Creating Section 508 Compliant Excel Spreadsheets


>> Welcome to the webinar, Excel and Accessibility. My name is Sid Sharma, I'm the DOI Section 508 program manager.
>> And I'm Catherine Emmett, Bureau of Land Management.
>> So what is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act? In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to require all federal agencies to develop, procure, maintain and use Information and Communication Technology -- ICT -- that is accessible to everybody, including individuals with disabilities. The purpose of the law is to ensure that federal employees and members of the public with disabilities have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the accident and use provided to individuals without disabilities. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology to make available new opportunities for persons with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals.
So when Section 508 was enacted, it required the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, the U.S. Access Board, an independent federal agency, to develop accessibility standards for ICT. These accessibility standards are available at 36 CFR 1194. According to the U.S. Access Board's accessibility standards, all public facing electronic content must be accessible. Electronic content that is not public facing, but is official business and is communicated through one or more of the following nine categories, is an agency official communication, and must be accessible. The nine categories are as follows: An emergency notification, an initial or final decision adjudicating an administrative claim or proceeding, an internal or external program or policy announcement, a notice of benefits, program eligibility, employment opportunity or personnel action, a formal acknowledgment of receipt, a template or form, a survey or questionnaire, educational or training materials and intranet content designed as a webpage. Now in addition to the law under U.S. Access Board's accessibility standards, the Federal Acquisition Regulation -- FAR -- requires federal agencies, when acquiring ICT, to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access and use provided to individuals without disabilities. The FAR provides policy and procedures for the acquisition of goods and services by federal agencies.
Now within the Department of Interior, we have a Section 508 policy, it's at 375 Departmental Manual Chapter 8, and it provides bureaus and offices with policy and responsibilities for implementing the requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Now one of the responsibilities identified in the DMs for document readers, so any individual or office that is developing electronic documents for dissemination or posting on an agency's website must ensure that documents are accessible prior to posting or dissemination. Now in addition to this training, the CIO Council Accessible Electronic Document Community of Practices developed basic authoring and testing guides for creating accessible Excel files, and you can get to these resources through the DOI Section 508 website, at
So that was a quick background on Section 508. I'll turn it over to Catherine.
>> So first, all I want to do is make an Excel spreadsheet. How does that affect me? Well, if you're asking yourself that question, just look at these basic requirements for creating Excel documents that are accessible. We have document formatting requirements. These are things like using descriptive filenames in your document, and having a good title under Document Properties. When we get to text formatting, we want to be sure we use built-in features to organize our content, and we want to use unambiguous names for our links. When it comes to object formatting, we need to duplicate vital info that's in our headers and foots and watermarks. You want to use built-in features to create data tables, and use alternate text for images and graphs. When we get to color, we have to be sure we don't use color alone to convey meaning, and that we always use an acceptable color contrast. We're going to unpack these one at a time.
The first thing I want to show you is the Excel Accessibility Checker. The Accessibility Checker checks the document for any content individuals with disabilities may find difficult to read. The Accessibility Checker is located on the File tab, and this is in the same place in PowerPoint, Excel and Word, so if you know how to use the Accessibility Checker in any one of these programs, you know where it is in all of them.
Let's take a look at the Accessibility Checker. You'll see here I have a pretty complicated Excel spreadsheet. So I'm going to check it for accessibility, using the Accessibility Checker. I'm going to go to the File tab on the left, under Info, I am dragging down to check for issues, and I'm going to select Check Accessibility. When I select Check Accessibility, the Accessibility Checker opens in the right side of the screen. You'll see my Inspection Results, and it gives me a warning here. It says I have merged cells -- 53 merged cells. And if I click on there, Merged Cells, you'll see all of the merged cells listed. And if I need to go to any one of these, all I have to do is click on it, and the Accessibility Checker takes me right there so I can fix my content. In addition to identifying any accessibility errors, the Accessibility Checker also includes additional information on how and why to fix that mistake, and you'll see it below the Inspection Results.
So I'm going to close the Checker, and open it up again, to help us all remember exactly where it is. We're going to go to the File tab, Check for Issues, and Check Accessibility. Now the Accessibility Checker updates in real time, so anytime I correct one of these errors, it will disappear from the list. And when the list is empty, your work is most likely done. So this slide is just a quick screen shot of the Accessibility Checker Inspection Results, and again, how to fix any errors.
Then we're going to move on to our document formatting, and we're going to start off talking about descriptive filenames. A descriptive filename identifies the document or its purpose. It helps everyone locate and open and switch between documents. Basically, you want to know what you're opening before you actually open it, so you know where you're going and what to expect. So you don't want documents or titles like "Untitled 1," "Untitled 2," or titles that don't even include words or make any sense at all, because you'll find it hard to remember what's actually in that content if you go to retrieve it at some point in time, and people that you send the document to also won't know what to expect before they open the document. So please use a descriptive filename.
Now we're moving on to text formatting. We want to be sure that we always use the built-in features to organize content. When we use built-in features, we're creating a structure that screen readers and assistive technology users can use to read information in the correct order, just left to right, top to bottom. So you'll see on this side, we have a fiscal year 2017 grants award table; it's pretty simple. We just have our three columns -- Grantees, the States and the Type of Institution -- so this is a simple table to read left to right, top to bottom.
Moving on to links -- it's important to provide unambiguous names for links. This is a lot like a descriptive filename. You want to describe the destination, its function or purpose, so you want to know what you're getting into before you open the link. If you have several links on a page, and you name them all things like, "Click Here," "Learn More," "Read More," "Read More" -- that's not very helpful. Assistive technology won't be able to convey that information that distinguishes the distinct links.
So, how to create unambiguous filenames for links in Excel? Well, under the Insert tab, you want to select Hyperlink. You enter the text describing designation, function or purpose in the Text to Display field. So let's take a look at how this really works in Excel. I'm going to open up a very simple table here that lists the DOI Section 508 program manager, and you'll see here that we have a column that lists Directives. Under there, we have the DM, 375 DM 8, Section 508 Program and Responsibilities. So to create a Hyperlink here, I am going to highlight the cell, and I am going to under Insert, I'm just going to select Hyperlink, and you'll see Text to Display -- it just says "375 DM 8 Section 508 Program and Responsibilities." Down here in the Address section, this is where I'm just going to enter my web address. So a screen reader is going to read, "375 DM 8," it's not going to read the very long web address.
Okay, moving on. Now we're going to talk about headers, footers and watermarks. Screen readers don't automatically read the information in the header, footer or watermark. They can get into it by navigating through different menus, but that's kind of a time-consuming process, and it can be very easy to miss that information. So as a best practice, we recommend that you duplicate your vital information in the text of the document itself. So if you have "Do Not Distribute" in your header, also include "Do Not Distribute" within the text of the document, to make it really obvious and abundantly clear what's included.
Okay, now this is where we're going to get to the heart of the matter. We're going to talk about data tables, and how to use built-in features to create data tables. We're all familiar with data tables; they require information from a row or column header to adequately describe the cell's content. To create an accessible table, don't use images. That's just a picture. It's not accessible. Next, you have to keep your data tables simple; that means using one row of column headers, and no merged or split cells. Lastly, you want to identify your header rows and columns. Now whenever you merge or split a cell, you are creating a complex table, and that's not what we want to do. So try to avoid that whenever possible.
So let's take a look at our automatic features. To create a table, there's a couple ways to do it. This first example, we are going to go to the Insert tab, go to Table, and we're going to select the range of cells that contain your data. You'll get the Create Table dialog box popping up, and you want to ensure that you check the box that says, "My Table Has Headers." So let's take a look at a real table here -- this is a basic one. So here is my table. It says we have three columns, Fiscal Years 2016, 2017, 2018, and we have our row headers, Training and Equipment. So to create a table with this information, I'm going to highlight my cells, I'm going to go to Insert and Table. The Create Table dialog box pops up, and I'm going to select My Table Has Headers. And there you have it. It even adopts a pretty nice formatting there that's aesthetically easier to look at than just a bunch of numbers. We have some highlighting that helps distinguish the rows and columns.
So that's just one way to create a data table. The second route to creating a table is under the Home tab. You'd select the cells of your table, and under Home, go to Styles, and select the style that you prefer. So here's our table again. We're going to highlight the cells we'd like included. Under the Home tab, we're going to go to the right here under Format as a Table, and when I select Format as a Table, you see all the different color options and formats that I have to pick from. And there you go -- now I've created a table in another way.
Now we're going to talk about accessible images and objects. Screen readers can't infer meaning from just an image or an object, like a chart or images of a text, or images of a table. To make them accessible, we have to add descriptive text to the images and other objects, by adding alternate text. You can also include that information in surrounding text, or in an appendix. Now if you're adding alternate text to images, you want to make sure that your alternate text describes the purpose and-or function for all of the meaningful objects. So if you have an image of text, your Alt-Text should match that text, verbatim. If you have something that's just very decorative; it's not conveying any information to the reader, you can just add double quotes in the Alt-Text field, and the screen reader or assistive technology will skip right over it.
So we're going to open up a sample document so that we can walk through this process. So let's see how we create accessible images and objects. Select the area, and go to Format Chart Area, or Format your Image, and add your alternate text. So let's open an Excel document and see how we accomplish this. So here I have a funding proposal bar graph. I want to make sure that this is accessible to everyone, so I'm going to click on my chart area, I'm going to go down to my Formatting Charts, under Alt-Text, I'm going to make sure I have a description field that explains what's going on in my bar graph. And here, my Alt-Text reads, "Bar graph illustrating funding proposal figures listed in Table 1" -- so there is my alternate text. Please do not enter alternate text in the Title field; you only need your alternate text in the Description field. Okay, and these next two slides include the step-by-step instructions with screen shots to walk you through the process.
Now we're going to move on to the use of color and color contrast. When it comes to using color, we want to be sure that we don't use color as the only means of conveying information, because individuals who are blind, low vision or color blind won't have access to that information. It's good to use as many tools as you have at your disposal to get the information across -- that's great. But just don’t make it the only way to get to that information.
Now when we get to Color Contrast, we have to be sure we have a color contrast ratio of at least 4.5 to 1 for normal sized text. When we get to large text, there are exceptions. You only need a color contrast ratio of 3 to 1 if your text is large -- that's 18.5. And if it's large and bold, you only need 14.5 to get to the 3 to 1 required ratio.
So let's take a look at some Color Contrast Checkers. One that I like is at, and there are a number of these tools available online. So I'm opening the Color Contrast Checker website, and you'll see that I have the option to enter the foreground and background colors, or get the colors directly from my image, so you're not guessing if you selected the right shade of green.
So I'm going to click Get from Image, and I am going to pick an infographic here. And now my infographic is displayed on the website. As you'll see, I have a wild horse and burro infographic here, and it's showing us the challenge of keeping the herds at a reasonable size. And I have my colors that are used in the infographic here below the picture and infographic itself, so I can just select these colors as my foreground and background, to see what's accessible and what's not accessible. So we'll just put a little common sense in here. I can see I have some white text on a light green background, so we're going to see if I've got an accessible color contrast ratio. So my foreground color is white -- I selected white as my foreground. Now I'm going to get my background color, which is this light green. Now I have my results. I have a ratio of 2.02 to 1. So I know that to make this document truly accessible, I have to increase that color contrast ratio. So using a real Color Contrast Checker takes some of the guesswork out, and ensures precision in your results.
Now we're getting into the Practical Guidance. You know all the rules, you've gotten the basic steps down. But there's always a couple of things that we can do better, things that no one will tell you, they're hidden away, and footers and documents that most people don't use, or even get down to reading. But we've read through all those footers and searched the web relentlessly, and found these seven tips to help you get through your Excel spreadsheet, and to create an accessible document.
Tip 1: Practical Guidance -- one table per sheet. Adobe can't always distinguish between them, and this complicates remediation. This is a screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet where one sheet has three separate tables, and an image. Now in this table, and then the sheet was converted to Adobe, all three tables have been lumped together, and even the image got lumped together, and Adobe is reading them as one giant table. Now if I go into the Table Editor in Adobe, I can see that all of the data cells are listed as TD, and all of these tables have been mixed together. The columns are mixed in some places where two columns exist, or I only have one. I don't have any header rows at all, I have blank rows coming up as data cells -- and it's just a mess. It would take a very, very long time to take apart all this information to segregate these tables so that they're fully accessible. So the way to avoid this would be to just have three sheets, with one table per sheet.
All right, our next Practical Guidance tip is, do not include lots of introductory text in Excel. Introductory text might look fine in Excel, and when you convert it to a PDF, it still might look okay on its face. But once you open up the Table Editor tool under your Accessibility Tools, you'll find that there is a different story there. Now I've just opened screenshot of our table with the introductory text, and you'll see that that big note that I have to introduce my table, that's been interpreted as a data cell. But it's not a data cell, it's not even part of a table; it's just hanging out there. So if we avoid including a large introductory text in our table, or to introduce our table, we make out much better, because Excel is not a word processing program, so it's best not to use it that way.
A lot of times, we merge blank cells to create visual effects. But Adobe picks these up as separate data or header cells, which can create a lot of confusion. We want to avoid merged cells. Merged and split cells render the table inaccessible in Excel. Now you do have the chance to fix it in Adobe, and to clarify what header cells are associated with what data cells, but it's a very, very time-consuming process, and it's best avoided. So you'll see this is a screenshot of a very complex table. We have some merged cells with headings split across many sub-headings. Let's see how this is going to turn out when I open up the document in Adobe, and I open my Table Editor. It looks terrible. You can barely even read the text, there are so many lines drawn over it by Adobe. So we'll see here, these simple areas where I had one merged cell and I had sub-headings, they're not broken up well. Adobe can't even tell that those are header cells, because the table structure is so complex. Now to fix this, you would have to click on every single cell that's been mislabeled, and tell it it's a header cell, and then you'd have to go and tell it which data cells go with that header cell. It's very time-consuming. I mean, this year, a table like this could take someone, even a professional, up to and over an hour to fix, if they were lucky.
This is a deeper look at the table we just saw on our last slide, and you'll see on the example, on the screenshot on the right, we have a blank cell here that's been created for formatting purposes, but Adobe sees that as a data cell. Now to correct this issue, you would have to undergo some complex, advanced Adobe training. You would have to go to your Accessibility Tools, open the reading order, select your table, open the Table Editor and adjust the column, rows and spans. And if it sounds complicated, it's because it is, and it's not a good use of your time. So we want to avoid it whenever possible.
This is the end of our Practical Guidance tips, and the end of our Excel training. If you have any questions about whether or not your document is accessible, or you need extra help, reach out to your bureau 508 coordinator. Every bureau has one, and they are listed on the DOI Section 508 website.