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Research Guides

Submit and Publish Your Thesis

Making Thesis Accessible

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 limitations such as visual, auditory, speech, physical, cognitive, neurological, or their combination and how these abilities may affect an individual’s perception of your content.

These general principles of universally accessible content are not part of the SGS requirement but will help you ensure your thesis can be accessed and read by the widest audience possible.

Document structure

Structuring your document using hierarchical headings will help readers understand how the content of a page is organized and how to easily navigate withing the document.

Thesis style templates available on the School of Graduate Studies website already have hierarchical headings in place. Using the templates will ensure that you follow the correct structure.

If you are creating your thesis outside of the SGS template, follow these principles:

  • Every document must have a Heading 1
  • Do not skip heading levels, e.g.: a Heading 2 must be followed by a Heading 3 then Heading 4, except when starting a new section
  • Heading names should be unique to prevent any confusion while navigating, skimming or reading the whole document

Alternative text for images

Alternative text (“alt text”) is a machine-readable tag that describes an image in words if the image cannot be displayed, for example for someone using a screen reader.

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").


How to write alt text for images

  • 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 “.” 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 test
    • The placement of objects in the image
    • Colours
    • Names of people in the image
    • Clothes, if they are important details
    • Emotions (e.g. smiling)


Complex images

Complex images contain substantial information, for example:

  • Graphs or charts (e.g. flow charts, organizational charts)
  • Illustrations or diagrams
  • Maps or other geographical or topographical images

The recommended alternative to writing about complex images is to write both a short and long description:

  • The short description in alt text first identifies the image, and then indicates the location of the long description. E.g. alt="Graph of quarterly temperature changes. Discussion available below.".
  • The long description on the page contains essential information that is conveyed by the image.


Where to add alt text in MS Word

►On Mac:

Select the image, right-click or Control and select "Edit Alt Text":

Edit Alt Text menu in MS Word on a Mac.


►On Windows:

Select the image, right-click and select "Edit Alt Text".

►►IMPORTANT: always add alt text in the "Description" field, not in the "Title" field.

Alt text menu in MS Word on Windows.

Accessible 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", 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.:

  • 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.

Colour contrast and colour reliance


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 the colour to not be the only means of conveying the information - consider adding other textual queues (e.g. text or numbers or % on a graph).

Don't do this:

An orange and a green circle with no text.

Do this:

An orange circle with a word Yes and a green circle with a word No.


Ensure sufficient contrast between background and text.

You can use WebAim’s Contrast CheckerContrast Ratio Checker, or the Colour Contrast Analyser to check the contrast ratio between your website’s background and text colours.

Accessible data tables

  • Ensure that “Header Row” and “First Column” are designated (checkbox checked)
  • Repeat column headings where a table spans multiple pages
  • Avoid split/merged cells 
  • Label to identify table’s purpose (table caption)
  • Add alt text in table properties

Screenshot of a table in MS Word with header row and first column selected.

Accessible lists

Use the MS Word list functionality to create:

  • Ordered (numbered) lists, or
  • Unordered lists (bullet points)

Example of an ordered and unordered list in MS Word.

Do not add numbering to paragraphs outside of the formatted list.

How to check your document for accessibility using MS Word tools

The MS Word Accessibility Checker scans the file for common issues that may make a file less accessible for users with disabilities.

Run the Accessibility Checker:

  • Windows: File > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility
  • Mac: Review > “Check Accessibility”

After running the Checker, the “Inspection Results” will 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 is addressed. You do not need to re-run the checker.

For further support, see the MS Support resource Improve Accessibility with the Accessibility Checker.

How to convert your document to PDF

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


Preferred Method (requires Adobe Acrobat Pro)

Export your Word Document by using “Create PDF” from a file in Adobe Acrobat Pro. Open Adobe Acrobat Pro > File > Create > PDF from File > Select desired document to convert.

Screenshot of Acrobat Pro DC menu option to create PDF from file.

If you are creating a document via the Acrobat Tab in MS Office, make sure that Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF is checked.

Screenshot of Acrobat PDFMaker with the checked checkbox to Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF.


Next Best Method (does not require Adobe Acrobat Pro)

Save your Word Document as a PDF using the “Save As” function. This may not preserve all accessibility features, such as tagging, so it’s best to use Acrobat Pro if you have it.


►On Windows:

Select File > Save As. Select “PDF” from the list of drop-down files. Click “Options” and make sure “Document structure tags for accessibility” is checked, then save the file.

Screenshot of MS Word on Windows file save option with the checked checkbox Document structure tags for accessibility.


►On Mac:

Open the File application menu and select Save As… Under File Format, select “PDF”. Then choose the Best for electronic distribution and accessibility (uses Microsoft online service) radio button, then Export.

Screenshot of the MS Word on Mac file save option in PDF with the checked checkbox Best for electronic distribution and accessibility.


►►IMPORTANT: never “Print to PDF” when exporting a 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.