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Information Technology Systems and Services

Improve Accessibility of Google Documents

Google Documents lacks key accessibility functionality and should be used with caution as it currently is not inclusive to all people. For example it lacks a way for authors to make data tables accessible. However, some methods exist for you to improve its accessibility.

Use Google Docs with Caution

Google Documents (Docs) is a web-based word processing tool, which allows some people to create and share documents. However, it is missing key accessibility functionality for people with disabilities. This includes the editing view and the view-only view. If the document contains data tables or lists with multiple levels, the document will not be accessible to some users with disabilities. As previously reported Google Apps possess accessibility barriers. The U.S. Department of Justice is currently investigating the University of Colorado Boulder after receiving complaints from students with visual disabilities for using Google Apps for Education document processing, email, spreadsheets, calendar, and notice and scheduling of activities, among others, when the Apps do not function fully, or at all, with screen reader software. In addition the National Federation of the Blind filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice against Northwestern University and New York University (plus four school districts in Oregon) in March 2011 for violating Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act by adopting Google Apps.

Icon: Warning Use Google Docs with caution as content made with it cannot be made as accessible as source materials produced with Microsoft Word. The best option for sharing content with others is to copy and paste it into another application that can create online documents such as an HTML editor (Dreamweaver, etc) or to download it to a Microsoft Word document. With either option, the author may need to do further editing work in the target application to add accessibility information such as row and column headers for tables. This information can be added through tools e.g., Microsoft Word’s built-in accessibility checker. The most accessible Google Docs are English text with your audience’s default language in their assistive technology being English. Google Docs does not allow the correct language of the document to be set. Co-editing is also a challenge. Whenever possible, offer people a choice of a Word document to use. Creating a PDF document directly from Google Docs will produce an inaccessible document that will require significant retrofitting in Adobe Acrobat.

Do Not Use Tables in Google Docs

Google Docs fails to provide a way for authors to make data tables accessible. It is currently impossible to programmatically identify table row and column headers associated with a table cell. Visual clues using bold and enlarged text does not convey the required functionality to screen reader and Braille users. Purely visual relationships are useless when a user cannot see the table. While fully sighted users can refer back to row and column headings at will in Google Docs, non-sighted users can't.

This creates a serious accessibility barrier. Assistive technology (AT) keyboard commands for keyboard shortcuts to navigate between data cells and read associated header information will not work. People with disabilities can quickly become disorientated and confused whenever their AT can't associate the headers with data only hearing rows or columns of data.

Therefore, do not use tables in your Google Docs when the access needs of your document's audience is unknown. This includes when your document is being shared in an unrestricted way for instance on the open web. Data table accessibility is an important aspect in not only adhering to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) AA, the University of Minnesota standard but also making your content inclusive to everyone.

Methods to Improve Google Docs Accessibility

If you use Google docs, the following methods will help you to improve accessibility.

Use Real Headings to Structure the Page

Documents are easier to understand for everyone when they are structured and broken up into chunks, each identified with an appropriate and real heading or sub-heading that describes the content that follows.

For people with disabilities this can be especially important. Screen readers use shortcut keys to navigate around web pages, but in every case they rely on real headings (not just big, bold text) being in place to enable this functionality. Research indicates not only are headings the key means that screen users employ to find information on longer content but also the heading levels themselves really matter to users navigating documents. Documents with headings will be more accessible to people with a range of disabilities, including some with cognitive and/or learning difficulties as well as people who rely on screen readers to access the web.

The following 5 minute video, "Using Google Document Headings" by Greg Kraus of North Carolina State provides the why and how to make accessible headings in Google Docs.

Use Real Lists to Structure the Page

Using real bulleted or real numbered lists (not just asterisks or hand numbering) specified with the proper list tool ensures that screen readers can effectively read list items. Screen readers identify the number and type of items in a list and enable users to easily skip all or part of the list if desired. Manually inserting list items will not provide the needed functionality. Do not use nested lists with more than a single level as Google docs codes them incorrectly. Use only a single nesting level (no indented sub-lists.)

How to Specify Real Bulleted Lists

Use bulleted lists for listing anything that doesn't need to come in a specific order. To create a real bulleted list:

  1. Highlight the text to be converted into a list.
  2. Select or click the "Bulleted list" icon on the tool bar.

Bulleted list icon

How to Specify Real Numbered Lists

Use numbered lists when the sequence of list items is important. For example they are great for explaining step-by-step instructions. To create a real numbered list:

  1. Highlight the text to be converted into a list.
  2. Select or click the "Numbered list" icon on the tool bar. Alternatively use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+7 (Command+Shift+7 on a Mac.)

Numbered list icon

Provide Appropriate Short Text Alternatives for Images

One of the most important things you can do to make your document accessible is to include appropriate short text alternatives for images. It is now possible to add text alternatives to images embedded in a Google Doc. Text alternatives help people who cannot see images understand what an image is of or the purpose or function it serves by providing the same information in textual form.

Text alternatives can be useful to people with visual disabilities, those who turn images off in order to improve webpage loading speeds, and those who cannot understand the image being displayed. Users of screen readers, language translation applications, voice recognition software, text browsers, or some hand-held devices cannot directly access pictures and other graphics. Similarly, some users choose to turn picture loading off especially those with slower connections. These users rely on textual alternatives. When you make the decision to add alternative text, you make your documents more inclusive. If an image can be represented textually, then the tools can also read the text alternatives aloud. If no text alternative is provided some user agents will read out the file name, such as "qU_vzOSes27Cl.jpg."

How to Specify Short Text Alternatives for Images

First, upload and embed the image file. Next highlight the image by selecting or clicking it. Then, go the "Format" menu and select the "Alt text..." option. It is the very last option in the menu.

Screenshot: Format menu

Text Description: Format menu

After selecting the "Alt Text" option in the "Format" menu an "Alt Text" window will appear.

Screenshot: Alt Text Window.

Text Description: Format menu

Enter your text alternative in the "Description" field of the "Alt Text" window. The text alternative is meant to be a concise replacement for the image and should serve the same purpose and convey the same meaning. To ascertain an appropriate text alternative think about why you are including an image in your document. Every image has a reason for being on a page because it either is purely decorative or provides information. By first establishing image purpose your decision of how to write appropriate text alternatives for different types of images becomes easier. So first decide if the image is 1.) merely decorative eye candy or 2.) if it contributes to understanding, functionality, and/or appreciation of page content. Then go from there as shown in the following short text alternative decision tree.

Diagram: Text alternative decision tree

Text Description: Short text alternative decision tree

Context Affects Short Text Alternatives

What's necessary and what's not depends a lot on the function of the image and its context on the page. The same image may require a text alternative in one spot, but not in another. In the following video Derek Featherstone discusses how context impacts writing appropriate alt text.

WebAIM provides further examples in Context is Everything.

Long Descriptions for Complex Images

To provide an equivalent experience for everyone, complex images such as charts, graphs, data visualizations, infographics, and pictures of visual representations of objects such as artwork, people, scenes, screen captures, and abstractions may require a long text description. Do not enter lengthy long descriptions into Google Doc's "Description" field as screen reader users will be forced to listen to the whole thing every time they encounter the image. Instead make another document and use a regular link near the image to link to your long description. That will give the user a choice to read the long description or not. For further information regarding long descriptions consult:

Provide Sufficient Contrast

You do not need to understand all of the details of color contrast to know how to create content that is accessible to those who have color disabilities and low vision. Here is an important fact to understand right off the bat. The overwhelming majority of people who are colorblind can see colors. They just have difficulty distinguishing between certain colors. The colors with which they have difficulty distinguishing depend upon their type of color-disability, but red-green deficiencies are the most common.

How to Specify Sufficient Contrast

When you're choosing text colors, high contrast between text and background is usually the best choice for most people with color contrast disabilities. It is easier to distinguish the shapes of words and letters, especially when one's vision isn't perfect. This doesn't mean that you have to restrict yourself to black and white. You can afford to venture a little further afield as long as your text is still crisp and legible.

To ensure that contrasts are visible to most people, you can use a simulator tool to check your content. The NoCoffee chrome extension can be helpful to check contrast in your content and to understand the problems faced by people with slight to extreme vision problems. For more color tool information visit Color Tools on the Web Design Reference Site.

Oh, and this really shouldn't have to be pointed out, but do avoid busy backgrounds as often as you can manage. The variations in color and brightness can make it even more difficult for someone who is already having trouble with their vision. If you absolutely must use a background image, consider darkening or lightening the image, and reducing its contrast. Less variation in brightness means that the text can stand out over all parts of the image, not just selected parts.

Never Use Color Alone to Convey Meaning

Color is often used to indicate special functions or status, for example, "correct answers are indicated in green." If you depend solely on color to communicate information, some people with color disabilities and people with devices that have non-color or non-visual displays will not receive that information.

How to Ensure Color does not Convey Meaning

Never rely on users' perception of color to differentiate items in a document. You need to provide another way of making the information available. For example, indicate correct answers with both the word "correct" and the color green.

To test whether your document still works without colors, examine it with a monochrome monitor, print it on a black and white printer, or view with browser colors turned off.

Never Use Bold or Italic Text Alone to Convey Meaning

Bolding text or making text italic will not convey meaning to all people. Theoretically screen readers could pronounce bold and italic in a different voice or style. In practice this does not occur. No notification is provided by bold or italic text to people who use screen readers under typical browsing conditions.

How to Ensure Bold or Italic Text does not Convey Meaning

Explicitly state in text what is meant. For example, in a meeting minutes document instead of listing all team member’s names, bolding attendee’s names, and stating, "people in attendance are indicated in bold text," explicitly state which members are present or absent with real text. It will be inclusive to all.

Use Proper Link Text

Use the "Insert link" icon in the formatting toolbar or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+K (Command+K on a Mac).

Screenshot: Insert link icon

Do not use the hyperlink text itself as link text because it will be read out to screen reader users. No one wants to hear "Link:" read out to them. As previously explained in Improve Accessibility: Think Before You Link, link text should clearly describe a link's actual destination.

Further Information

Google Accessibility - Laura Carlson
Google Litigation - Laura Carlson
Google Doc to Microsoft Office Bookmarklet - Greg Kraus, North Carolina State
Google Docs Accessibility: Google Sites - Greg Kraus, North Carolina State
Google Docs Accessibility: Spreadsheets - Greg Kraus, North Carolina State
Google Docs Accessibility: Presentations - Greg Kraus, North Carolina State
Report on Accessibility of Google Documents by Access Technology Higher Education Network (ATHEN)
Add Titles, Headings and Customize the Style of your Document - Google
Bold and Italic Text
H49: Using semantic markup to mark emphasized or special text
Screen Readers Lack Emphasis - Steve Faulkner
1.4.1 Use of Color - World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Technology Guideline
G14: Ensuring that information conveyed by color differences is also available in text - W3C Web Content Technology Guideline Technique
F91: Failure of Success Criterion 1.3.1 for not correctly marking up table headers - W3C Web Content Technology Failure
H51: Using table markup to present tabular information - W3C Web Content Technology Guideline Technique
Info and Relationships: Understanding SC 1.3.1 - W3C Web Content Technology Success Criterion
Text Alternatives for Images
F65: Failure of Success Criterion 1.1.1 due to omitting the alt attribute or text alternative on img elements, area elements, and input elements of type "image" - W3C Web Content Technology Guideline Technique