Unit 4: Docs & UDL


Media & UDL | Unit 1: Universal Design for Learning | Unit 2: Videos & UDL | Unit 3: Images & UDL | Unit 4: Docs & UDL | Concluding Thoughts
Unit 4 Performance Objectives:

  • Learners will add to their growing list of resources and online communities with PDF and document-related items
  • Learners will discuss the ways in which the use of Word documents and PDFs aligns with a UDL strategy

What You'll Do:

  1. Read "Creating Accessible Documents"
  2. Complete the activity
  3. Connect the lesson with the real world debate presented in the reflection question
  4. Complete the post-test

Mini-Lecture: Creating Accessible Documents

Section #1: Learn from a Student

Let's say one of your peers in the CDIT program relies on assistive technology to read what is displayed on their computer screen. In general, since the Blackboard text editor allows instructors to create heading hierarchies in easy to read HTML, your fellow educator has no trouble reading information published with Blackboard Learn. Things get a little tricky, however, when instructors attach PDFs and Word documents. Some PDFs were created by scanning paper and print documents, and in that case, each page is treated like one enormous image with no alternative text because the screenreader does not have distinguishable digital text to work with. In other cases, Word documents and the PDFs created from them do contain digital text characters, but without the proper structure and tags applied, the information does not make sense when it is read out loud. This video created by the IT Accessibility program at NCSU serves as a great example of what PDFs and Word documents in this second scenario might sound like: Untagged PDF Being Read by a Screen Reader

Section #2: Documents & UDL

In what way could the use of documents align with the principles of UDL?

Multiple means of representation:

  • Documents can be used as transcripts in courses that rely heavily on video-based content.
  • The use of text descriptions contained in documents may clarify the content of a lesson delivered via verbal instruction.

Multiple means of expression:

  • Allowing students to represent what they have learned by publishing their writing in Word and sharing their work in .pdf or .docx format affords them the opportunity to make use of Word's outlining and design tools

In what ways could the use of PDFs and Word documents pose a problem?

As the fictional scenario above demonstrates, PDFs and Word documents are not always readable for users of assistive technology. This may be because the PDF was created so that it appears like a uniform image without any text, or because the Word document and the PDF that results from converting do not make use of alternative text and tagging tools available in Microsoft Word, so the information is technically legible, but not meaningful.

Section #3: More to Chew On

Alternative text

For users who can't see images, shapes, SmartArt graphics, etc., Microsoft Word provides the tools necessary to add alternative text. Alternative text should provide the same information as the object so that it can be read by assistive technology and the user is exposed to the same information. When a Word document is converted to PDF format and the "tagged PDF" option is selected, any added alternative text is carried over as well (Microsoft).


Speaking in terms of the PDF file format, specifically, tags are what give the document a structure by identifying the different elements within. Many users can differentiate between the elements of the document through sight alone, since headings are generally larger than regular text and images are generally very visually distinct from both headings and text. Without the appropriate tags, however, digital information is impossible to distinguish for assistive technology. Without tags, captions may be confused with headings, headings may accidentally be interpreted as part of the content, etc. (Clark, 2005).

Heading Hierarchy

Users who can use sight to navigate Word documents can make sense of the organization of the content by looking for headings that stand out visually from the regular paragraphs of text. Screenreaders can do the same sort of distinguishing between headings and regular text if the document makes use of Word's heading styles. If the headings in a document are assigned level styles according to an organized outline, users of assistive technology will be able to navigate to different sections of the document easily in the same way that bold text and larger font makes it easy for others users to spot and jump to specific sections of content (WebAIM).

Word Layers

While a Word document generally appears like one uniform page, you have the power to add objects in invisible layers. There is a default base layer in Word that you work in when you start typing in a blank document, but as soon as you add an object like an image or text box, this object is located on its own layer. These layers are invisible to the naked eye, but they can pose problems to assistive technology.

Without the use of text boxes, all the text entered in Word appears on the same layer and is accessible to screenreaders like JAWS. When text boxes are used to contain meaningful information, they added on a separate layer on top of the base layer of text, making it difficult for assistive technology to reach and read.

You can see how this works by adding a text box to a document and moving it around the page. You have complete freedom to move the box wherever you like, because it is "floating" above the rest of the contents.

In some cases, assistive technology will present a list of "floating" objects present in a document. This would make the contents of a text box readable to assistive technology, but this also requires that the objects are separated from the context of the surrounding text, and so the contents of a text box may not make any sense (McCall, 2010).

Unit 4 Activity

Knowledge Base Activity

In this activity, you will make your second contribution to the course knowledge base. Your mission is to search the Web for two document creation resources and add them under "Media Creation Resources."

What counts as a "document creation resource?"
An appropriate resource would be any web-based content open to the public (aka available without subscription or membership) that could be used as a reference when creating Word documents or PDFs.

Examples of resources include:

  • A video outlining the difference between document file formats.
  • A downloadable guide to adding alternative text to objects in Word.

Unit 4 Reflection Question

Some users say that text boxes in Microsoft Word should be avoided entirely due to the accessibility issues posed by having text floating on top of the base layer of the document. The website of Maine's state government, for example, advises employees against using text boxes and provides an alternative strategy for achieving the same effect.

At the same time, Microsoft has not ditched this feature in its latest version of Word, and it remains in use today.

Use the following questions to guide your reflection on this debate:

  • Where do you stand on text boxes?
  • Should they be eliminated completely from Word?
  • Is it unrealistic to expect that people will stop using them?

Unit 4 Extra Resources

Document Checklist

The following table contains a list of considerations that apply to the creation of Word documents so that they are accessible in .docx format and if they are converted to PDF:
Consideration Yes No
Is the font clear and legible?
Does the color of the text and the color of the background contain sufficient contrast?
Do meaningful objects (shapes, images, SmartArt, etc.) contain alternative text?
Does the document contain a heading hierarchy that reflects how the content is organized?
If so, was the heading hierarchy created with Word's heading styles?
If the document contains a data table, does the table include row and column headers?
If the document contains links, is the link text concise and meaningful (e.g. "UAlbany websites" instead of "click here")


Universal Design for Learning Post-Test

Screenshot of the post-test

The Media & UDL post-test was designed to assess your current understanding of accessibility practices and Universal Design for Learning.