CTL Blog

A Beginner's Guide to Authoring Universally Accessible Materials, Part 1: Document Properties

October 29, 2020 | 5 Minute Read

This guest post is by Celine Greene, Senior Instructional Technologist in the Center for Teaching and Learning.

This is the first part of a series highlighting some simple skills that, when turned into good habits, can go a long way toward creating and editing accessible materials. The series will touch on document properties, structure and formatting, alternative text, hyperlinks, color contrast, fonts, and a bit more. Don't worry – while some of those topics may not be in your wheelhouse right now, these guidelines are written for the "non techie". I promise to tread lightly!

Let’s begin by discussing document properties. What are document properties and why should you care? Document properties fall into a category of metadata, or “other data”. It’s the information that travels with a file and tells us a lot about it, without our ever having to open it. Some document properties are added automatically when you save a file, including the type of file (*.pdf, *.mp4, *.pptx, *.html, etc.), file name, and file size. Other document properties require a person take some action by editing the information to be saved as part of the file, such as keywords or tags, full document title, and any other descriptors.

Whether we realize it or not, document properties (metadata), are very important to all of us. In addition, they are an essential consideration for online resources in meeting Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) success criteria – a universal set of criteria that help individuals with disabilities (who are often using assistive technologies) to access, perceive, understand and equitably experience online content.

Document properties, or file information, are useful to us when we are searching for something on our computer, in our cloud storage space, or even when we’re doing an online web search. Consider all the times you have searched for a digital file or website. What can you remember about it – the topic? The filetype? The approximate date it was last updated? And when your search returns results, do you open each and every file until you find the one you were looking for, or do you look at the information you can see without opening it before deciding which file to open? And if there are several items returned in your search, do you filter the returned results based on filetype or key word? Every time you look at the information that is returned with your search, and every time filter your results, you are seizing the power of document properties!

Now imagine you can’t open any of the returned results without a great deal of effort. Perhaps you searched and just got a list of results with nonsensical names and no associated information. So, you now find yourself in a situation where you need to open each and every file until you find the one you wanted. Keeping with the theme, imagine you are unable to open any of these files without a key – or let’s just say, the appropriate assistive technology. And while there are a lot of keys available for you to choose from, you just aren’t sure which one is going to work for one file versus the next. Are you going to be frustrated or exhausted after opening the 3rd returned result or after the 23rd? Still not finding what you wanted, at what point are you just simply discouraged?

Thank goodness that with just a small bit of effort, every single one of us can make it easier to not only find the file we are looking for, but also to identify which key – or assistive technology – it’s going to take to open it! We can include document properties when we create and edit our documents, or later by modifying our saved documents through our computer or cloud storage apps including Windows’ File Explorer, Mac’s Finder, Microsoft OneDrive, and Google Drive. The best practice is to include the document properties when we create or edit our documents.

At a minimum, enter an appropriate and logical title and a few keywords (tags) on each of your documents. For instance, if you are creating a syllabus for your class on underwater basket weaving, you might save it as UBWSyllabus-Sp2021.docx. Just by saving it as you’ve always done, it already has the following document properties:

Filename = UBWSyllabus-Sp2021.docx
Type of file = Microsoft Word document (.docx)
Date created, Date last modified, and File size

Now, if you take an extra minute or two and go to the “File” tab while the document is open in Microsoft Word, you can click on “Info” to see and modify the properties. Here you can enter a lot of identifiable information – the metadata – that can be read by a person, search engine, or assistive technology without ever having to exert any effort in opening the file. At the very least, for this document, you might want to enter the following properties:

Title = Underwater Basket Weaving, Spring 2021
Tags = Syllabus, Schedule, Objectives, Basket Weaving

While you’re at it, make sure that you are listed as the document’s author! (Check out Microsoft’s support site for how to change the author property permanently so you’re always listed as the current user.) Sure, you can enter more information such as comments or associated company, but at a minimum just give the file a logical, full title and a few associated keywords.

And that’s it! Congratulations! Embracing this small habit – taking just one or two extra minutes to include a file’s title and tags with its document properties – is your start toward authoring universally accessible materials.

Up next? Part 2: Structure and Formatting