It goes without saying that fillable forms need to be accessible. But which format should you use, and what factors should you consider when deciding on the format?
You’ll find some seemingly contradictory results if you search online. On one hand, various blog posts and tutorials offer instructions on creating accessible forms in Microsoft Word. On the other hand, however, you’ll also come across other sites that discourage using Word forms altogether and recommend sticking exclusively to accessible PDFs.
This article will explain the pros and cons of different formats for accessible forms, how PDFs differ from Word documents in terms of accessibility, and what to do if Word is your only option for a fillable form.
Format options for your forms
You can create forms in Microsoft Word, PDF, and HTML; each format has benefits and drawbacks. Accessible HTML is the best option for online forms, but if you want your customers to be able to download and complete the documents, then you’ll need to provide either a Word or PDF version.
Creating Accessible Documents
Section 508 requires all electronic content, including Word documents, to conform to Level A and AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements in WCAG 2.0, with an exception for the criteria that is specific to web and HTML. It suggests substituting web document terms with non-web document terms when applying WCAG, such as “in a document” for “on a Web page.”
The differences between remediating Word documents and PDFs
Here, the proviso is that some PDF requirements simply don’t apply to Word. Screen readers interact with content in different ways, depending on the document format. In PDF files, screen readers access what could be described as a virtual overlay. This is how document remediators can apply tags to the various textual elements without changing the appearance of the content. Screen reader users and individuals who use refreshable braille displays interact directly with the content in Word files, just as sighted readers do. This means that accessible Word remediation will almost always affect how the content looks because it involves changes to the actual content rather than the tagging structure behind the scenes.
In a PDF, if a block of text is tagged as an h3 but should really be a paragraph (because it is not intended to represent the third sub-section heading level of the document’s structure), the change can be made without altering the way the text looks to a sighted reader. Unfortunately, this is generally not the case in Word. Changing an h3 to a paragraph will absolutely modify the appearance of the document. As a result, remediating a Word document while maintaining the styling and formatting of the original document can take a significant amount of time and effort. Adding interactive functionality to form fields in Word may result in a document that does not look the same. This is likely the most significant challenge to creating accessible Word forms.
Outside of the range of available document file formats, Word and PDF are the only two that are widely used to create fillable forms. The PDF file format offers more robust accessibility features and tends to be easier to remediate while maintaining the original document’s appearance. However, people are usually more familiar with Microsoft Word than Adobe Acrobat Pro or other software for creating PDF documents.
Word documents are especially prevalent in various sectors, including government and education. While many users are already comfortable creating Word documents, they may not realize it’s just as easy to make those documents accessible and, in turn, for their documents to have a greater and wider-reaching impact.
When Word is your only option for fillable forms
Though users may face challenges remediating accessible Word documents, it’s easier to create a Word document with accessibility in mind from the beginning. When you want to create an accessible fillable form in Microsoft Word, add the Developer Tab to the Word ribbon by selecting File > Options > Customize Ribbon and check the Developer checkbox.
From the Developer tab, in the Controls section, there is a Legacy Tools button. With Legacy Tools open, users may choose the desired form element they would like to add to their fillable form. It is important to add Help Text by right-clicking on the form element (Shift F10) and selecting Add Help Text under Properties to each form element because screen readers can automatically adjust to Forms mode when there are fillable forms in a Word document.
Within that mode, the users will not be provided information outside of what is in the Help Text, including the context of the field, such as the form questions and form field label text.
Note that when using the ActiveX form controls, if you use the ActiveX form controls, you’ll need to protect the document and select Filling in forms as the only type of editing allowed in order for the Word Form to work with assistive technology. (This limits what screen reader users can access.)
Avoid using Content Controls, which are inherently inaccessible and are often “keyboard traps.” They hinder navigation and make for an inferior user experience. There have been minimal improvements over time, but they haven’t made a significant difference to the level of accessibility that you can attain.
The final “word” on fillable forms
Although Microsoft Word offers many benefits to content creators and end-users alike, it doesn’t include a robust solution for accessible, fillable forms at this time. Therefore, to provide a high-quality user experience and fillable forms that meet compliance, it’s best to make them available as an accessible PDF.
This post was contributed by Crawford Technologies’ Jen Goulden and TPGi accessibility engineer Jean Strohmier.
Need help with your digital accessibility? Contact TPGi today.