Adobe InDesign is a powerful tool to create both print and electronic documents with complex layouts. No matter which electronic format you plan to generate from InDesign, the same universal design features apply. Whether you’re creating a PDF, an EPUB, or an HTML file, the most critical features to include are headings and styles, reading order, and alt text for images.

A Note of Caution:

  • PDFs exported from InDesign should always be double-checked for accessibility in Acrobat, as the conversion process can produce unanticipated results.
  • Adobe’s online publishing tool is not accessible at this time. The PDF needs to be offered directly as a PDF in order for users to benefit from the document’s accessibility.

What are Headings?

Headings are used to create an outline, or table of contents, that helps users to navigate the content more efficiently. These are especially crucial for screen reader users, who can get a sense of the contents of an entire document without having to read line-by-line, and can skip to a section or move around the document as needed.

You can apply the concept of headings in almost every kind of electronic content, including Word documents, on the web, and in Canvas courses.

  • Use headings to provide a page structure or outline
  • Nest appropriately - do not skip levels
  • Use headings to indicate sections of content. Avoid using headings purely for visual appeal.
  • Avoid over-using headings, especially for links.

Video: Screen Reader Without Headings

Setting Styles in InDesign

Using Headings in InDesign

Use Paragraph Styles to format your InDesign document with headings and styles instead of using the font settings in the toolbar. An additional advantage of setting styles is that you can apply changes globally across your entire document, saving the time it would take to change each section individually.

Window > Styles > Paragraph Styles

In InDesign, select Window menu, styles, then paragraph styles

Once in the Paragraph Styles window, select the structure type that you want to assign to the highlighted text.

Paragraph styles window with H1 selected

To change the appearance of a particular style, double-click on it to bring up Paragraph Style Options.

Paragraph style options window with Basic Character Formats highlighted to change H1 style font settings

The headings and styles document structure that you create will not automatically transfer to PDF when you export from InDesign. In order to maintain headings and styles, specify how the styles should be recognized in the resulting PDF.

In the Paragraph Styles Options window (the same window where you edited the appearance of your styles), select Export Tagging. Under PDF, select the style that you want to see in the converted PDF. In this case, H1 will map to H1:

Export Tagging menu showing H1 selected in the PDF dropdown menu

Reading order is important to consider for content that isn't linear. It applies to the more heavily visual layouts such as websites and PowerPoint presentations, as well as to PDF documents with columns, images, or forms. Setting the reading order allows text-to-speech or screen reading software to read the information in a logical order. It also ensures that links and form fields can be tabbed through sequentially for users who navigate with a keyboard or screen reader.

To set reading order in InDesign, use the Articles panel: Window > Articles

Select Window, Articles

Drag content from the document into the Articles panel in the order the content should be read. You can drag multiple items by holding the shift key and selecting them in the correct order before dragging to the panel.

Articles panel showing content order

What is Alternative Text?

Images convey information quickly and powerfully—assuming they can been seen and understood. However, some readers may not understand the meaning of the image; others may not be able to see it due to visual impairment, personal viewing preferences (especially on the web), or technological limitations.

Alternate text (often called “alt text” or "alt tag") is added to an image to provide a textual alternative to visual information. Why is this important? Remember, some users won’t see your information; instead, they’ll hear it using screen-reading software. By adding an alt text to an image, you make its meaning available to people who, for whatever reason, cannot see it.

The following video clips demonstrate what images sound like to someone using a screen reader. The first is an example of an accessible image with alt text. The second shows what happens when alt text is not included.

Video: Alt Text with JAWS (Screen Reader)

Video: Screen Reader Reading Image without Alt Text

Writing Alt Text

Alternate text should be added to all non-text elements, including:

  • Pictures
  • Graphs
  • Charts
  • Microsoft Office SmartArt

Make alternate text meaningful to a listener:

  1. What is the context of the image? What meaning does it add to the page?
  2. Be concise. Describe only what you expect visual users to get out of the image.
  3. If the image is already described in the surrounding text, the alt text can be very short.
  4. Avoid redundant statements like “Image of” or “This is a picture of.” Simply state what it is.
  5. If an image is purely decorative, mark it as such (various methods depending on software).
Adding Alt Text in InDesign

Adding Alt Text in InDesign

If alt text does not exist from an originating document, it can be added manually within InDesign:

Select the image with the Selection tool. In the menus, select Object > Object Export Options

InDesign Object menu with Object Export Options selected

In the Alt Text tab, choose Custom from the Alt Text Source drop-down menu.

Note: Alt text can also be imported into InDesign from Microsoft Word or from Adobe Bridge metadata. To import existing alt text, select XMP: Description from the Alt Text Source menu instead of Custom.

Alt text dropdown menu with custom selected

Type the description in the text field.

Alt text box with description