Accessible Outlook Email Messages

General Information

This guide has tips that you can use to create accessible Outlook email messages. If you would like a downloadable or printable copy of the guide, please see the Tips for Creating Accessible Outlook Email Messages handout. If you would like a quick reference sheet when you are working on your own email messages, please see the Accessibility Checklist for Outlook Email Messages.

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How to Select Fonts and Colors

Just like in Word, there are a lot of fonts, sizes, and colors to choose from on the Format Text tab of the Outlook New Email ribbon. When deciding which of these to use, you’ll want to make sure they are easy to read and understand.

Examples of a San Serif font like Arial and a Serif Font like Times New Roman with the end strokes of the Serif font circled.

When selecting a font, you should use a san serif font like Calibri, Arial, Verdana, or Tahoma. These fonts have a cleaner, modern look without the small features at the end strokes of the letter. It is recommended that a font size no smaller than 11 points is used within the email message body.

Adding colored text in an email message is acceptable but it shouldn’t be used as the only emphasis for certain text. For example, it shouldn’t be used to tell someone where information can be found, like “Click on the red dates for availability”. Someone with a visual impairment or is color blind may not be able to tell that color from another one you may have used in the email message.

To change the font color:

Screenshot of an Email message with arrows pointing to selecting the Format Text tab and selecting the Font Color menu

  1. Select the Format Text tab.
  2. Select the Font Color dropdown menu.

If you change the colors for the text and/or background from the default colors, make sure that they have a high contrast ratio. You can use the WebAIM Color Contrast Checker to see if the colors you’ve selected have a high enough contrast to meet the minimum accessibility ratio requirements of 4.5:1. Please watch the Using the WebAIM Color Contrast Checker if you’re not sure how to use it.

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Use Heading Tags

Screenshot of an Outlook email message with an arrow pointing to the Format Text tab and the Styles menu highlighted

Headings tags can be found in the Styles menu on the Format Text tab of the Outlook Email Message tool ribbon.

Screen shot with arrows pointing to the Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3 text within an email message

Heading 1 (H1) should be used for the main topic of the email message. Heading 2 (H2) should be used for each major section within the email message. Heading 3 (H3) should be used for subsections within the major sections and so on as needed. Each heading name should be:

  • Short, concise, and include key points.
  • Unique and only used once within the email message.
  • Written to give people clues about the information that follows them.

Why is Using Headings Important?

  • Headings make it easier for the reader to find what they are looking for.
  • Most assistive technologies are programed to find Heading styles, so people who use them will understand the structure of the document and move throughout it easily.
  • People who have reading and cognitive disabilities depend on headings to organize content into groups of related ideas that provide clues about the information they are reviewing.

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Use Alternative Text for All Images and Graphics

The Alternative (Alt) Text option can be found if you:

Screenshot with arrows pointing to right clicking on an image, selecting Edit Alt Text from the menu, and adding Alternative Text in the box in the right panel

  1. Right click an image.
  2. Select the Edit Alt Text option.
  3. The Alt Text panel will appear on the right side, type an alternative text for the image in the text box. Note: If the version of Outlook you’re using has title and description fields, the Description field is what will be used by the assistive technology to describe the image, not the title.

Make sure that you include alt text for all images, diagrams, SmartArt, shapes, charts, tables, graphs, and embedded objects in the email message.

Each alt text should be short, concise, and describes what’s important about the image. When writing the description, keep in mind:

  • You don’t need to include “image of” or “picture of” in the description, the screen reader software will supply that information automatically to the user.
  • If the image contains text, include that in the alt text exactly as it appears in the image.
  • If it is a complex image that can’t be described a few words, you may want to include that information in the paragraph text near the image instead of as part of the alt text.
  • If a diagram or chart is too complex to describe in a short sentence, it would be best to find another way to display the information, such as a data table.
  • If an image is for visual emphasis or a decorative purpose use a null alt text by typing ““ (double quote double quote no spaces) in the alt text if there isn’t a “Mark as decorative” box nearby. This tells the screen reader software to skip over the image and not describe it for the user.
  • If you change pictures after you have already added an alt text in the email message, you’ll need to add a new alt text for the new picture.

Why is Using Alt Text for Images Important?

  • People who are unable to see the image rely on the alt text to describe what information the image or diagram is supposed to convey to them.
  • Screen readers and text-to-speech tools will read the image alt text information out loud.
  • If meaningful alt text is not included, a person using a screen reader will only hear that it is an image not what it is a picture of.

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Alt Text for Hyperlinks can be added two ways, the first is:

Place your cursor in the email body where you’d like a new link to be.

Screenshot of an Outlook email message with arrows pointing to the Insert tab and the Link icon is highlighted

  1. Select the Insert tab on the Outlook Email Message tool ribbon.
  2. Select the Link icon.

When the Insert Hyperlink window opens:

Screenshot of the Insert Hyperlink window with the different steps mentioned in 1 through 3 highlighted

  1. Type the information that tells the person where they’re going in the “Text to display” field. For this example, we’ve typed Hyperlink Screen Reader example (video). Note: Please avoid phrases like “click here” or “more information”, because by themselves they don’t provide enough information for someone using a screen reader. If you need help finding something meaningful, visit the website you’re linking to for the name and use that as part of the display text.
  2. Type or copy and paste the URL into the Address text box. For this example, we’ve used the URL for a YouTube video that shows how a screen reader handles links.
  3. Click the OK button.

The second way is to:

Screenshot of an email message with arrows pointing to right clicking the URL, selecting Edit Hyperlink from the menu, and changing the Text to display in the Insert Hyperlink window, then clicking the OK button

  1. Right click on an existing URL in the email message.
  2. Select the Edit Hyperlink option.
  3. Change the “Text to display” from the URL to something meaningful. Note: Please avoid phrases like “click here” or “more information”, because by themselves they don’t provide enough information for someone using a screen reader. If you need help finding something meaningful, visit the website you are linking to for the name and use that as part of the display text.
  4. Click the OK button to save the changes.

Why is Using Alt Text for Links Important?

  • All viewers benefit from alt text for links because it provides the destination and purpose of the link.
  • Screen reading software can pull up all the links on a page to help the person navigate it quickly. Having meaningful links will make it easier to find the one they are looking for. If “click here” is used, it won’t tell the person using a screen reader where the link goes.
  • Screen readers and text-to-speech tools will read the alt text information instead of reading the URL one character at a time or trying to pronounce the letters as words. Hear what a Hyperlink Screen Reader example (video) could sound like for someone using a screen reader if the URL is used instead of an alternative text.

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Create Lists Using the Built-in Feature

The List feature can be found in the Paragraph section on the Format Text tab in the Outlook Email Message tool ribbon. There are three list options – Bullets (unordered) List, Numbering (ordered) List, and Multilevel List (lists with sub items). Use a Bullets List when it’s just a group of related items; use a Numbering List when the sequence of the items is important; and use multilevel lists when there is an ”a” and ”b” items under 1.

When you create lists, make sure to include a phrase or sentence just before it to describe the purpose of the list so people will know what type of information is coming next.

Why is Using Built-in Lists Important?

  • People who use screen readers will be notified when a list is used so they’ll know what comes next is a part of a group of ideas or information.
  • Screen readers and text-to-speech tools are programmed to understand if it’s a numbered, bulleted, or nested list and convey that to the user.
  • If the built-in List styles aren’t used and you type the information manually like putting a number, a period, a couple of spaces, and then the list information, the screen reader software will read each of those characters separately.

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Create Simple Data Tables Using the Built-in Feature

To find the Table tool:

Screenshot of an Outlook email message with arrows pointing to the Insert tab and the Tables menu. The Insert Tables options are highlighted

  1. Select the Insert tab of the email message tool ribbon.
  2. Select the Tables menu.
  3. Select the number of columns and rows you need for your table. For this example, we’ve selected 5 columns and 3 rows

There are a few things that need to be done after a table has been created to make it accessible. The first is adding an Alternative (Alt) Text for the table itself, to do this:

Screenshot with arrows pointing to right clicking on the table menu icon, selecting Table Properties from the menu and selecting the Alt Text tab

  1. Right click on the table menu icon.
  2. Select the Table Properties option.
  3. Select the Alt Text tab in the Table Properties window.
  4. Type the information for both the Title and Description.
  5. Click the OK button.

The second thing is to add a Header Row that describes the columns’ contents. To make sure it will display properly:

Screenshot of the email body with arrows pointing to the table header row and the Table Design tab. The Table Style Options and the Table Styles are highlighted

  1. Select the table to make the Table Tools visible in the tool ribbon.
  2. Select the Table Design tab in the Outlook Email Message tool ribbon.
  3. In the Table Style Options area, select the Header row check box if it hasn’t already been selected. If the table’s first column describes the rows’ contents, make sure that the First Column box is selected as well.

From the Design tab, you can also add a Table Style that will visually identify the Header row as important table information. Note: The Table Tools tabs, Design and Layout, will appear in the tool ribbon only after the table has been selected.

The third thing is to use the Tab key on your keyboard to move through the table to make sure the tab order of the cells matches how they appear in the table.

Please avoid using tables, nested tables, merged cells, split cells, or blank cells for layout and formatting purposes.

Why is Using the Built-in Data Tables Important?

  • People who use screen readers will be notified when a table is used so they’ll know what is read next is part of a data group.
  • Adding a Header Row and/or Column will help someone who uses a screen reader to understand how the information is laid out and allow for easier navigation within the table.
  • Some screen reading software can repeat the header row labels on request or before the cell data is given.

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Adjust Space Between Sentences and Paragraphs

Before sending your email, one of the last things you may want to change is the space between sentences and paragraphs. You can increase or decrease the white space between each line and paragraph as needed.

Screenshot of an Outlook email message with an arrow pointing to the Line and Paragraph Spacing icon and the spacing menu highlighted

The Line & Paragraph Spacing menu can be found on the Format Text tab of the Outlook Email Message tool ribbon.

Examples of Spacing between Lines

Outlook email message with 1.5 extra spacing between lines:

Screenshot of an email message with extra white space between sentence lines highlighted

Note: The spacing between headings is also affected when extra space is added between lines.

Outlook email message without extra spacing between lines:

Examples of Spacing between Paragraphs

Outlook email message with extra spacing between paragraphs:

Screenshot of an email message with extra white space between paragraphs highlighted

Note: The spacing between headings is also affected when extra space is added between paragraphs.

Outlook email message without extra spacing between paragraphs:

Screenshot of an email message without extra white space between paragraphs highlighted

Why is Using the Built-in Line & Paragraph Spacing Important?

  • Adding additional white space between lines and paragraphs may make it easier for a person with low vision or cognitive disabilities to read your email message, especially if it’s lengthy.
  • If you use the Enter key or Spacebar key on your keyboard to add extra spaces and lines between paragraphs it causes people using screen readers to hear the word “blank” said repeatedly.

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Use the Check Accessibility Feature

Screenshot of Review tab with an arrow pointing to the Check Accessibility icon

The Check Accessibility tool can be found on the Review tab of the Outlook Email Message tool ribbon. Use the Check Accessibility feature to find and fix any accessibility issues within the email message.

There are three types of Check Accessibility results – Errors, Warnings, and Tips:

  • Errors are problem areas that make the email message very difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to read and should be fixed right away. Errors can include things like finding missing alternative text for images.
  • Warnings are suggested areas for improvements to the email message that, by not fixing them, may cause problems for people with disabilities to read the email message. Warnings can include things like having merged or split cells in a table.
  • Tips are recommendations on how to better organize the email message. Tips can include having missed a heading level like going from Heading 2 to Heading 4.

Screenshot of the Accessibility Checker results with an arrow pointing to a missing alt tag and Additional information section is highlighted

After the results of the Accessibility Check have been returned, if you click on the issue, it will take you to the problem area in the email message. The Additional Information section at the bottom of the Accessibility Check panel will show why it should be fixed and the steps to do it. Once the problem has been fixed, it will be removed from the results list.

Why is Using the Accessibility Check Important?

  • You’ll know that everyone who reviews your documents will be able to get the most out of the information you are supplying.
  • If you are new to making your email messages accessible, the Accessibility Checker will help you fix any problems you might not know are there.
  • Using the Accessibility Check feature is an easy way to make sure all your email messages meet the accessibility standards.

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Additional Information and Resources

This handout was created using tips from the Microsoft Office Accessibility Make Your Outlook email accessible to people with disabilities guide and the Minnesota IT Services Office of Accessibility guides. Note: The Minnesota IT Services Office of Accessibility group doesn’t have a specific guide for creating accessible email messages, but the information found in the accessibility guide for Word documents was used as a reference.

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