Accessible Word Documents

General Information

This guide has tips that you can use to create an accessible Word document.  If you would like a downloadable or printable copy of the guide, please see the 6 Tips for Creating Accessible Word Documents handout.  If you would like a quick reference sheet when you are working on your own documents, please see the Accessibility Checklist Word Documents.

How to Set-up Your Document

One of the first things you should do when creating a Word document is add a title, subject, and author to the document file itself. By adding these items, it will supply additional information for people using screen readers. This information can be added if you select File, select Info, and select Advanced Properties from the Properties menu on the right side of the screen. When it’s time to save the Word document, make sure to use a meaningful name that will allow people using assistive technology to understand which document it is.

How to Select Fonts, Colors, and Layout

There are a lot of fonts, sizes, and colors to choose from on the Home tab of the Word tool 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 12 points is used within the document.

Screenshot of a document with arrows pointing to selecting the Home tab and selecting the Font Color menuAdding colored text in a document 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 “The dates in red are still available”. 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 document.

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.

If you need to position information or images in a certain location in the document, use columns to help structure your document because screen reader software will know to read down one column and then start again at the top of the second column. It is recommended that tables not be used for layout purposes, especially if there would be empty cells that might cause problems for the screen reader software.

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Use Heading Tags

Heading tags should be used to help organize information in your document.

Screenshot of Word with an arrow pointing to the Home tab and the Styles menu highlighted

Headings tags can be found in the Styles menu on the Home tab of the Word tool ribbon.

Screenshot with arrows pointing to the Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3 text within a Word document

Heading 1 (H1) should be used for the main topic of the document or page. Heading 2 (H2) should be used for each major section within the document. 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 document.
  • Written to give people clues about the information that follows them.

Why is Using Headings Important?

  • Most people skim a document, headings make it easier for the reader to find what they’re 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’re reviewing.

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Use Alternative Text for Images

Alternative (alt) text should be used to describe what is important about an image that you’ve included so someone with a visual disability will receive similar information that a sighted person would.

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

Screenshot with arrows pointing to right click on an image, select 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. If an image is decorative, check the Mark as decorative box. Note: In older versions of Word, you need to right click on the image, then select Format Picture, and Layout & Properties icon in the right panel. If the version of Word 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.

Screenshot of an example of adding alternative text to an image - Colorado sunset with trees and mountains in the background

Make sure that you include alt text for all images, diagrams, SmartArt, charts, tables, graphs, and embedded objects in the document. Note: In newer versions of Word, Microsoft will auto generate alt text for you, but it will be generic and may not focus on what was important about it for you to include the image.

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.  Note: You can use “screenshot” or “painting” if that helps describe what type of image it is.
  • 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 document, 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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Alternative (alt) text should be used to describe where your hyperlinks (links) are taking someone. Alt Text for Hyperlinks can be added two ways, the first is:

Place your cursor in the document where you’d like the new link to be.

Screenshot of Word with arrows pointing to the Insert tab and the Links menu

  1. Select the Insert tab on the Word tool ribbon.
  2. Select the Links menu.
  3. Select the Link option.

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 Lake Superior College.
  2. Type or copy and paste the URL into the Address text box. For this example, we’ve used the URL for the Lake Superior College website.
  3. Click the OK button.

The second way is to:

Screenshot with an arrow pointing to right click on the URL, select Edit Hyperlink from the menu, and changing the Text to display in the Edit Hyperlink window, then click the OK button

  1. Right click on an existing URL in the document.
  2. Select Edit Hyperlink or Edit Link (depending on your Word version) from the menu.
  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 Hyperlinks 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 using it navigate the document 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

Lists should be used to deliver quick key points, to group like items, or to show a sequence of steps. By using the built-in feature, the Word will do the work for you to make it accessible.

Screenshot of Word with an arrow pointing to the Home tab and the Lists menus highlighted

The List feature can be found in the Paragraph section on the Home tab of the Word 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 bulleted, numbered, 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

Simple data tables makes it easier to display the results of one or two variables. By using the built-in feature, Outlook will do most of the work for you to make it accessible.

To find the Table tool:

Screenshot of Word with an arrow pointing to the Insert tab and the Tables menu highlighted

  1. Select the Insert tab in the Word 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 4 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 of a Word document with an arrow 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 from the list.
  3. Select the Alt Text tab in the Table Properties window.
  4. Type the information for both the Title and Description text boxes.
  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 a Word document with arrows pointing to the table header row and the Table Tools 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 Word 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 Table Design tab, you can also add a Table Style that will visually identify the Header row as important table information. Note: The Table Design and Layout tabs, will appear in the tool ribbon only after the table has been selected.

If the table you are creating will span multiple pages, make sure to have Word repeat the Header Row at the top of each page. To do this:

Select the header row.

Screenshot of Layout tab with an arrow pointing to the Repeat Header Rows option.

  1. Select the Layout tab in the Table Tools ribbon.
  2. Select Repeat Header Rows in the Data area.

Screenshot of Table Properties window with arrows pointing to selecting the the Repeat as header row at the top of each page and clicking the OK button

Another way to do this is, open the Table Properties window and select the “Repeat as header row at the top of each page” option on the Row tab.

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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Use the Check Accessibility Feature

The Accessibility Checker will make creating accessible materials and messages easier. It will help you find and fix accessibility issues that you may have missed. You can find the Check Accessibility option in two places, the first is:

Select File in the upper left corner of Word.

Screenshot of the File area with arrows pointing to selecting the Info section, then selecting the Check for Issues menu, and selecting the Check Accessibility option

  1. Select Info.
  2. Select the Check for Issues dropdown menu button.
  3. Select the Check Accessibility option.

The second is:

Screenshot of the Word tool ribbon with an arrow pointing to selecting the Review tab and the Check Accessibility icon and the Read Aloud option are highlighted

  1. Select the Review tab of the Word tool ribbon.
  2. Select the Check Accessibility icon.

Also located on the Review tab is the Read Aloud option. You can use this option to hear what your document would sound like to someone using a text-to-speech tool. The Read Aloud option can also be useful when you’re proofreading your documents to check for errors.

Note: If the Check Accessibility features aren’t available or working correctly, you’re probably working on document that was created using an older version of Word, you’ll need to convert it to the latest version and then the Check Accessibility features will work for you.

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

Screenshot of the Accessibility Checker results with Errors, Warnings, and Additional information highlighted

  • Errors are problem areas that make the document very difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to use 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 document that, by not fixing them they may cause problems for people with disabilities to use the document. Warnings can include things like having merged or split cells in a table.
  • Tips are recommendations on how to better organize the document. 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 highlightedAfter 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 document. 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.  Please see Microsoft’s Rules for the Accessibility Checker for more information on a list of the things the Accessibility Checker will look for as well as the limitations of the checker.

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’re new to making your documents accessible, the Accessibility Checker will help you find and fix any problems you might not know are there.
  • Using the Accessibility Check feature is an easy way to make sure all your Word documents meet the accessibility standards.

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Additional Information and Resources

There are a few other considerations when creating accessible Word documents:

Adding a Table of Contents to Longer Documents

If your document is several pages long and with multiple topics in it, you should include a Table of Contents (ToC) at the start to be helpful for navigating to the information viewers need. To do this:

Screenshot of a Word document with arrows pointing to selecting a place in the document, selecting the References tab, and selecting the Table of Contents dropdown menu button

  1. Place your cursor near the top of your document.
  2. Select the References tab in the Word tool ribbon.
  3. Select the Table of Contents dropdown menu button.

When the Table of Contents menu opens, select one of the automatic options so that Word will use the heading tags you’ve added to your document to populate your table of contents.

If you make changes to your headings or layout of the document after adding the table of contents, you can update it easily. To do this:

Select the Table of Contents in your document.

Screenshot of the Table of Contents in a Word document with the steps to update the table highlighted

  1. Select the Update Table tab.
  2. Select the Update entire table radio button. This will update the headings and page numbers.
  3. Click the OK button so Word will fill in the heading and page number information for you.

Adding “Back to Top” Links to Longer Documents

If your document is several pages long and/or uses a Table of Contents, include “Back to top” links regularly. It will be help viewers move back and forth throughout the document as they need to. To do this:

Find the place in your document you’d like to add the first “Back to top” text. We recommend placing these where one section ends and another begins.

Screenshot of adding a Back to Top link with arrows pointing to selecting the Insert tab, selecting the Links option, and selecting the Link option

  1. Select the Insert tab in the Word tool ribbon.
  2. Select the Links dropdown menu.
  3. Select the Link option.

When the Insert Hyperlink window opens:

Screenshot of the Insert Hyperlink window with the steps mentioned below in 1 through 4 highlighted

  1. Select the Place in This Document icon in the left column.
  2. Select the Top of the Document location.
  3. Click the OK button.

Screenshot of the Back to Top link placed after the end of one section of information and before the next oneThe Back to Top link will be added to the document and will bring the viewer back to the Table of Contents area.

Recommendations

  • Avoid using watermarks and other background images because they may be hidden or confuse people with vision or cognitive disabilities. If the document is a draft or confidential, include that in the file name instead.
  • Avoid using extra spaces, tabs, and extra lines between paragraphs that can cause people using screen readers to hear the word “blank” said repeatedly. Use the built-in formatting and style tools to create white space on the document.  Note: This also happens when you use underscores to create lines or form fields responses. Someone using a screen reader will hear the word “underscore” said repeatedly for the length of the line.

This was created using tips from the WebAIM Creating Accessible Word Documents, the Minnesota IT Services Office of Accessibility guides, and the Lake Superior College ROAD to Accessibility course. If you’re interested in taking the ROAD course, please contact your direct supervisor to ask about taking it as a staff development activity.

Microsoft Office has a video series on making accessible Word documents, starting with the Check Document Accessibility video.

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