General content guidelines

You should apply these guidelines to any content you are working on to make it accessible for everyone, whether it is a webpage, document, video, or presentation.

Wherever possible, publish as an HTML webpage. It’s the best way to reach as many people as possible. If you do need to publish a document, it should be in addition to an HTML version.

Documents like PDFs make your content harder to find, use, and maintain. It can be difficult for users to customise them for ease of reading, and often they do not work very well with assistive technologies like screen readers.

On this page:

Advice for STEM subjects - formulas, equations etc is under development.

Structure (use headings and styles)

A structure means adding descriptive headings such as Heading 1, Heading 2 and Heading 3. Adding these creates a map or navigation menu of headings and sub-headings for screen readers to follow.

  • Break up your document to make it more readable. Use bullet points, numbered steps and subheadings.
  • When using descriptive section headings should be used to organise the content. Authors may also want to consider putting the most important information at the beginning of each heading. This helps users “skim" the headings to locate the specific content they need and is especially helpful when browsers or assistive technology allow navigation from heading to heading.
  • Do not use bold to mark-up subheadings. Use styles to create a hierarchy of headings: ‘heading 1’, ‘heading 2’ and so on.
  • Add a table of contents and summaries to longer documents and use page numbers ensuring all page numbers are in the same location.
  • Use descriptive page titles that describe the topic or purpose. Any links referring to the page/content should also semantically match the page title.

Colour and contrast

This will help to make your content accessible to people with visual impairments or colour-blindness.

Make sure:

  • Colour is not the only method of conveying meaning.
  • There is sufficient contrast between text and background colour in your document.

You can use the Microsoft Office Accessibility Checker to list any accessibility issues in your document, including insufficient colour contrast.

You can also manually look for text in your document that’s hard to read or to distinguish from the background.

Use of images

If you’re using images to convey information, think about how you’ll make the content accessible to people with a visual impairment or who use text-only browsers. Never use an image instead of text.

Two things you should do are:

  • Make the same point in the text of the document (so people with visual impairments get the information they need - the image is there as an extra for people who are able to see it).
  • Provide (or give the person converting or uploading the document for you) alt text (‘alternative text’) for the image which should be a meaningful description of the image. This can include links to more accessible content or other references.
See also

Advice from WCAG on complex images e.g. charts, diagrams, maps and illustrations

Links (hyperlinks)

Use meaningful links. It is particularly important for screen readers (which can scan links), that the link describes where the link goes e.g. “Understanding accessibility” and not “Understanding accessibility click here”.

  • Do not use repeated link titles such as 'click here' or 'find out more'
  • Do not use the full web address e.g. https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21
  • The best way to write it is how you would say it e.g. Understanding accessibility

Plain English and content

Write in language that’s as simple as possible. This makes your document accessible to people:

  • with cognitive impairments and learning disabilities (such as dyslexia)
  • who speak English as a second language
  • who need information quickly (all of us!).

Where you need to use technical terms, abbreviations or acronyms, explain what they mean the first time you use them.

More tips

  • Use descriptive section headings.
  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short.
  • Use a sans serif font like Arial or Helvetica
  • Use a minimum size of 12 points.
  • Make sure the text is left-aligned, not justified.
  • Use sentence case. Avoid all caps, text, and italics.
  • Avoid underlining, except for links.
  • Do not use colour alone to get across meaning.
  • Avoid footnotes where possible. Provide explanations inline instead.

See also

Table structure

  • Only use tables for data. Keep tables simple: avoid splitting, nesting, or merging cells.
  • Use table headers so that screen readers can identify columns and rows and so people can tab through your document.
  • Avoid blank cells as this can mislead screen readers into thinking the table has ended.

See also

Microsoft support: Create accessible tables in Word 

Forms and spreadsheets

Audio and video content

The 2018 Digital Accessibility Regulations require that, from 23rd September 2020, all ‘time-based media’ (video and audio) must either provide a transcript or captioning or both (video only).
Media published before that date is exempt. 

Further guidance will be made available over the coming months.

See also

Exempt types of content

Some types of content and websites are exempt from the new regulations. But even if something is exempt, all UK service providers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.

Documents like PDFs and Microsoft Office files need to be accessible if they’re primarily intended for use on the web.

There’s an exemption if they’re both:

  1. published before 23 September 2018
  2. not essential for services being provided

There are also exemptions from making content accessible if it’s:

  • pre-recorded audio and video published before 23 September 2020
  • live audio and video
  • office file formats published before 23rd September 2018, unless such content is needed for active administrative processes relating to the tasks performed by the public sector body
  • using maps - but if the map helps users find a service you offer, you must provide directions another way
  • part of a heritage collection - for example, scanned manuscripts
  • third party content that’s under someone else’s control if you didn’t pay for it or develop yourself - for example, social media ‘like’ buttons

SCULPT for accessibility

These guidelines are adapted from the SCULPT accessibility guidance developed by Helen Wilson, Digital Designer at Worcestershire County Council.

Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.