What is accessibility

Accessibility means taking away unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities to participate in important actitivities in life, such as the use of services, products and information from their government. In our daily life we use all kinds of technology, but often we are not aware that these may cause issues for certain users. Small tweaks in the design can make a big difference, and serves a broader use.

There are many types of disabilities. Even within visual disabilities, issues range from color blindness (which affects an estimated 10 % of the male population globally) up to complete loss of eyesight, and everything inbetween – including major visual disabilities such as tunnel vision or very blurred vision. There is a wide variety of physical disabilities as well, from continuous trembling up to the complete inability to move (parts of) the body. Other types of disabilities that impact the ability to use regular office applications include hearing impairments, cognitive disabilities, epilepsy and sensory deterioration due to ageing.

Accessibility is strongly related to universal design when the approach involves “direct access.” This is about making things accessible to all people (whether they have a disability or not). An alternative is to provide “indirect access” by having the entity support the use of a person’s assistive technology to achieve access (for example, a refreshable braille display or a screen reader).

Accessibility is an important part of equal access to social, political, and economic life which includes not only physical access but access to the same tools, services, organizations and facilities for which everyone pays. Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities commits signatories to provide for full accessibility in their countries.

Accessibility can be considered a special instance of usability, where usability is defined as:

  • the extent to which a product (such as a device, service, or environment)
  • can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals
  • with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction
  • in a specified context of use.

Accessibility defines a minimum threshold of usability: solutions that is not accessible to a certain user, can literally not be used by that person. Like any form of usability, accessibility is defined by the demands and needs of the user. A phone booth, for instance, may be accessible (usable) to a blind person, but perhaps not to someone in a wheel chair. Graphical interfaces for computers are less accessible to a blind person, but pose no problem whatsoever to deaf people.

In many countries there are initiatives, laws and/or regulations that aim toward providing universal access at reasonable cost to citizens. But probably the key reason to aim for accessibility and inclusiveness is that it is the right thing to do – morally, as well as ethically.

People with disabilities have a right to work and exercise their democratic rights as a citizen too. That means we all have a responsibility to enable them to consume documents and information services we create – especially in the case of government organisations where citizens with disabilities should be able to participate fully in the creation, review, and editing process.

Advances in information technology and telecommunications have also represented a leap forward for accessibility. Access to such technology is unfortunately restricted to those who can afford it, but thanks to open source software assistive technology has become more widespread across the whole world in recent years than ever before.

Assistive technology provides the ability to access information and services by:

  • minimizing the barriers of distance and cost as well as
  • the accessibility and usability of the interface.

ODF and accessibility

From 2005 until 2020, a dedicated subcommittee on office accessibility was active within the ODF technical committee that provided reviews of the OpenDocument specification for accessibility. It was chartered to discover potential accessibility issues and to improve the usability and functionality of creating, reading, and editing office documents for people with disabilities.

The result is that version 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 (the current version) of the Open Document Format standard support encoding and persisting a tremendous amount of structural and semantic information needed by people with disabilities – and the tools they use (assistive technologies) – to gain access to computers and information.

In addition to the standard, the ODF TC Accessibility subcommittee has published a lenghty document called the Open Document Format v1.1 Accessibility Guidelines Version 1.0. While this document was intended originally for application creators, it contains a wealth of information on anyone interested in productivity software accessibility.

It explains in detail various categories of disabilities, each requiring a different approach:

  1. Vision impairments ranging from minor vision impairments such as color blindness to near or total blindness
  2. Physical impairments, from minor impairments such as hand tremors to major physical impairments (with or without speech recognition)
  3. Hearing impairments
  4. Cognitive impairments

Some productivity tools will have better support for the accessibility features included in the ODF specification than others. There are a number of situation where an advanced blind user can perform tasks much faster then the regular “seeing” user, because the screen-reader offers alternative hot keys and scripts to simulate the use of the mouse and can interact on predictive situations.

High quality support include Microsoft UI Automation with Microsoft Office, and the combination of IAccessible2 API with Apache OpenOffice (as of version 4.1) and LibreOffice (as of version 4.3). Microsoft Office Online (part of Office 365) provides WAI-ARIA support for assistive technologies (WAI-ARIA stands for Web Accessibility Initiative-Accessible Rich Internet Applications). If you use an assistive technology such as a screen reader or speech recognition software, you will have the best experience in Office Online if the assistive technology that you use supports WAI-ARIA.

Older versions of Microsoft Office included speech recognition, this feature has been removed from the office application and made available by Microsoft at the level of the Windows operating system. If you use Microsoft Windows XP and need speech recognition, you need to use an older version of Microsoft Office with the ODF converter plugin.

File format accessibility versus implementations

The OpenDocument Format standard defines a complete range of accessibility features that applications and assistive technologies can use to help make documents available to the widest possible audience.

It should be clear that the quality of accessibility features within the standard itself is something entirely separate from the quality and completeness of actual implementations of that standard within products. There is even a second layer of products involved in the accessibility pipeline, as there are many blind users that depend on 3rd party assistive technologies in the marketplace. Many of these are historically hardwired to a limited set of established products and platforms. If your organisation selects one of these products – provided they support ODF 1.3 well – the user workflow will stay as-is after the switch to ODF. If your organisation ultimately selects other products, you will have to make sure that adequate assistive technologies are available as well or allow exceptions.

In order to really benefit from innovative new solutions and reap the benefits of adopting a standard, we need to look beyond the current status quo. Supporting the main accessibility features such as text labels and object descriptions coming from an application is not difficult.

Find out which assistive technology requirements your users have, and talk to vendors. If you do not have the technical capabilities in your organisation to do so, pool together with other organisations or hire experts. Timing is essential: if you just dump a tender proposal for all productivity needs on the market with a deadline of some weeks, there is not much that can be done. Think ahead, this will help keep the most cost effective solutions open. You can for instance put out a bounty for amending or creating products that can provide the functionality you may need.

Accessibility is something that both vendors and open source communities really want, but often just lack the budget for. They are likely to be very receptive given a reasonable opportunity to add this to their solutions, and doing so will benefit not just the users within your organisation but also people with a disability in society at large.

From ODF to Alternative media

In the context of ODF documents, people with disabilities should be able to participate fully in the creation, review, and editing process of the documents. A blind person, for example, should be able to work with a document someone else created (by getting a text description of the images used). A person should be able to fill out a form without using hands. A person with poor vision should be able to read through presentation materials easily.

A successful modern ODF implementation will enable users with disabilities to read, create, and edit documents – with full access to all of the meaning and intent – just like a person without any disability. ODF can readily serve as an authoring environment not only for print and e-documents, but for braille, large-print, and audio alternative renditions too. ODF is, in fact, well suited to support commonly available authoring tools in the production of legally mandated alternative media.

Audio is a primary medium for providing accessibility to many persons with disabilities, whether it is an audio recording of someone reading text, or a real time computer generated “Text-To-Speech (TTS)” rendition.

Persons use audio as their primary reading modality could for instance be:

  • blind
  • live with severely impaired vision
  • or with learning disabilities

The considerations for creating accessible documents are the same as the considerations that should be observed to allow ODF documents to be easily reused to create usable alternative media, including audio, braille, electronic books and large print. The same holds for ODF documents that need to be processed to specialized multimedia standards for the use of persons with disabilities. There are automatic open source converters available for easy conversion from ODF to braille, and from ODF to the DAISY audio book standard.

Producing accessible content for authors

Most of the accessibility relating to documents, spreadsheets and presentations is achieved through a combination of appropriate formatting by the author of the document and the application(s) used. Ideally ODF applications would ensure that authors add all the optional elements that truly make documents accessible, by making accessibility features unavoidable. Often, humans are still involved.

The Canadian Accessible Digital Office Document (ADOD) project has produced very detailed guidance for improving more accessible documents. These guidelines are meant for documents that are:

  • Intended to be used by people (i.e., not computer code),
  • Text-based (i.e., not simply images, although they may contain images),
  • Fully printable (i.e., where dynamic features are limited to automatic page numbering, table of contents, etc. and do not include audio, video, or embedded interactivity),
  • Self-contained (i.e., without hyperlinks to other documents, unlike web content), and
  • Typical of office-style workflows (Reports, letters, memos, budgets, presentations, etc.).

The project makes the following recommendations:

  1. Use Accessible Templates.
    All the elements in your templates should be accessible
  2. Specify the right language
    In order for assistive technologies (e.g. screen readers) to be able to present your document accurately, you must indicate the natural (human) language of the document. If a different natural language is used for a paragraph or selected text, this also needs to be clearly indicated.
  3. Provide Text Alternatives for Images and Graphical Objects\When using images or other graphical objects, such as charts and graphs, it is important to ensure that the information you intend to convey by the image is also conveyed to people who cannot see the image. This is done by adding concise alternative text to of each image. If an image is too complicated to concisely describe in the alternative text alone (e.g. artwork, flowcharts, etc.), provide a short text alternative and a longer description as well.
  4. Avoid “Floating” Elements
    It is beneficial for users of assistive technologies (e.g. screen readers) to have elements like images, objects, and text boxes inserted into documents as an “inline object”. Inline objects keep their position on the page relative to a position in the text. Because the position of the object in the document order is clear, the screen reader can read the object’s alternative content (e.g. Description field) when the user moves keyboard focus to that position.
  5. Use Headings
    Any documents that are longer than a few paragraphs require structuring to make them easier for readers to understand. Use the appropriate styles (so called “True Headings”) to create logical divisions between paragraphs. True headings are structural elements that order and provide a meaningful sequence to users of assistive technologies.
  6. Use Built-In Document Structuring Features
    * Only use tables for tabular information, not for formatting, such as to position columns.
    • Use “real tables” rather than text formatted to look like tables using the TAB key or space bar. These will not be recognized by assistive technology.
    • Keep tables simple by avoiding merged cells and dividing complex data sets into separate smaller tables, where possible.
    • If tables split across pages, set the header to show at the top of each page. Also set the table to break between rows instead of in the middle of rows.
    • Create a text summary of the essential table contents. Any abbreviations used should be explained in the summary.
    • Table captions or descriptions should answer the question “what is the table’s purpose and how is it organized?” (e.g. “A sample order form with separate columns for the item name, price and quantity”).
    • Table cells should be marked as table headers when they serve as labels to help interpret the other cells in the table.
    • Table header cell labels should be concise and clear.
    • Ensure a table is not “floating” on the page
    • Start a new page by inserting a page break instead of repeated hard returns
    • Providing an outline of an office document helps navigate the meaningful sequence of content.
    • Numbering the pages of your document provides a point of reference for users of assistive technologies
    • Each document should be given a descriptive and meaningful title.
    • Because columns can be a challenge for some users with disabilities (e.g. people using magnifiers), consider whether a column layout is really necessary.
  7. For spreadsheets: format your cells with named styles, and ensure your cells are formatted to properly represent your data, including number and text attributes.
  8. For spreadsheet: use cell addressing to make it easier to navigate and find specific information.
  9. For presentations: Use built-in layouts and the outline editor
    Instead of creating each slide in your presentation by starting from a blank slide, check whether there is a suitable built-in layout and use the outline editor. Slides created using these techniques are better accessible to users of assistive technologies. Assistive technologies typically allow to jump from each item on the slide to the next, in the order that they were placed on the slide. Properly designed slide layouts and the outline editor take this into account (e.g., they place the element “Title” first on the page, followed by other items, left to right and from top to bottom). If you create complex slide layouts from scratch, you can manually keep track of the order in which elements are placed.
    Many applications also offer a way to check and modify the order of objects, e.g. through a “Navigator” or “Selection and Visibility” pane. It helps to check the logic if you properly name objects on the page.
  10. For presentations: Craft customized defaults using Master Slides and styles
    If a slide layout must be customized by the user, it is recommended to use Master Slides. Make sure that you use Named Styles, and check if the tabbing order of the objects on the page make sense.
  11. For presentations: Use the slide notes
    Each slide has a note that can be used to place accessible annotations for slides that are not self-evidently accessible.
  12. Create Accessible Charts
    All the basic accessibility considerations that are applied to the rest of your document must also be applied to your charts and the elements within your charts. If the chart data is also provided in an appendix, it will be easier for all users to make use of the data.
  13. Make Content Easier to See
    * Use font sizes between 12 and 18 points for body text.
    • Use fonts of normal weight, rather than bold or light weight fonts. If you do choose to use bold fonts for emphasis, use them sparingly.
    • Use standard fonts with clear spacing and easily recognized upper and lower case characters. Sans serif fonts (e.g. Arial, Verdana) are typically easier to read than serif fonts (e.g. Times New Roman, Garamond).
    • Avoid large amounts of text set all in caps, italic or underlined.
    • Use normal or expanded character spacing, rather than condensed spacing.
    • Avoid animated or scrolling text.
    • Use Sufficient Contrast
    • Avoid Relying on Color or Sensory Characteristics
    • Avoid Using Images of Text
  14. Make Content Easier to Understand
    * Write clearly
    • Provide Context for Hyperlinks
  15. Check Accessibility
    There are products and plugins that can review your document against a set of possible accessibility issues that users with disabilities may experience in your file. For users that are not versed in writing accessible documents, this can be of great help.
  16. Use Accessibility features when Saving/Exporting to Other Formats
    When you convert documents from ODF to for instance PDF or HTML, make sure that the accessibility benefits are kept.

The Accessible Digital Office Document Project website contains step by step information for a number of products, as well as more detailed descriptions of each recommendation.

Product information on accessibility