508 compliance refers to Section 508 of a federal law which stipulates that any electronic document or website created for and published by the federal government should be as accessible as possible to those with disabilities. This includes those who are blind or partially blind, color blind, deaf or hard of hearing and those who have developmental disabilities.
When it comes to Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF documents, the law sets standards so that documents work with assistive technology (AT), such as screen readers.
Screen readers and other AT applications are never perfect. They rely on the document writer to have information formatted and ordered correctly. If the information is not in order, or formatting is incorrect, the screen reader will not be able to properly interpret the information and share it with the end user.
Even if you are not writing for the government, it is a good idea to standardize documents so that they are accessible to your customers or users with disabilities.
Basic standards for 508 compliance
Below is a rundown of some standards for 508 compliance in a Microsoft Word document. There are more advanced standards for forms and embedded multimedia, which we'll show you how to review later, but this covers the basics.
Save the document with a descriptive file name
The file name should identify the document and its purpose. For instance, if creating this in Word, I might name this document something clear like Tips-for-ensuring-documents-are-508-Compliant.docx. This way, a screen reader can identify and read the name of the document to the user, and they know what the document entails.
Use styles to create headings
Headings are already an excellent way to break up content and make finding specific information easier for the reader. They also make it easy for AT to interpret content. AT locates headers and points the user in the right direction. Many ATs cannot interpret bolded or underlined normal text when used instead of style headers.
Use built-in features instead of manual formatting
ATs can interpret built-in formatting, while manual formatting can confuse them. Always use proper, built-in formatting for features like lists, bullet points, outlines, multi-level lists, columns, layout tables and data tables. Avoid using spaces and tabs to manually format a document.
Set languages properly
If your document contains separate language sections, set each section’s language setting to its respective language in the Word language settings.
Create unambiguous names for URLs and links
When giving an option to click on a link, ensure that the link is clear and unambiguous. It should describe the destination, function and/or purpose, or this should be determinable within the context of its sentence.
…further details are available on GSA.gov. Here, the reader knows that they are going to the GSA website.
For more details, please read GSA’s annual report. Here, the users can assume they are going directly to GSA’s annual report.
For more details, click here. This is not compliant, because the reader does not know where the link goes in this context.
Duplicate vital information from headers, footers, or watermarks in the document
Some screen readers cannot automatically read information in headers, footers, or watermarks. If there is any vital information in these, duplicate it at or near the start of the main content area.
Create accessible images and other objects
Screen readers cannot infer meaning from images and objects. Add descriptive alt-text or captions to meaningful images and objects.
For images of text, the alt-text should be the exact text in the image.
For decorative objects, add a double-quote, space and then another double-quote so the AT knows to skip them.
The Social Security Administration has a comprehensive guide on this subject.
Images, objects, and text boxes should be in-line with the text.
For ATs to properly interpret images and objects, they need to be in line with the preceding text. If the text justification is to the left, the image must justify to the left as well.
To verify, run the Accessibility Checker and correct any ‘Object not Inline’ errors.
Follow color contrast standards
Default black text with white background is always within color contrast standards. If using another text color or background, test using the free and open source Color Contrast Analyzer tool.
Where can I learn more about 508 Compliance?
Luckily there are many free resources available on 508 compliance from the federal government. The General Services Administration (GSA) runs the 508 Compliance website. Here, you can learn about the law and access document and web publishing guides. Particularly useful for documentation writers is the build section of the site. There, you can find plenty of documents, checklists, and guides pertaining to specific authoring and publishing tools, such as Word, PDF, Excel, and PowerPoint as well as website publishing.