Accessible Documents in Microsoft Word
Last modified 2/16/2022
The Microsoft Word offers many features built-in to help you create accessible content.
Where to Start?
Not sure where to start? No problem, follow these steps to help you create an accessible Word document.
Add a Document Title
You should add a document title to your files. A document title is different than a file name. The title typically matches the heading 1 for your document, or the main title if you have multiple heading 1s.
Type your titles in upper and lower cases. Avoid using ALL CAPS, and any internal review terms (i.e. My Document Title - FINAL; My Document Title - REVIEW).
Format Your Structure
The structure of the document is important to convey. Assistive technologies, like screen reader and text-to-speech readers, rely on the underlying code in a document to tell the difference between a heading and regular printed text or when a person navigates into a table or a list of items. These cues help provide an understanding of how the document is organized.
Headings are very important help people navigate the content of your document. These are tend to be large and bold text. Though they sometimes could be a colored font, too.
Just making your headings visually big and bold is not enough. You need to add the underlying structure telling other technologies that "this text is a heading" and how this heading fits with other headings in your document. With the Microsoft Word Text editor, you can easily format your headings.
For more information on structuring your headings, check out our Headings Overview.
Numbered and bulleted lists help break up paragraphs. If you find yourself using more than three commas to list things off in a sentence, try using a bulleted list instead so it is easier to scan for information.
When the list is formatted as a list, it is also easy to scan with assistive technologies. A screen reader will tell a person when they are entering and exiting the list instead of listening to the list as if it were a run-on sentence with dashes.
Microsoft Word typically will automatically set a bulleted list if you start numbering a list or use the dash key. Some older versions may not automatically create a list and you may need to manually add a list to your document.
Sometimes you may need more than one column to present your content.
Avoid using the tab key to make space between columns on a page. Assistive Technology will read document text left to right, top to bottom. If you use the tab key create spaces between columns, assistive technology will read across both columns before moving down to the next line. In Microsoft Word you can format your columns so assistive technology will read one column before moving on to the next.
Add Meaningful Text Links
Links let people jump to a new location in the current document, open a web site, or open another document. By linking text in your document you can allow people navigate around or away from your document. The words in a text link should clearly convey where you are taking a person if they select the link.
Ensure any media linked to from your document is provided in accessible formats.
Add Alternative Text for Images
Images should have a purpose. The image's purpose must be conveyed through text either in the surrounding content or in an alternative text (i.e. image description, alt text, etc.). Microsoft Word allows you to add alternative text to images.
Does your document have form fields? Form fields should be interactive so people have the option to use a computer or a mobile device to fill them out. Microsoft Word is not ideal for fillable form fields, but you can prepare your Word document form to be converted to an interactive PDF form or consider linking to a web form.
Tables can help organize and display some types of content, particularly data. Data tables take large amounts of information and compile it into cells. These cells form rows and columns so people can compare data points.
Assistive technologies, like screen readers, are linear and will read an unformatted table one row at a time, left to right. Large data tables can be confusing when the table's headers are not conveyed to screen reader users.
Microsoft Word has features which help create accessible tables.
Run the Accessibility Checker
When all is done run the Microsoft Accessibility Checker for a quick report on any remaining accessibility issues in your document. This will typically pick up simple accessibility errors like missing alt text and structure issues.
Covert to PDF
Not everyone has access to Microsoft Word, so you may need to convert your Word Document to a PDF. A PDF is a specific file format which shares your text and images in a way that may be more easily viewed, printed, and electronically transmitted.
Not all conversions go perfectly. Before sharing or publishing, you will want to check your PDF in Adobe Acrobat Pro to make sure the PDF is correctly tagged.
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