Section 508 for Writers

The term Section 508 first came to my attention in a blitzkreig class on web design in the summer of 2010.  I’d never heard of it before, probably because I’d never done anything with a website before.  When it was explained – it is common courtesy to make websites that are comparable with screen readers for individuals with visual impairments – I made a mental note of something that made sense and moved on.  My career as a web designer is pretty much non-existent and I kind of forgot about Section 508.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was suddenly looking at more requests for proposals from the federal government, many of which talked about Section 508 compliance being a requirement for any/all deliverables.  As I got into the requirements and did some more reading on what exactly was meant by applying Section 508 beyond the web environment, I have to admit, I got a little excited.
Screen readers have to be built to interface with the standard software applications.  At least I assume they do.  And based on that assumption, it follows that the screen reader is going to be looking to the formatting in a document for clues on how to convey the information in the absence of visual cues such as indentation, bold, or other formatting choices.  To take it a step further and presume documents that should be inclusive to all kinds of individuals…  Section 508 is basically a mandate for clean formatting and consistent, straightforward document design.
Finally, a justification for my obsessive abhorrence for document formatting accomplished by space bars and manual line breaks all in the service of inconsistently designated information.  I’m not crazy, damn it.
So what makes for a document that is consistent with the principles behind Section 508?

Font

In the federal government, the standard fonts are Arial and Times New Roman.  These are not among the most highly recommended fonts for accessibility, but they are acceptable.  Times New Roman at 12 points or higher is the standard choice for readable print documents.  Using a font size smaller than 12 points is discouraged.   In another industry, consider checking here for more accessable font choices.

Tables

Tables should be used exclusively for data.  Screen readers interact with the formatting code behind the document, so they process and present a table differently than the eye processes a table.  If you have a list, for example, don’t put it in a table just because you want to offset it – use the tab bar to set the margins in to the desired location.

White Space

White space refers to the gap around and between paragraphs.  Large blocks of text can be difficult to read and retain.  Shorter paragraphs with white space between them gives the eye a break from text and allows the brain to better compartmentalize and retain the information being presented.  Where possible, graphs and charts are a great way to ensure that your information is presented in multiple ways.  This eases the reading burden in the audience and also makes for greater retention as the one format serves to reinforce what’s being presented in the other.

Information Design

Information design can be simplified down to intentional usage of formatting and presentation within a document to make it easier for the audience to process the information.  Intentional information design helps everyone interact with the information you’ve pulled together efficiently, including busy executives, recent hires, individuals with alternative learning/information processing preferences, and individuals using assistive technology.
Using Word to its full capacity to implement strong Information Design principles can be challenging if you don’t know MS Word well.  Consider finding tutorials or taking a class if you find yourself lost in Word, yet required to create many documents using the program.

Styles & Headers

At the top of your Window’s page, under the “home” tab are your styles.  Styles, in essence, tell the words how to arrange themselves on the page.  Every cluster of words marked with a certain style are treated in the same way.  Using Word’s “Styles” function also saves you time.  If you have a document that contains multiple block quotes, you can impose formatting once and then just mark future quotes with the same style and the formatting is automatically updated for consistency across the document.
Word’s Style’s function also allows you to automate the Table of Contents and therefore makes it easier for your audience to quickly navigate through your document.  Say you’ve written a Standard Operating Procedure for using the telephone system, but your user only needs to know how to access voice mail.  An electronic document with headers formatted properly allows the audience to click on the section that contains the information they need without having to scroll through the whole document to find the section relevant to their immediate concerns.
This matters because when you’ve got an audience that includes individuals who don’t do well processing a large quantity of information, they can quickly access the information they need.  Someone utilizing assistive technology, such as a screen reader, will appreciate the consistency and clarity regarding how the information present should be categorized.

References

Microsoft Word has automated references, which are under the “references” tab at the top of the Word screen.  Using automated references for footnotes and endnotes makes your job as an author easier as the program will automatically generate lists of figures and tables, and will keep footnote/endnote numbering organized and consistent.  Again, using the automated function will help screen readers interface with your written documents.

Consistency in Presenting Information

The human mind looks for patterns and quickly establishes an understanding of what to look for.  If two examples of lessons learned are indented on both sides by an inch, the next time you see text that is indented by an inch, you’re going to expect that to be another reference to previous experiences through a lessons learned example.
Another common way of designating information that is different or requires special attention is to bold that text.  Unfortunately, when different categories of information are bold, the reader begins to become frustrated because the bold text doesn’t mean the same thing every time.  Information design recognizes that we look for patterns and intentionally presents information in a way that respects the reader’s expectations and makes it easier for the reader to navigate a document.

Conclusion

Section 508 compliance isn’t mandatory for printed documents in the same way that it is mandatory for a web page.  However, applying Section 508 principles to all of your Word output does make for a more inclusive body of documentation.  It makes your documents more portable as they are exported to PDF, for example.  And it will save you time and frustration as you avoid those pesky paragraphs that just won’t behave no matter how many times you put a space in front of the first word.
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