Google Drive: Creating Accessible Documents

Google Docs is the word processing application included in Google Drive. Google Docs allow translating documents into other languages. Go to the Tools tab and choose the Translate option from the pull-down menu, then specify the target language and translate.

In this article, we describe how to enhance the accessibility of Google Docs documents.

Google has recently added the voice typing feature to Google Docs. Go to the Tools tab and choose the Voice typing option from the pull-down menu. Instructions are also available.

You can learn the keyboard shortcuts for Google Docs by reading the article written for the Google Docs Editors.

Because Google Drive is an application, the typical functions for navigating web pages may not always work. Specifically, Google Docs may require the activation of screen reader support by a user.

To learn how to activate screen reader support for individual Google Drive applications see Accessibility for Docs editors. Review also: Accessibility Features of Google Products.

Note: If a user cannot read a Google Doc file, it is suggested to download the file as an accessible Microsoft Office file.


Paragraph headings provide context and a way to navigate quickly within a document for those who use assistive technologies such as screen readers. These technologies often ignore text size and emphasis (bold, italic, underline) unless paragraph styles such as Headings are applied. Headings also allow automatic generation of a Table of Contents or bookmarks in a document. Also, styles modify the formatting of all related items in a document, so users can quickly change the format of all Headings of a particular level. It is still possible to override global settings by changing the format of an individual piece of text, regardless of style assignment. This can be accomplished by selecting/highlighting a section of text first.

Headings should be applied based on their logical hierarchy in the document. Start the page with a heading that describes overall document content (Heading 1). Following paragraph should use a sub-heading (Heading 2) and the following lower level section a sub-sub-heading (Heading 3), etc. Items of equal importance should be at equal level headings. Heading levels should not be skipped. For example, a Heading 3 should not be the first heading after Heading 1; Heading 2 should not be skipped.

To make an item a heading in Google Docs, go to the Format tab on the top menu bar/toolbar, select the Paragraph styles from the drop-down menu, and then pick the heading style you want to use. The Headings can also be named with keyboard shortcuts: Ctrl+Alt+1 (Heading 1), Ctrl+Alt+2 (Heading 2), etc.

Change from Normal Text to Heading 1, Heading 2, or Heading 3, using the appropriate heading levels depending on the content structure (as described above).

Any of the three heading styles help a screen reader user navigate through the Google Docs document page. In summary, Heading 1 should be used for the page title. Heading 2 and Heading 3 should mark sub-sections and sub-sub-sections respectively. Six heading levels are available (H1 - H6).

Page Numbers

Adding page numbers:

  • Open a document in Google Docs
  • Go to Insert tab and then find the Page number option on the pull-down menu
  • Choose where you want the page numbers, four different options are available
  • The page numbers will be added automatically


Images can play a significant role. The way to make them accessible is to add alternative text, or alt text, to the image. Alternative text is vital to ensure that users with visual impairments have access to information included in visuals including charts and graphs. This descriptive text should be limited to 120 characters for simple images. The alternative text for graphs, tables, and complex images including maps should provide a brief description of what is conveyed through visuals.

Images used for decorative purposes (i.e. those that do not provide meaningful information) should not have alt text. If the body of the document already contains a sufficiently detailed description in close proximity to the image, the alternative text can just identify the image so that the reader knows when it is being referred to.

While there are no set rules for determining what alt text should say - it depends on the image, context, the intent of the author, it is helpful to imagine describing the image to another person over the phone.

For charts and graphs, chart type (i.e., bar, pie, line), as well as overall trends or patterns, and relevant data points should be described. For example, a simple chart might have the following alternative text: "Bar chart including the number of traffic fatalities in Ravalli County from 2013-2015. Fatalities have increased for the last three years. There were 100 fatalities in 2013, 127 in 2014, and 140 in 2015."

  • In Google Docs, upload and embed the image
  • Click on image
  • Go to Format tab, then find Alt text (last item on the pull-down menu)
  • In the Alt text window, enter the title and alternative text in the Description field
  • Select / click OK

Color Contrast

It is essential that appropriate contrast exists between text and the background. In general, the light-colored text should have a darker background, and dark-colored text should have a light background.


Just like in headings' case, using the list tools to create bulleted and numbered lists will ensure that screen readers can effectively read list items. Numbered list that has multiple layers or levels should use a different numbering scheme for each level.

Use the Format option on the toolbar and choose Lists from the pull-down menu to create a numbered or bulleted list.


Make sure to make your document easy to read, not only for those who use assistive technologies but for everyone.

Sans-serif fonts are considered more legible fonts for monitors than serif fonts. Don't use a very small font size.

Color plays a significant role in any document. The color scheme itself should have a reasonable contrast between lighter and darker colors. Too little or too much contrast can make the document difficult to read for those who are colorblind or have low vision. Certain color combinations, such as very bright colors, can cause headaches.

Table of Contents

To improve navigation within a document for assistive technologies, it is recommended to add a table of contents. Throughout the whole document, you must designate headings as described earlier, as they form the foundation for generating the table of contents section. Doing so provides other advantages for the author including the ability to rapidly modify the overall document style without having to change each header individually.

Go to Insert tab and choose the Table of Contents option from the pull-down menu.

Creating an Accessible Template

Google Docs has a large collection of templates. Caution: Not all of these templates are accessible. Think first who will use the document you are creating.

You can create an accessible template from scratch and save it for later use.

See also: From Inaccessible to Accessible.

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This page was last edited by VLuceno on Monday, August 29, 2016 10:12
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