Coloured text and cells – Coloured text and cells can be a problem particularly if colour is the only indication of important information. Students who use screen reader software will not necessarily detect the significance of colour changes unless there is an additional cue—such an asterisk inserted for them. Students may also have their own colour and contrast preference settings.

Sharing Platforms

Many school boards are using Google as a platform for sharing and collaboration. Google has various types of documents that are similar to the Microsoft Office Suite and other office suites (e.g. Google Docs for word processing, Google Sheets for spreadsheets, Google Slides for presentation documents). Other companies have similar sharing platforms (e.g. Microsoft Office 365) that students may come across during their school years or in post-secondary education or work. A live copy of these shared documents can be viewed and edited on by multiple users on different devices at the same time.

Considerations when creating documents on sharing platforms:

  • Considerations are similar to the non-shared software—for example, in Google Docs and Office 365 Word, make sure to use proper heading styles for formatting your headings and subheadings, and in any spreadsheet programs, avoid merging cells. Read above for recommendations specific to word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation documents.
  • Because sharing platforms are designed for collaboration, it is likely that your students will be working together on documents. Teaching your students about creating accessible documents (e.g. using proper headings and lists, make sure colour is not used as the only indicator of something, etc.) may help them understand their own needs better, as well as support the needs of their classmates.
  • Screen reader compatibility may become very important. Some of these platforms are best used on certain internet browsers, but text-to-speech and screen reading functions may or may not be compatible with specific browsers. Make sure the solution set up for your students will work for their assistive technology.

Accessible Digital Document Project (ADOD)

While information about how to create accessible office documents currently exists on a range of websites, the information can be incomplete, vendor-biased, or specific to only a single office application. The Accessible Digital Office Documents (ADOD) Project offers a framework for assessing the accessibility of electronic documents and provides templates for creating accessible documents on various office applications. These templates follow a clear, step-by-step process that guides educators to create accessible e-documents, using existing office applications they currently use.

Read more about ADOD’s templates to creating accessible e-formats.

This project has been developed by the Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University as part of an EnAbling Change Partnership project with the Government of Ontario and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

How It Relates to the AODA legislation

E-Text relates to the following sections of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Integrated Accessibility Standards, specifically some of the following sections in the Information and Communication Standards:

In the Ontario public education system, the Alternate Education Resources of Ontario service of the Provincial Schools Branch provides alternate formats like Braille, which helps schools in meeting AODA requirements.

AODA Significance

  1. E-Text (or Electronic Text) is descriptive text that is stored on a portable data storage devices, such as a DVDs, CDs, and USB flash drives, providing individuals with an alternative format and means to access information and educational resources.
  2. People interact, learn, and communicate in diverse ways. Learning opportunities are increased when flexible ways of engaging with learning materials are provided. Considering how people communicate is important for knowledge to be exchanged. Alternative formats take into account diverse ways of exchanging information.
  3. The AODA legislates that educational institutions and their employees know how to produce accessible or conversion ready versions of textbooks and printed material. Educators, teachers, and staff are to learn about accessible program or course delivery and instruction and be knowledgeable at interacting and communicating with people with disabilities who may use alternate formats.

Additional Resources

To learn how this section relates to the core principles of the AODA Customer Service regulation, visit the AODA page on SNOW.

To learn of ways to innovate, develop, and design for accessibility, visit OCAD University’s Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) website and the IDRC’s floe project website.