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Creating Accessible Documents in Google Docs

Nov 6, 2023


Google Docs is the word processing software included in Alphabet’s productivity suite, Google Workspace, which has more than 3 billion users worldwide.  

Around 10 million Google customers even opt for the paid version. In fact, Google’s productivity suite has spent years peeling market share away from Microsoft 365, which enjoyed a near-monopoly on workplace computers for decades. 

These usage patterns suggest many of us are using Google Docs to create documents for public consumption. If you create content for the public, you probably want to reach as many people as possible. That necessarily includes people with disabilities, who make up 27% of the adult U.S. population.  

Luckily, a few simple design choices can help you create more accessible documents in Google Docs. These techniques are simple and free. Once you get the hang of them, they won’t slow down your workflow. And for this minimal effort, you get the extraordinary benefit of avoiding exclusion — and potentially even discrimination. 

With that in mind, here are five tips for more accessible Google Docs. 


Accessible Document Design in Google Docs: 5 Simple Tips


The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are globally accepted as the best standards for accessible digital content. Google Docs is a web-native platform, and it’s likely that you’ll deliver finished documents to your audience online, too. That makes WCAG 2.2 — the current version of this living document — very likely to apply to your Google Docs. 

Most of the tips that follow derive from WCAG 2.2 success criteria, the discrete testable standards that make up the guidelines. That way, you can be sure these tips match the world’s leading advice on accessible digital design. 

Start creating more accessible Google Docs by employing these five practices: 


1. Organize Your Document With Google Docs’ Heading Styles


According to WCAG 2.2 Success Criteria (SC) 1.3.1, “Info and Relationships,” the structure of online content must be able to be “programmatically determined” or available in the text itself. In other words, content must give assistive technology or alternate presentation technologies the information they need to keep your writing in the proper order. 

In Google Docs, the simplest way to conform with this guideline is to use the built-in Heading Styles feature for titles, subheads, and other organizational text.

You may have heard of HTML heading tags, from <h1> to <h3> and beyond. These tags communicate the structure of your document to other computer systems, including assistive technology like screen readers. They allow a user with a screen reader to page through the sections of your document, effectively browsing it without having to see the words on the page. 

Google Docs’ Heading Styles automatically add these heading tags. Just be sure to use them in order (that is, don’t use “Heading 3” text unless it’s nested under a section marked with “Heading 2” text). 

Free PDF download: Easy Guide to Accessible Headings 


2. Use Descriptive Link Text


WCAG SC 2.4.4, “Link Purpose (In Context),” in part requires us to use anchor text that fully describes where the link will send the reader. That is, it instructs writers to use link text that explains the “purpose” of the link. 

People who use screen readers may skip between links, looking for relevant information or quick navigation. Accurate link text helps these users find what they’re looking for quickly and avoid confusion in the process.   

Google Docs allows you to select anchor text for your links. When you do so, avoid unclear hyperlink language like “click here” or “read more.” Choose anchor text that describes the link’s destination. If you’re linking to another blog post, for instance, the title of the blog makes a good hyperlink. Here’s an example:  

Related: Quick Guide to Accessible Hyperlinks 


3. Write Brief, Informative Document Titles


While WCAG 2.2 SC 2.4.2, “Page Titled,” refers only to web pages, it also offers good advice for Google Docs — especially when those documents are ultimately destined for web publication. 

This success criteria simply states that “web pages have titles that describe topic or purpose.” That helps users find the content they’re looking for without having to read the whole page. The same logic applies to document titles, no matter how you deliver them. 

This post — which was originally created in Google Docs — is about creating accessible documents in Google Docs, so that’s just what we called it. It describes the contents clearly and briefly. Try to do the same with your document titles.


4. Ensure Sufficient Color Contrast


Google Docs includes plenty of design elements, even if it’s more of a word processor than a page design tool. You might be tempted to change your background or text color for visual appeal. 

If you do, be sure to keep a high contrast ratio between text and the digital page. WCAG 2.2 SC 1.4.3, “Contrast (Minimum),” requires a contrast ratio of at least 4.5 to 1. 

You can check the color contrast of a web page with the free a11y Color Contrast Accessibility Validator, although you’ll probably have to publish your Google Doc to the web before using this tool. When in doubt, stick with black text on a white background. 

Related: The Basics and Importance of Color Contrast for Web Accessibility


5. Turn On Google Docs Accessibility Settings


You or your colleagues can work with Google Docs using screen readers, braille devices, and screen magnifiers. You do have to turn on these integrations, however. 

Choose “Accessibility” from the “Tools” menu. Click the boxes marked “Turn on screen reader support” or related commands. That will allow anyone collaborating on the document to consume Google Docs content with a screen reader or other listed device. It will also allow users to edit the document using a screen reader. 

These five tips can help you start creating more accessible documents in Google Docs, but they’re not comprehensive. Accessible design isn’t just a list of tasks; it’s a mindset that informs your choices every step of the way. 

Learn how to develop a culture of accessible design by downloading our free ebook, Developing the Accessibility Mindset.   

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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