Accessible Headings

Aerial view of UNH campus

Creating accessible headings is a critical skill to master since this skill applies across many contexts (Word documents, PDFs, websites, etc.). Generally, headings provide structure and organization to a document or page. They support the reader in navigating through the content as well as supporting comprehension of the information.   

Unfortunately, not all headings are created to be accessible. Many times, when we create headings, we only create them in a visual way. We add bold or italics. We center the heading. We might even change the font or font size. These changes, however, are only adding visual navigation support. Accessible headings add both visual and non-visual structure. Creating headings with visual and non-visual structure allows for a wide range of users to access the headings.  

 Headings with visual and non-visual structure are vital for people who navigate documents in non-visual ways. For example, people who use screen readers will require non-visual headings to ensure they can effectively navigate the document. When there are no accessible headings, the screen reader will just read through the content. This can make it incredibly difficult to skim through the content and find a specific reference. Accessible headings are critical because they allow everyone the same opportunities to engage with the document structure in both visual and non-visual ways. 

Tips for Creating Accessible Headings   

  • Use “Styles” - Use the software’s built-in “styles” to create the heading. Styles make it easier for screen reader users to determine the structure of the document and navigate the headings  and ensure the headings have the appropriate non-visual structure. In short, using the appropriate style not only provides the visual structure of the heading, but also creates a tag that would indicate to someone using a screen reader that it is a heading.  
  • Ensure you are using the right heading level/rank – The content creator needs to indicate the correct level/rank for the headings.  Headings should follow a nested structure.   For example, use Heading 1, Heading 2, and then Heading 3, rather than Heading 3, Heading 1, and then Heading 2.  Headings are like walking up and down stairs, don’t skip a step. 
  • Change the “Style” not the heading - If changes need to be made to the look of the heading, change the “style” not the heading itself.  Changing the style has an added advantage that once you change the underlying style of one heading, then all other headings marked with that style will also be changed.  Using styles helps avoid some of the challenges associated with ensuring consistency across longer documents. If similar styles are used, then it can also help with consistency across many different contexts.  
  • Always double check the overall heading structure - Always check heading structure prior to publishing. Creating an automatic table of contents can be a great way to quickly check headings.