Document Accessibility Deciphered: Navigating Barriers in PDF, PPT, XLSX, and DOCX Formats

July 6, 2023

As the world continues to embrace digital technologies at an increasing pace, the issue of accessibility has risen to prominence. Document accessibility, a facet of this broader initiative, ensures that all users, regardless of ability, can engage with digital content to its fullest extent. At ZenythGroup, an industry leader in accessibility services, we believe in fostering an inclusive digital environment. In this comprehensive guide, aimed at potential customers and document remediation specialists alike, we'll delve into the nuances of document accessibility, referencing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and WCAG2ICT.

A Deep Dive into Document Accessibility

Document accessibility is the creation and modification of digital documents to ensure that all users, including those who use assistive technology, like screen readers, can effectively understand and interact with content. More than just a regulatory compliance measure, document accessibility is a critical element of the inclusive digital experience we strive to provide.

WCAG, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), are guidelines specifically designed to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities. The principles of WCAG, while originally designed for web-based content, are equally applicable to digital documents. This application of WCAG principles to non-web Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), including digital documents, is achieved through WCAG2ICT.

Applying WCAG Principles to Document Accessibility

Creating accessible documents involves careful consideration of multiple elements, all in service of inclusivity and accessibility:

  • Heading Structure: A logical, hierarchical heading structure is essential in guiding the user's understanding and navigation of a document. This structure is particularly beneficial for users of screen readers, as these assistive technologies often enable navigation through documents by headings.
  • Contrast: Text and background colors need to provide enough contrast to ensure the document is readable for individuals with visual impairments. The WCAG 2.1 standard prescribes a minimum contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for regular text, and 3:1 for large text, which is defined as 14 point (roughly 18.66px) and bold, or 18 point (roughly 24px) or larger.
  • Use of Color: Color, while an effective design element, should not be the sole method of conveying information or prompting responses. This is due to variations in color perception among individuals, including those with color vision deficiencies. Pairing colors with shapes or patterns can aid differentiation.
  • Alternative Text: All non-text content, including images, charts, and graphs, should be provided with alternative text descriptions. These descriptions, colloquially referred to as alt text, deliver the equivalent information found in visual content, and are indispensable for screen reader users.
  • Reading Order: Ensuring that the reading order of the document is logical and intuitive is essential. The reading order, or the sequence in which a screen reader narrates the content, should make sense even when read linearly by assistive technology.
  • Tabular Data and Complex Images: Tabular data should be presented in tables with clear headers for rows and columns. Complex images like charts or infographics require extended descriptions to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the image's content, giving screen reader users valuable context and information.
  • Built-in Styles: Utilizing built-in styles in document creation software, such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, greatly enhances document accessibility. These styles ensure consistent formatting and aid in the generation of a navigable table of contents.

These guidelines align with the overarching principles of WCAG: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust (POUR). When these principles are successfully integrated into document design, content becomes perceivable, operable, and understandable for all users, and robust enough to be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of assistive technologies.

Integrating WCAG2ICT in Document Accessibility

Incorporating WCAG2ICT guidelines takes accessibility a step further. While WCAG principles provide the foundation, WCAG2ICT offers specific guidance on how to apply these principles to non-web ICT, including digital documents. WCAG2ICT ensures that content remains accessible even when transferred between different platforms, technologies, or formats.

The implementation of WCAG2ICT guidelines reinforces our commitment to document accessibility, ensuring that all users, regardless of the technologies they employ or their individual abilities, can fully engage with the content we produce.

Unraveling the Inherent Barriers: PDF, PPT, XLSX, and DOCX Accessibility

After acquainting ourselves with the general requirements of document accessibility, let's transition to the second section of our blog post where we delve deeper into specific document types - PDF, PPT, XLSX, and DOCX. ZenythGroup recognizes the value in understanding the inherent accessibility challenges in these formats for both our potential customers and document remediators.

In this section, we'll illuminate the often-considered 'unfixable' accessibility barriers posed by each document type. Elements such as embedded fonts, intricate slide designs, non-linear navigation, complex tables, and advanced features frequently lead to friction in the user experience for those relying on assistive technologies.


  • Embedded Fonts: PDFs that use uncommon or specialized fonts, or include complex typography, may encounter accessibility issues. If the necessary fonts are not available or recognized by assistive technologies, the text may not be rendered correctly, impacting accessibility.
  • Complex Forms (XFA): These are a type of dynamic forms which are often used for business forms. They are not supported by all PDF readers and thus can create accessibility issues.
  • XForm objects (XML Forms): Not all PDF readers, particularly screen readers used by those with visual impairments, fully support XForm objects. Information contained within XForm objects might not be extractable in other forms (like text), making it inaccessible to those who rely on certain assistive technologies.
  • Security Restrictions: If a PDF is password protected or encrypted, the PDF cannot be tagged. Additionally, the conditions of the Digital Rights Management (DRM) may permit a PDF in Adobe Digital Editions to be accessed by screen readers, while blocking other tools like text-to-speech due to the restriction on the copy-paste function.
  • Multimedia Elements: Audio, video, or interactive elements in a PDF may not be accessible depending on the type of the multimedia content and the capabilities of the PDF viewer.
  • Content within Annotations or Comments: PDFs may contain annotations or comments, such as sticky notes or markups. While efforts can be made to make these elements accessible, the accessibility of the content within annotations or comments can vary depending on the tools used and the adherence to accessibility standards.
  • Link in an image: Some screen readers may not identify the link or image at all, rendering the link and/or image inaccessible to those users. For those that do provide information about this type of element, only the image or the link will be announced and which one will be reported depends on which screen reader is being used.
  • Verdana Font: Can result in the glyph width information in the font dictionary and in the embedded font program differing by more than 1/1000 unit. This can result in AT recognition of spacing between characters and words being incorrect and may affect reading order of text, may cause screen readers to incorrectly identify a character, and may cause difficulties with word-by-word or character-by-character navigation.


  • Slide Backgrounds and Complex Visual Designs: PowerPoint allows for visually rich backgrounds, intricate designs, and decorative elements. However, such complex visual designs can interfere with the legibility of text or cause difficulties for individuals with visual impairments or cognitive disabilities.
  • Complex Slide Transitions and Animations: While slide transitions and animations can enhance the visual appeal of a presentation, they may not be fully accessible to individuals using assistive technologies. Ensuring that the content is still understandable and accessible without relying solely on visual effects is crucial.
  • Non-Linear Navigation: PowerPoint presentations often have a non-linear structure with hyperlinks or branching paths. While this can create engaging experiences, it can be challenging to replicate the same non-linear navigation for individuals using assistive technologies or screen readers.
  • Table Row Headers: Unlike in HTML or even in Word, tables in PowerPoint don't have a built-in way to designate header rows or columns. This lack of semantic structure can make tables confusing for screen reader users.


  • Complex Tables: Excel allows for the creation of complex tables, but tables with merged cells, nested tables, or lacking proper header cells can pose accessibility issues. Screen readers rely on table structure to convey information, and poorly structured tables can hinder comprehension. For header information to be appropriately provided to AT the table must be programmatically marked as a table, and Excel does not allow merged or split cells in programmatic tables.
  • Interactive Features: Excel supports interactive features like drop-down menus, checkboxes, and form controls. However, these elements may not be fully accessible to individuals using assistive technologies. Alternative methods or additional accessibility measures may be needed to make these features inclusive.
  • Data Validation and Conditional Formatting: Excel offers data validation and conditional formatting features to enhance data integrity and presentation. However, these features may not be fully accessible, and additional considerations may be required to ensure their inclusivity.
  • Accessibility of Macros: Excel allows for the creation and use of macros, which can automate tasks or perform complex calculations. However, macros may present accessibility challenges, and alternative methods or accessible versions of the functionality provided by macros may need to be considered.
  • Images: Images are not included in the content of a cell, so cannot be easily found by screen readers. Alt text may be added to images, but images are not announced when At users navigate cell-by-cell.
  • Text Boxes: Depending on the software, text boxes re typically not automatically included in the screen reader's navigation, making their content inaccessible to people using these tools. For screen readers that do include text boxes in the navigation, because text boxes can be placed anywhere on a sheet, their content might be read out of sequence, leading to confusion.
  • Locked Cells/Protected Sheets: Error messages that Excel displays when a user attempts to interact with a locked cell or protected sheet may not be adequately descriptive or accessible for individuals using screen readers. Furthermore, the processes to unlock worksheets or unprotect cells often require use of a mouse or intricate keyboard commands, which may not be feasible for all users.


  • Complex Text Boxes/Floating objects: Word documents that heavily rely on complex text boxes, especially when they overlap or have irregular positioning, can pose challenges for accessibility. Appropriate reading order may be difficult to determine.
  • Watermarks or Background Images: Word documents that use watermarks or background images can present accessibility challenges. These visual elements may interfere with the legibility of text or make it difficult for screen readers to accurately interpret the content. If used, the meaningful information from the watermark or background information must also be provided elsewhere in the document because it cannot be communicated from the watermark or background image.
  • Track Changes and Comments: Word documents that include tracked changes or comments may require additional attention to ensure their accessibility. Information conveyed through tracked changes or comments should be clearly communicated and readily accessible to all users because many of the visual cues are not provided to assistive technology.
  • Complex Tables and Spreadsheets: Word documents containing tables or spreadsheet-like content may require attention to ensure accessibility. Word only supports one level of column headers and one level of row headers. Tables with merged cells, split cells, or multiple levels of headers cannot be made accessible to assistive technology.
  • Non-Standard Fonts: Word documents that utilize non-standard or uncommon fonts may encounter accessibility issues. Fonts that are not recognized or available on the user's system can impact legibility and accessibility of the document's content. Some non-standard fonts might not be correctly interpreted by screen readers, especially if they include unusual characters or symbols. This can make the text inaccessible for people who rely on these assistive technologies.
  • Unsupported Features or Macros: Word documents that contain advanced features, macros, or interactive elements may face limitations in terms of accessibility. These elements may not have full support for assistive technologies, requiring additional effort to provide accessible alternatives or workarounds.
  • Word Art and Text Effects: These decorative elements can be difficult for screen readers to interpret correctly. It's generally better to use standard text and add emphasis with bold or italics, if needed. Screen readers might not be able to accurately interpret and read aloud text that has been converted to WordArt or heavily stylized with text effects, as they may be treated as images rather than text.
  • Embedded Files: Word only allows for alternative text to be added to embedded files. In almost all cases this is insufficient to provide the information contained in the embedded file. Embedded files must not be used, or their information must also be presented in the Word document itself.
  • Fillable Form Fields: Microsoft Word, despite its comprehensive form creation tools, presents formidable accessibility challenges. While it offers functionality for creating fillable forms, these are not suitable for individuals who depend on screen readers. As Word is predominantly utilized for generating content rather than for consuming it, files containing forms are set to Restricted Editing Mode. This prevents those who are completing the forms from altering the questions. Therefore, keyboard navigators can only tab through the form fields themselves, without being able to access the form labels or any explanatory text that guides them on how to fill out the form. However, Word can be employed to design form templates, defining the structure of form labels, descriptions, and indicating the locations for form fields for future PDF exportation.

Charting the Course Towards Inclusive Digital Accessibility

Navigating the complex landscape of document accessibility can be a daunting endeavor, but rest assured that with ZenythGroup, you're not alone. We've unveiled the intricate nuances of 'unfixable' accessibility barriers within various digital documents, offering a lens into the challenges that impede the creation of a fully inclusive digital space. However, understanding these intricacies is just the beginning; it's the first step on our shared journey towards inclusive digital accessibility.

In addition to document accessibility, ZenythGroup offers a plethora of services to aid you in meeting your accessibility goals. We provide comprehensive audits for websites and mobile applications, identifying potential accessibility issues and offering recommendations for improvement. Our expert team also provides design annotations, ensuring that your digital content is both aesthetically pleasing and fully accessible. If your focus lies in developing accessible web content, we offer assistance with that too, providing services in accessible web development that comply with global accessibility standards.

For organizations seeking to bolster their in-house accessibility know-how, ZenythGroup provides tailored e-learning and training modules to impart the skills needed to champion digital accessibility in your environment. And for those of you seeking official documentation attesting to your compliance with accessibility standards, we offer services to create a Letter of Reasonable Accessibility, Accessibility Conformance Report (ACR), commonly referred to as a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT).

In conclusion, the quest for digital accessibility may present unique challenges, but they're not insurmountable. At ZenythGroup, we are passionate about fostering an inclusive digital landscape where content is accessible to everyone, regardless of ability. Together, let's break down the barriers and build a future where digital accessibility is not an afterthought, but a fundamental part of all digital content creation.

Thank you to all the accessibility professionals on A11ySlack who went down the document accessibility rabbit hole with us to collect this important information.

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