Case Study Examples and Step-by-Step Instructions to Convert Word Documents to Section 508 Compliant PDFs

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Table Troubles

It’s just a fact that tables are a very visual format, and they are very difficult to translate for 508 compliance.

Web-Based Table Tags

For web-based documents, tables can at least be controlled with markup language. WAC (Web Accessibility Center) provides a great example of using table row and column headers to make table data more “readable” for screen reader software at

Print Layout Tables

For non-web-based tables like those used in Word or InDesign source files, controls are still a bit limited, but, as with any text, styles are always recommended for the best conversion/readability in the final pdf. There’s a section of’s guide to Making Accessible PDFs that shows the basic idea. Go to to access the guide. E. Table Usage, under Step 2 shows an example of setting the table properties/repeating header.

Clean Code and Clean Design

Just as clean code always helps screen reader software, clean layout also helps non-web-based docs for 508 compliance. It’s all a matter of using proper/standard styles and settings.


Unfortunately, table data is still going to “read” awkwardly. Even HHS’s guide warns “Microsoft Word does not provide an easy method for creating accessible tables. If you have complex tables it is highly recommended that a description or explanation of the table contents be included in the text of the document.”

If the original author can avoid tables, 508 preparation will be much easier and more readable. The needs of the document must be weighed to determine the value added by using a visually formatted table versus a more text-friendly format.

The long and short of the matter is that tables can be nasty in 508 compliance efforts. The options are to provide an alt-text, caption, or side-bar describing or explaining the table contents, replace the table with a text-friendly format, or do the best you can with the table by formatting with clean styles and settings. The needs of the document should guide your decision.

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For 508 Compliance, Tell, Don’t Show

microphoneDoesn’t sound right, does it?  Writers are always advised to “show” not “tell” when they write.

The context of that advice, however, is mostly for writing evocative fiction or highly descriptive or sensory text.

Technical writers and instructors also follow the “show, don’t tell” advice because visual cues enhance learning.

Even in printed documentation, call out boxes, lines, graphics, graphs, and tables are all used to help convey information by the most easily digestible means possible.

Tables and Other Visuals

Tables are certainly an awesome way to break down complex data into visual sets, but they are the bane of a 508 compliance specialist’s existence.  There’s just no quick or easy way to make assistive reading devices “translate” that visual information.

It takes a lot of creativity to translate all those awesome visual elements in documentation to:

  1. a verbal or textual representation of the visual, and
  2. text that actually makes sense when read aloud.

This is why I tell writers and anyone else involved with 508 compliance to “think audibly”.

Think Audibly

tell don't showImagine that you are responsible for “telling” someone what’s going on or how to do something, but that person can’t see you or any examples.

You have to “tell” him audibly.

You have to use your spoken words to convey all the information.

THEN, you have to put those words into text for documentation.

There is a significant difference between the spoken word and the written word.  The language and basic communication are the same, but the written word is still somewhat of a visual medium.  We learn to read by recognizing shapes and combinations of letters.  When we read, we’re absorbing symbols for the language and translating them in our heads based on all our previous knowledge and experience.

Think about how you read.  You don’t identify individual letters.  If you’re a fast reader, you may not even consciously identify all the individual words in a sentence.  You grasp the concepts and move on.

Those visual shortcuts aren’t the same with audible communication.  You have to think audibly.  Most of your 508 efforts will be read aloud, so think in terms of audible communication.  THEN, put those words on paper…or word processor.

Use All the Tools

That doesn’t mean that we won’t still use visual images and cues to enhance learning in written and multimedia materials.  Of course, we will.  We still have to communicate effectively and meet the objectives.

Though, for 508 purposes, it’s best to reformat tables into segmented textual lists – until technology adapts to visual cues and complex table functions.

However, we’re not going to stop using an effective tool.  We just need to add a few tools to think ahead for 508 compliance.  If you know that you need to make the material 508 compliant, I advise writers to “tell” more while they’re also “showing”.

Descriptive Text

Even the original advice to writers to “show, not tell” wasn’t meant literally.  That advice refers to using evocative and descriptive text…not images and graphs.  That advice doesn’t go away.  Descriptive text is essential for communicating a full concept through text.

Maybe that’s a better way to think about it.  Images, graphs, and tables should be supplemental…to support the text, but the text should be able (for the most part) to stand on its own as a full representation of the information or concept…even if some of the text is in an alt-tag.


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caBIG Checklist and Video – Overview of 508 Compliance in MS Office Documents


The cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG) provides a helpful checklist for Section 508 compliance in Microsoft files (Word, PowerPoint, and Excel).  The direct link to the Word doc checklist is

Screencast Video

If you have 15 minutes to spare, there’s also a pretty good screencast video briefly demonstrating some of the automated and advanced features in Word and PowerPoint as they apply to Section 508 compliance.

The direct link to the screencast video is  Watch how they caution or apply the following elements for compliance.

508 Compliance Elements

  • Headings
  • Formatting
  • Master Slides
  • Bullets
  • Table of Contents
  • Alt Text
  • Styles
  • URLs
  • Track Changes
  • Colors
  • Tables – Table Headers, Table Issues, Merged Cells, Page Breaks in Tables

File Properties

The checklist and the video are also good reminders to populate file properties.

  • Author
  • Title
  • Subject
  • Keywords
  • Language

Overview and Instructions

The caBIG screencast video and checklist are great introductions and overviews to some of the concepts addressed in 508 compliance.  If you’re looking for detailed steps with screen captures, illustrations, and examples, we, of course created the Step-by-Step Guide to Section 508 Compliant PDFs.

Our step-by-step guide focuses primarily on Word (doc and docx files) and Adobe Acrobat (pdf files), but the procedures are easily adapted to PowerPoint, Excel, or even InDesign or other advanced publication software.

The caBIG screencast video is a great supplement with visual examples of 508 compliance tasks in PowerPoint files.  Too, some of the examples in the video may give you some ideas for unique work-arounds for difficult source files.

Additional Resources

We do try to provide readers with as many quality resources as possible for all your print, web, and multimedia compliance projects.

Comments Off on 508 Compliance, Bullets, and Read Aloud Functions

508 Compliance, Bullets, and Read Aloud Functions

…interesting question from a reader today.  The basic issue involved bullets and how text readers or read aloud features recognized (or didn’t) bullets and subbullets.

I have a client who is having issues with bullets when creating compliant PDFs from Word documents. Are there certain bullets that should be used and others that should not at all?

In my testing, my reader reads a filled-in circle bullet as the letter H; any other bullet I use, the reader doesn’t read it at all. It just reads the next item as the next sentence. I can’t seem to find a bullet that is read as ‘bullet’.

Options to Fix the Bullet Issue for Reading Aloud

Down to the nitty-gritty, I first addressed options to resolve the issue in Adobe Acrobat.

Note:  Some options are “cleaner” than others, but as with many troubleshooting methods, the results count more than the means.

Detailed instructions and illustrated examples of selecting, backgrounding, attribution, assigning alt text, etc. are addressed in the Step-by-Step Guide to Section 508 Compliant PDFs.

Option 1 – Background Bullets

The best way, if the text flows well enough through the bulleted list, is to select the bullet and subbullet characters and background them.  The human brain does register bullets and subullets, but we don’t actually “read” them.  As such, backgrounding them usually works fine.

When You Have to Indicate Audible Bullets

There are rare occassions where the bullet character actually does need to be read aloud to substitute for the visual cue.  For those (truly rare) occassions, there are a couple of options, but both take a bit of time and effort.

Option 2 – Alt Text Each Bullet

You can select each bullet or subbullet character and designate each as an image/object rather than text.  Then you can enter “bullet” as the alt text to be read aloud.

Option 3 – Alt Text the Entire Bulleted List

For those truly annoying cases where selection of the bullet or subbullet insists on joining the associated text, you can select the entire bulleted list and designate it as an image/object rather than text.  The alt text would then read something like:

Bullet Actual text here.

Bullet More actual text here.

Sub Bullet Even more text.

Sub Bullet Yet more text.

Bullet Last bit of text in the list.

Instead of “bullet” or “subbullet”, you could also be very precise and type out “First bullet”, “First bulleted item”, etc.

Beyond the Resolution – The Story Behind the Bullet Issue

To address the root of the bullet issue, I explained a bit about why bullets can cause issues with text readers, read aloud features, and 508 compliance.

No Universally Designated “Bullet”

To my knowledge there isn’t a “universal” character that’s always read as “bullet” aloud.  Microsoft Word DOES use a DEFAULT set of characters for bullets and subbullets (like the common round dot and hollow dot or bullet).

Word, however, like most word processing and documentation tools, is also highly customizable.  You can designate pretty much any character from a font set or item from a symbol set as a bullet or subbullet.

Nonstandard Bullet Examples

For one example, I use a square character with a “drop shadow” – CheckBoxBullet – for bullets on check lists.  It’s resizable like any other font character, and on paper, it looks like a check list folks can actually mark.

As another example, I’ve also had customers/clients request a dash or hyphen symbol for the subbullet rather than the hollow dot.  It all depends on the style guide or preferences of the client and the human readers/audience.

Complications with Bullet Recognition

Because there is no official or designated symbol for bullets or subbullets, I highly doubt many text readers are programmed to read the character as “bullet” when read aloud.

It IS possible that Adobe’s read aloud feature, Kindle’s text reader, or some other third party read aloud software could have custom code to read a specific character as “bullet” or “subbullet”, but the reader software would have to know exactly which character would be used as a bullet or subbullet and know the exceptions (like the same dot-like character used in a sequence for dotted borders and other objects).  THEN, it would all have to be custom coded.


Since 508 Compliance is only mandatory for government related material, and “passing” for compliance is still a bit subjective, I just don’t think the need for detailed custom code (per reader software, per word processor, per language, per character, plus exceptions, etc.) is justified for most of the reader software companies.

Buy the Book Section 508 Compliant PDFsNeed Detailed Instructions?

Detailed instructions and illustrated examples of selecting, backgrounding, attribution, assigning alt text, etc. are addressed in the Step-by-Step Guide to Section 508 Compliant PDFs.