The structure of a document or a web page can play a huge role in the accessibility of information housed within it. Upon encountering a lengthy document, sighted users often scroll the page quickly and look for bigger, specially formatted text to get an idea of its structure and content. Students who use screen readers and other assistive technologies also depend on a document’s structure to navigate it. However, students who use assistive technologies may not receive the same cues other users do if resources are not designed accessibly. For this reason, the use of pre-formatted document structure such as heading styles, bullets, and alternative text becomes critical for users of assistive technologies.
Heading styles are used to:
- Structure page content
- Divide material into sections and subsections
- Navigate menus
- Allow users of screen readers and other assistive technologies to navigate a page and skim through or skip over sections
How to Use Headings
Watch the following video to see different ways in which document structure plays a role in accessible course design.
When structuring your document or webpage, you should:
- Make sure that every webpage or document has only one Heading 1 style; otherwise, users of some assistive technologies have no simple way to learn what the document is about
- Structure your document through hierarchy:
- Heading 1 is usually a page title or a main content heading — the most important heading
- Heading 2 is usually a major section heading
- Heading 3 is usually a subsection of Heading 2
- Heading 4 is usually a subsection of Heading 3
- … and so on, ending with Heading 6
- Ensure that headings are properly nested and that they are not skipped
- For example, do not jump directly from Heading 1 to Heading 3; instead use Heading 2 after Heading 1
- Use headings only for structure, not formatting; this means that they should be used to divide content into meaningful sections, not for text formatting
- For example, your Heading 2 styling may be italicized and green, but you should not use Heading 2 to format text this way unless the text divides content meaningfully
- Check that your headings make sense and are functional by:
- Viewing a list of all of the headings on the page
- Reading or jumping sections according to headings
- Use the Heading tool provided by Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or the software you are using rather than creating a de-facto “heading” by formatting text directly within the document
- The appearance of heading styles can often be changed, so if you do not like the way your headings look, you could learn how to change this (instructions will be specific to each software)
Providing students with a document that doesn’t have appropriate structure is like giving them a large pile of unnumbered pages that have been shuffled in a such a way that they do not follow a logical order. The information is there, but it is difficult to access efficiently. Using headings and implementing document structure are key to accessible document design.
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