Lindsay Kishter

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: as simple as it is daunting. Section 508 requires Federal agencies to make any electronic information accessible to a person with disabilities by following technical standards and performance criteria. In practice, this means making your document compatible with assistive technologies like screen readers and magnifiers that people may use to access it.

If you’re a contractor or federal government employee, it’s a requirement for any electronic work you produce. Almost everything I do, from one-page memos to giant 150-page reports with graphics and text boxes, must be 508 compliant. Even if you’re not a federal employee, industry standards for web design take accessibility seriously. Section 508’s standards jive with the broader Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium.

For electronic documents and web pages, the act offers 16 simple guidelines aimed at making Federal electronic media accessible to people with disabilities.  Even with this guidance the Web is littered with thousands of tutorials and message boards on 508 compliance. Why? Most people simply don’t know where to start. And worse, they’re typically starting 508 compliance at the eleventh hour, as a frantic final step before publication.

So, step back, take a deep breath, and start here. Here are eight steps—the ones I wish I had known the first time I got tasked with 508 compliance on deadline—that will best achieve seamless accessibility for almost any Word document you are publishing electronically.

Step 1: Start compliance at the beginning.

Accessibility is not your final step before publishing. If you want a compliant PDF, go back to your Word document. This is where the magic happens. Adobe Acrobat has excellent tools for adding tags and touching up the reading order on the back end, but trust me, this is not where you want to be addressing accessibility. Get the structure right in Word, and you won’t have to touch the PDF.

Step 2: Structure your document using Word’s Styles and built-in headings.

Apply heading styles (in the Home tab) to your document headings and sub-headings rather than manually adjusting the sizing, font, spacing, and color. Styles tag the text appropriately so that a screen reader can navigate your document and read it in the correct order. Right click the style and select Modify to change the default style to fit your design.

Step 3: Use automatic formatting features—don’t manually simulate bullets, columns, etc.

Automatically bullet and number lists, rather than manually inserting numbers and symbols. Create columns from the Page Layout tab, rather than tab stops. Double click the top or bottom of any page to insert a header or footer, and use the Insert Page Number feature to automatically number pages. Finally, use the Table of Contents feature on the References tab to automatically populate one—it draws from your heading styles to create a list that is easy to update and navigate.

Step 4: Present any visual information—whether graphics or images—in an alternate format (such as alt text).

Text boxes, images, graphics, and graphs should all have alt text that describes to a visually impaired reader what it contains. Right click a text box, and select Format Text Box > Alt Text, and you’ll see it autofills for you. Images and graphics require a bit more work:

  • If you create a graphic in Word, select and group all pieces into one image first.
  • Right click the graphic or image and select Size > Alt Text to tag the image with a description.
  • For a photo, alt text should simply describe the image: e.g., a boy and his dog; two firefighters in a discussion; company logo.
  • A figure or graph that conveys information needs to present that same information in an accessible format—either in the surrounding text itself, or in a brief description in the alt text.
  • Any graph that uses color to convey information (like a stacked bar graph) must present those figures in text format.
  • For text boxes and images alike, set the figure In Line with Text where possible rather than wrapping text around.

Step 5: Format tables to read clearly.  

Use the Tables feature on the Insert tab to create tables and clearly mark information with column and row headings. Do not use tables to format the document, for example to create columns or text boxes. Tables have two special considerations:

  • The top row needs to be tagged as the header row: select the row, right click, and select Table Properties > Row and check “Repeat as header row at the top of each page.”
  • Avoid allowing rows to break across the page so that information stays together: select a row that splits across the page, right click, and uncheck “Allow row to break across pages.

Step 6: Add document properties.

Set the document title, author, subject, and keywords by selecting Office Button > Prepare > Properties. Word autofills some information—make sure this is what you want readers to see. (For example, documents I create autofill my name as the author; I replace that with the name of the organization that owns it). The subject can be a short description of the document text. Separate keywords with a comma.

Step 7: Convert to a PDF using the Acrobat tab—NOT the print or save function.

This last one is key if you want your PDF to automatically contain all the tags and alt text you just created. First, check your Preferences on the Acrobat tab. They should look like this:


Next, select Create PDF from the Acrobat tab. Your PDF should open in Acrobat and be a complaint PDF—but you want to make sure.

Step 8: Run an Accessibility Check.

Within Acrobat, go to Tools > Accessibility, and perform the full check (if it’s available) or quick check to scan for issues. (Make sure you change the name under Checking Options to “Section 508” before you click Start Checking.) The Accessibility Check will find issues, tell you exactly where they are in the document, and even recommend fixes. Just remember step one; if the accessibility check reveals you forgot alt text somewhere, for example, your best bet is to go back to the Word document and add it there.

Need to dive deeper? Access the complete text of the Section 508 Standards, and check out Adobe’s step-by-step guides—for each version of Acrobat—for making PDFs accessible from multiple sources.