The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

Towards a digitally accessible thesis: the experience of a PhD researcher

Sandra Flynn, PhD

Module Leader, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick.


About the Author


Digital transformation strategies are developed to guide organisations and nations (OECD, 2019) towards successful policymaking and policy implementation in the digital age. With four pillars at the core of Europe’s Digital Decade: government, business, skills and infrastructure (European Commission, 2022), digital accessibility is an important feature of the twenty-first-century economy and society and is enshrined in legislation that governs the European Union (EU) member states. Legislation includes the Web Accessibility Directive for public sector websites and apps (Official Journal of the European Union, 2016) and the European Accessibility Act due to come into law in June 2025 for businesses offering a wide variety of products and services including websites (Official Journal of the European Union, 2019). In the higher education sector, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) offers a framework for educators to design with equality for all students in mind, as described by Anita Byrne in her personal reflection on UDL implementation (Byrne, 2023). It would appear therefore that, guided by such legislation, a top-down approach is making progress towards digital accessibility in the public, private and education sectors with regard to website-based and other mobile applications. What then, of a bottom-up approach by students in their production of postgraduate research papers, dissertations and doctoral theses?

As far back as the turn of the twenty-first century, Rose and McClafferty referred to the need for students to learn how to ‘make writing accessible while honouring the conventions of a discipline’ (2001, p. 30). While it is likely that they were referring to readability and an accessible style of writing, later textbooks commonly used by PhD students also encourage students to write in a style that is accessible to a wide variety of readers, contributing to an output acceptable for examination, for example, (Blaxter et al., 2010; Thomson & Kamler, 2016; Trafford & Leshem, 2008). Yet, these texts do not address the process of writing for digital accessibility, with the result that this important concept is not instilled in our mindset at the start of the PhD journey.

Key learning from my journey

I believe that life is for learning, a personal journey from cradle to grave. The most recent milestone of my lifelong learning journey has been the award of PhD (see (Flynn, 2023a). I have gained new knowledge and experience in three areas: the subject matter of my research; the process involved in conducting research at doctoral level; and the knowledge required to make my thesis and related outputs digitally accessible. In this article, I contend that a successful PhD thesis should be digitally accessible and that the responsibility for producing the necessary style of the document lies primarily with the researcher.

For me, a key learning on this journey has been the process of understanding what digital accessibility means in writing and research, and more importantly, how to write with it in mind. While there are many terms that may be used to describe information that may be seen or used by everyone wishing to do so, I use the term digital accessibility in line with the Merriam-Webster definition of accessibility (Merriam-Webster, n.d.) and Inclusion & Accessibility Labs’ contention that with universal design, a digital document can ‘be more user friendly and provide a better user experience for all’ (Inclusion & Accessibility Labs, 2023).

Background and context

I commenced a PhD programme in e-research and technology-enhanced learning at Lancaster University (LU) in January 2019. Over the next two years in part one of the programme, I researched and wrote assignment papers for five modules, progressing steadily through the programme with useful outcomes for research. Readers of my module papers were some cohort colleagues undertaking a process of peer review, and the module convenor who had responsibility for providing feedback on a draft paper and ultimately marking the final paper. None of these readers, to my knowledge, required my drafts to be digitally accessible. Certainly, this was not brought to my attention. Nor did I give any thought to it since the topic of digital accessibility for writing was not yet in my bank of lifelong learning.

Part two of the programme commenced in 2021 and involved the research that would culminate in a PhD thesis. Resources were available including accessibility guidelines and checklists across a variety of document types including Microsoft, portable display formats (PDFs), video, diagrams and images. I admit that these were not resources I was fully aware of amidst the mountain of information covering all aspects of completing the thesis work. Nor did I engage with an optional digital skills certificate that included a course entitled ‘Creating accessible resources’ (Lancaster University, 2019). It was much later when I was preparing my thesis for submission that the benefits of this course for my knowledge and learning became apparent.

A personal narrative approach

In this article, I utilise a personal narrative approach (Ellis et al., 2011) to understand and share my experience of accessible writing through the PhD journey. Focussing on the self, I collected data from two sources: First, my journal of learnings that I have maintained throughout the PhD process in the form of a blog or more specifically, a learning portfolio. I consider this to be my field journal (Chang, 2008) in which I engaged in self-reflection relating to many aspects of my PhD journey. Second, personal memory data that I did not consider relevant to include in my field journal in the past, was now guided by self-reflection, collecting data relevant to my present perspectives on the topic of accessible writing. I interpreted and analysed these data in order to gain a cultural understanding of the topic that might be shared amongst fellow student peers, both present and in the future.

The importance of digital accessibility

From time to time throughout the programme I downloaded past PhD theses from the repository at LU, all in portable display format (PDF). I was interested in some because of the topic, and others for the research design used. For all, however, I considered the layout, the fonts, the headings levels; in fact, the overall style to help me determine what mine might look like. During this time, I did not give any consideration to what a digitally accessible thesis might look like.

The provision of a Microsoft Word template offered by our programme to guide the development of the 50,000 words that would follow seemed the most important element of the process at this time. I was not yet aware that the template provided useful guidance on styles, fonts and other features of good writing practices without mentioning the terms ‘accessible’ or ‘accessibility’. The template is not available for public review, however, the version made available to my cohort in February 2021, offered a number of guidelines that in hindsight are beneficial for the purposes of digital accessibility. Examples include a body text font and size such as Arial 12, a Sans Serif font that is without any lines or strokes added to the letters. Guidance advised that Arial font is considered to be more dyslexia-friendly certainly than is the case for Serif fonts since the letters appear less crowded. The template also used text that was left-aligned to ensure even spacing between words and make it easier to locate the start and finish of each line, (British Dyslexia Association, n.d.-b) also necessary for people with sight impairments using screen readers. Yet, the template also suggested that ‘a particular font is not specified, and you can change the font in this template’ (p. 1). In the absence of knowledge regarding the needs of readers, for example, with dyslexia, students could be forgiven for selecting a Serif font. General guidance suggests that a minimum font size 12 should be used along with a Sans Serif font when creating an accessible document (AHEAD, n.d.-b).

The information provided in the template regarding use of a style sheet or style guide was helpful in that it showed how to create different styles for headings, body text and other elements such as figures and tables. It was not clear however, that headings should be distinguished in some way other than their level number. It was not until much later, following examiner feedback from the viva examination of my thesis, that I adjusted my heading styles 3 and 4 using options such as bold font. The template did not refer to the use of Alternative Text (Alt text) and I was blissfully unaware of its importance so that screen reading software can describe the contents of figures, charts, images and tables. Similarly, I was unaware that tables should follow a reading order for a similar purpose. It’s important to research from specific knowledgeable sources such as AHEAD, RNIB, British Dyslexia Association and other organisations related to specific learning differences or disabilities.

Application of learnings to my practice

Early drafts of chapters submitted to my supervisor between August and November 2021 generally followed the template and used a Sans Serif font of Helvetica size 11 rather than the template suggested font of Arial size 12. I recall thinking that size 12 in a Sans Serif font looked too big in the main text, quite different from a Serif font such as Times New Roman, or my previously preferred Palatino that I had consciously set aside since I now understood the importance of choosing a Sans Serif over a Serif font. With regard to font size, it was the way the text looked onscreen and on a printed page that determined my choice of font size rather than any consideration of digital accessibility. After all, we live in an ocular-centric society where the written word has been the norm, certainly in pre-digital times, and arguably continues today.  It was not until September 2022 that I finalised my preferred Sans Serif font (PT Sans) that would take me through the remainder of my PhD journey, now that I was aware of the needs of readers with learning differences or using access technology (AT).

During 2021 and 2022 I was a regular participant in a PhD Study Day community of peers in the Department of Educational Research, organised and led by a faculty member volunteer that took place on alternate Saturdays. During these days we would, along with our writing goals for the day, share tips and exchange knowledge during the break times and, asynchronously on a Microsoft Teams channel dedicated for the purpose of supporting information exchange. On at least one occasion I joined a knowledge-sharing session to learn about using the styles feature in Microsoft Word that, for me, formed the basis of producing a suitable table of contents for my thesis. For some reason, I did not make any connection to the importance of using styles for the purposes of digital accessibility.

Early in 2023, as I was preparing to submit my thesis for examination, the penny dropped as to why I should make my thesis accessible. Simply put, it was morally the right thing to do, and good practice, as the relevant digital skills course offered by LU (Lancaster University, 2019) clearly stated:

Creating resources that exclude any section of your audience is bad practice. As a society, we have an obligation to promote inclusivity and remove barriers. Eliminating discrimination is morally good and ensuring that everyone can access your materials without difficulty is simply the right thing to do.

I alone was responsible for this gap in my knowledge, which led to the situation of being four years into a PhD programme without giving the required consideration to making all my writing digitally accessible. Now that I was aware of why I should do this I moved forward with zeal, however, time was not on my side and the self-imposed submission date was drawing closer. I worked my way through the checklists, added Alt text to images and tables, checked the reading order of tables, used the Microsoft Read Aloud feature to check how it dealt with acronyms and regularly ran the accessibility checker in Microsoft Word. Since then, in every Word document I prepare, I set the Accessibility Checker to run while I am working on the document and pay attention to the message at the bottom of the document, ensuring that when it says ‘Accessibility: good to go’ I know that my document is in good shape. If it suggests elements to review I work on those until I get the ‘good to go’ message.

Of course, there are other software applications and tools that I may use to disseminate my PhD research including conference presentations and posters. Research posters that I am familiar with from conferences contain a lot of textual information and making them digitally accessible might require advice from colleagues with AT experience.  My first experience of creating a poster involved using Canva software, ‘an online design and visual communication platform with a mission to empower everyone in the world to design anything and publish anywhere’ (Canva, 2023). Canva did not fully meet the guidelines of digital accessibility to which I am growing more accustomed, however, it clearly laid out what the current gaps were (Flynn, 2023b).

It is likely that I will submit some findings from my research to relevant scholarly journals for publication. When researching suitable journals that might be interested in my work I will pay close attention to the journal’s aims and scope, and its instructions for authors. I was pleased to recently see in the instructions for authors of one journal I am considering, a clear explanation of Alt text along with a link to the publisher’s document, ‘an author’s guide to writing Alt text’ (Taylor & Francis, n.d.). I believe journal publishers can and must go further to promote digital accessibility amongst article contributors, for example recommending suitable fonts and sizes. Some provide digitally accessible templates for this purpose, others do not. As a researcher, I can choose which journals to submit my work to and provide feedback to those I pass over based on their position in relation to the digital accessibility of manuscripts.


The journey towards making my PhD research and related writing digitally accessible has been steep, with many learnings along the way. The experience, however, has been invaluable and I have now made the mindset shift to place digital accessibility front and central in all my writing, with the requirements of those with disabilities in mind. I have plenty yet to learn and suggest the following lessons for others who might be setting out on this journey.

First, become familiar with the fundamental requirements of digital accessibility. Resources might be available from your university (for example (Lancaster University, 2023) and there are plenty of helpful websites from organisations operating in this area for example, AHEAD (n.d.-a), and the British Dyslexia Association (n.d.-a).

Second, when considering software choices for your writing, take a look at what the provider’s website says about the software’s accessibility. I use Scrivener software for creating drafts, however, when I export to Microsoft Word, I ensure that the Accessibility Checker is turned on for my final documents. Similarly, the Accessibility Checker is available for Microsoft PowerPoint that I may use for posters, yet, I am also familiar with the current limitations of Canva software that I may also consider for poster work (Flynn, 2023b).

Third, and probably most important of all, some may have more experience than others when it comes to writing with digital accessibility in mind. Sharing knowledge and resources amongst peers and on wider open access platforms such as a good practice journal offers further opportunities to improve our written outputs.


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