Heading Structure: Learn the Right Hierarchy for Accessibility

Graphical picture of Heading Structure and Hierarchy for Accessibility
When creating digital content, it is essential to ensure it is accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. One crucial aspect of accessibility is the proper use of heading structure within tagged documents.

Headings provide a hierarchical organization of content and aid in navigation for individuals using screen readers or other assistive technologies. However, determining the correct accessible heading structure can sometimes be challenging. In this article, we will explore the importance of a well-structured heading hierarchy and discuss guidelines for tagging elements effectively to enhance accessibility in digital documents. By understanding the right accessible heading structure, you can create more inclusive online experiences for all users.

What is the Importance of Heading Structure for Accessibility?

An organized heading hierarchy is essential for accessibility as it aids users with disabilities in navigating and understanding the website’s content or a digital document. With a proper structure in the headings, the document’s contents are perceived in the correct order.
Here’s how an organized heading structure can help different people to access your digital content:

People with visual impairments often use screen readers, assistive technologies that read aloud the content of a web page. Headings provide structural cues to screen readers, enabling users to navigate through the page more efficiently. Screen readers can present the headings in a list format, allowing users to jump directly to the desired section instead of listening to the entire page sequentially.

Users with cognitive disabilities, such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorders, may find processing large amounts of text challenging. An organized heading structure helps break down the content into smaller, more manageable chunks, making it easier for these users to understand and follow the information.
Individuals who rely on keyboard navigation, such as those with mobility impairments, use the tab key to move through interactive elements on a page. Properly structured headings create a logical order for keyboard navigation, allowing users to navigate through the content more efficiently. They can quickly jump to different sections without going through every element on the page.

How to Create a Proper Hierarchal Heading Structure

When creating a hierarchical heading structure, following a logical and consistent approach is important. Here are some essential steps you need to keep in mind when organizing a proper heading structure:
  1. Begin with an H1: The main heading represents the overall topic or title of the document or web page. It should be unique and descriptive, provide a clear introduction to the content, and have the H1 structure tag for easy navigation.
  2. Use Subheadings: Subheadings help divide the content into sections and subsections. They should be used to group related information and provide a clear hierarchy. Each subheading should be more specific than the previous one and contribute to the document’s overall structure.
  3. Don’t Skip Heading Levels: Using heading levels in sequential order is important without skipping any levels. For example, if you use an h2 after an h1, don’t jump directly to h4. Missing levels can confuse both users and assistive technologies.
  4. Consider Content Organization: The heading structure should align with the organization of your content. Identify key points, main sections, and subsections, and assign appropriate headings accordingly. This helps users, especially those with disabilities, understand the information’s flow and organization.
  5. Style Headings Appropriately: Use CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) or other styling methods to differentiate headings from regular text visually. This can include variations in font size, weight, color, or other visual cues that align with your overall design. However, ensure that the styling choices do not rely solely on visual cues and still maintain proper semantic structure for accessibility.

What are the Best Practices for Accessible Headings?

To make sure the document accessibility is not compromised, below are some tips on following a proper heading structure for enhanced digital accessibility:
  • Don’t use text styles to emphasize importance without proper heading tags. For example, avoid using italics, bold, underlining, or colored text to show any significance of the text.
  • Don’t use headings to emphasize the importance. Instead, use bold text or underline it.
  • Properly format the levels of the heading hierarchy in ascending order – from H1 to H6.
  •  The page title should be descriptive with a proper heading tag.
  •  Make the webpage content readable and consistent, with the option to resize up to 200%.
  • Accurate HTML markups should be included for providing list items.
  • Never use lists for layout purposes.

How Can PREP Help?

Making your digital content accessible is extremely important, not just to legally abide by the laws but also to make an ethical choice. PREP (a PDF and Document Remediation software) allows you to take control of your digital files and make them accessible to everyone. With the feature to auto-tag, PREP’s innovative technology-enabled software recognizes the elements in the digital document and tags them accordingly. Using cutting-edge technologies, PREP delivers accurate and fast remediation results that adhere to the highest compliance and quality standards.

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Debangku Sarma

Digital Marketing Associate
Continual Engine

Vijayshree Vethantham

Senior Vice-President, Growth & Strategy
Continual Engine US LLC

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