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How do I create an accessible thesis?

Your audience may include a wide range of individuals with diverse abilities. Some of these abilities can impact how people access and read your thesis. Consider abilities such as visual, auditory, speech, physical, cognitive, neurological, or their combination and if there are barriers in your content that may affect an individual’s ability to interact with it.

Please note that MS Word thesis templates (e.g., monograph-style and manuscript-style) are available on the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies’ (OGPS) Preparation of your Thesis website. These templates and the accompanying ‘Formatting your thesis document in Microsoft Office Word’ guide (which provides detailed instructions on how to use the built-in formatting tools) support the creation of a more accessible thesis document.

In addition, following general principles of universally accessible content will support you in creating a thesis document that can be accessed and read by the widest audience possible.

How can I add structure using heading styles?

Structuring your document with headings will help readers understand how the content of a page is organized and will allow them to easily navigate throughout the document.

In Microsoft Office (MS) Word, headings can be added to a document using the built-in Styles options. 

Whether you are creating your own thesis document from scratch, or are using an OGPS thesis template, be sure to follow these principles for document structure:

  • Use only heading levels 1 – 6.
    • Heading 1 should be the title of your document.
    • Heading 2 should be used for section headers.
    • Headings 3 – 6 should be used for sub-section headers.
  • The document must have only one Heading 1.
  • Do not skip heading levels, e.g., Heading 2 must be followed by a Heading 3 then Heading 4, except when starting a new section or sub-section.
  • Heading names should be unique to prevent any confusion while navigating, skimming, or reading the whole document.

How do I add alternative text to images?

Alternative text (alt text) is a machine-readable tag that describes an image (e.g., photographs, figures, charts, graphs) in words. Alternative text is read by screen readers allowing the content and function of the images to be accessible to those with visual or cognitive disabilities.

Only informative images need alt text. A decorative image that provides no information and only serves an aesthetic purpose does not need alt text (some applications allow marking such image as ‘decorative’).

To add alt text to an image:

  • Windows: Select the image, right-click and select ‘View Alt Text’. Add alt text in the ‘Description’ field.
  • Mac: Select the image, right-click, and select ‘Edit Alt Text’.

What information should be included in alt text for images?

Alt text should convey the content and function of the image accurately and succinctly.

  • Alternative text should not repeat captioning text nor any text about the image that is included in the body text of your thesis.
  • The recommended number of characters for alt text is 125 characters or less for compatibility with popular screen readers.
  • All alt text should end with a period ‘.’ so that the screen reader will pause after reading.
  • Examples of image clues to write about in alt text:
    • If the image contains text, write it out verbatim in alt text.
    • For informative images: describe the types and placement of objects in the image.
    • For functional images: describe the action or behavior the image will perform (i.e., if the image acts as a link).
  • For complex images (e.g., graphs, charts, illustrations, diagrams, maps, etc.) that contain substantial information, write both a short and long description:
    • The short description should be included in alt text and should identify the image, and then indicate the location of the long description. E.g., alt='Graph of quarterly temperature changes. Discussion available below.'.
    • The long description should be included in the body text and should describe the essential information that is conveyed by the image.

Please refer to WebAIMs’s Alternative Text website for additional guidance in creating alternative text.

How do I create descriptive hyperlinks?

Users who navigate using a screen reader must be able to unambiguously understand the purpose of the link and skip links they are not interested in. To achieve this, link text needs to be:

  • Descriptive: When writing URL text, make sure it can be understood without additional context. Do not use ‘click here’, ‘read more’, ‘link to’, etc.
  • Concise: Use keyword(s) as linked text rather than longer sentences. For text that is meant to be printed, hyperlink the text and add a full URL. E.g.:
    • For online display: ‘Additional information about thesis formatting requirements is available on the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies’ Preparation of your thesis website.’.
    • For print display: ‘Additional information about thesis formatting requirements is available on the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies’ Preparation of your thesis website at’
  • Unique: Avoid similarly named hyperlinks if they link to different places.
  • Visually distinct: Use the default blue underlined style for hyperlinks. If you change it, make sure the links are still high contrast and underlined. Don’t use underline for non-hyperlinked text.

How do I ensure proper colour contrast?

When using colours in your document:

  • Do not rely on colour as the only means of conveying meaning.
    • When making the choice to use colour, consider whether a reader with colour vision deficiencies (CVD) or using a screen reader would still be able to understand the meaning conveyed. It is essential for colour to not be the only means of conveying information - consider adding other textual queues (e.g., text or numbers or % on a graph).

Avoid doing this:

An example bar graph with orange and blue rectangular bars with no text.

Do this instead:

An example bar graph with orange and blue rectangular bars with text.

How do I create formatted and described tables?

Tables should be created directly in MS Word as opposed to inserting an image or screenshot of the table(s) and should have a simple structure.

When creating tables:

  • Only use tables to present data or information. Do not use tables to create document structure.
  • Ensure the top row of the table defines your column names (e.g., variable names).
  • Avoid split and merged cells.
  • Consider adding alt text to provide a brief explanation of the table layout and navigation.
  • Include a table caption to identify table’s purpose.
  • Within the Table Design, ensure that the ‘Header row’ and ‘First Column’ are identified.

Table generated in MS Word with header row and first column selected.

  • Within the Table Properties, ensure that ‘Allow rows to break across pages’ and ‘Repeat as header row at the top of each page’ are both selected.

Table properties in MS Word with Row tab selected and radio boxes checked for 'Allow row to break across pages' and 'Repeat as header row at the top of each page'.

How do I add formatted paragraphs and lists?

Avoid the use of hard returns (i.e., Enter key) and spacing to create white space in your document. To add spacing in your document, use the Paragraph Settings tools to add spacing, indentation, and breaks into your document.

To create structured lists, use the List Paragraph styles to create:

  • Ordered (numbered) lists, or
  • Unordered (bulleted) lists.

MS Word paragraph settings can be found on the Toolbar from the Home tab.

Is there a way to check the accessibility of my thesis document?

The MS Word Accessibility Checker will scan your document for common issues that may make your document less accessible for users with disabilities.  You can run an accessibility check at any time while you work on your document. You can also keep the checker open while you work to flag and fix issues as you go.

Note that not all accessibility issues/errors will be flagged by the built-in checker but running the accessibility check is a good first step and helpful to flag areas where improvements should be made.

To run the Accessibility Checker:

  • Windows: Select ‘File’ and then ‘Info’. Click on the ‘Check for Issues’ button and then select ‘Check Accessibility’ from the drop-down list.
  • Mac: Select ‘Review’ and then ‘Check Accessibility’.

After running the Checker, ‘Inspection Results’ may display one or more of the following messages:

  • Error: identifies content that makes a document difficult to read and understand.
  • Warning: identifies content that may make the document difficult to understand.
  • Tip: identified content that may not present an issue to a reader but could be improved.

Clicking an item in the ‘Inspection Results’ list will take you directly to the issue. The item will be removed from the inspection results automatically once it has been fixed. You do not need to re-run the checker.

How do I save my thesis document as a tagged PDF?

It is important to properly convert your document to a tagged PDF to avoid losing its accessibility features such as tagging and alt text.

Please do not ‘Print to PDF’ when exporting an MS Word document to PDF. A screen reader user may still be able to access the text of a PDF created in this way, but heading structure, alternative text, and any other tag structure will be lost.

To create a tagged PDF using Adobe Acrobat

In Adobe Acrobat, select ‘File’, then ‘Create’, and finally ‘PDF from File’. In the Open window, navigate to, and select the desired document to convert. Click on ‘Open’ to begin the file conversion.

To create a tagged PDF using the Acrobat Tab in MS Word

Click on the Acrobat tab in the main navigation tool bar. Click on ‘Create PDF’ and then click on ‘Options’. In the Adobe PDFMaker window make sure that the radio button for ‘Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF’ is checked.

To create a tagged PDF using MS Word for Windows

In MS Word, select ‘File’ and then ‘Save As’. Select ‘PDF’ from the ‘Save as type” drop down list. Click on the ‘Options’ button and make sure the radio button for ‘Document structure tags for accessibility’ is checked. Click on ‘OK’ and then ‘Save’.

To create a tagged PDF using MS Word for Mac

In MS Word, open the File application and select ‘Save As’. Select ‘PDF’ from the ‘File Format’ list. Make sure the radio button for ‘Best for electronic distribution and accessibility (uses Microsoft online service’ is checked. Then click on ‘Export’.


This guide was adapted with permission from Making Thesis Accessible by University of Toronto Libraries.

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