Creating Accessible Word Documents

Use Appropriate Headings

Headings are used to organize documents. Individuals using screen readers or the Braille system can navigate through the document's structure by moving from header to header. Header styles must be applied -- bold or larger font text are not headings. In short, headings create an outline that follow a hierarchical order, starting with "Heading 1" as the title/main heading, followed by subheadings of "2" and "3," and so forth.

How To: Use the built-in heading styles of the Home tab of Microsoft Word. Highlight the text and select the heading that correctly corresponds to the structure of the document. Save when done.

Use Descriptive Alternative Text

Alternative text serves various purposes: it is read by screen readers to identify the content of an image, it displays in cases where an image can't be displayed and is used if the content of the image cannot be determined by the page context. For this reason, alt text must clearly state what the image is and convey description information as to why it is on the page. 

How To: Select the image and right click, then select Format Picture. Under Layout and Properties select Alt Text from the menu on the right. Type in the Description box, not the Title box. Close when done and save.

Use Lists Properly

Lists, including ordered (numbered) and unordered (bulleted), must be formatted using Microsoft Word's built-in tools. Formatting without these tools is not identified by screen readers as list. 

How To: Both the Ordered (Numbered) list and Unordered (Bulleted) List tools can be found in the Home tab in Word. Click on the type of list formatting you would like to use in the document. 

Insert Links Correctly

Links must convey clear and accurate information as to the destination of the link. Make sure the link is not broken, and be prepared to fix links that break over time. When inserting a link, use descriptive anchor text and avoid generic terms (e.g. "Click Here") or a full, long URI for a hyperlink. Screen readers cannot decipher where the link is pointed or going. 

How To: Select the text and right click, choose Hyperlink from the context menu, and then copy and paste into the address line or search for an existing file or webpage. Click OK when finished.

Use Correct Table Settings

Tables can be a good way to present information, but have several accessibility attributes to consider. Although Microsoft Word can create simple, accessible tables, you should use Adobe Acrobat Pro for more complex tables. For Word, the table must have a proper reading order as screen readers read tables from left-to-right and up-to-down. That means you must use Microsoft Word's built-in table builder to create proper table headers. 

How To: To create an accessible table in Microsoft Word, use the Table Properties by right clicking on the table. Under the "Rows" property check the box "Repeat as header row on the top of each page." Note: only the top row of a table can be the designated header row, not the first column.

Use Proper Color Contrast Ratios

Document colors must also be accessible, including font and background color, for individuals with visual impairments or color blindness. That means your documents must have appropriate color contrast ratios for users to distinguish between fonts and background color. Your documents must have a ratio of at least 4.5:1 for normal-sized text (12 pt. font) and 3:1 for large text (14 pt. font). Additionally, color cannot be the only means used to convey meaning in a document. For example, a calendar cannot only use colors to identify certain types of events. 

How To: You can either download a Color Contrast Analyzer onto your computer or use an online contrast checker from WebAIM. To check contrast, insert your foreground (text) and background colors into the contrast checkers. You will receive a ratio report that determines if your color choice meets accessibility standards.

Use Descriptive Title 

Microsoft Word documents should have a title that conveys the context of the document. This title may be the same as the file name and should be descriptive. For example, a file name of "Joe Smith's Term Paper Spring English 1010" is better than "J-TP-101." 

Accessibility Checker

Prior to uploading or sharing a Microsoft Word document, the final step is to review accessibility errors. Microsoft Word has a built-in accessibility checker. 

How To: Select File from the menu. Next, choose Inspect Document. Finally, select Check for Issues and Check Accessibility. After the report finishes, the accessibilty checker will have a results panel on the right side of the screen. If no issues are identified, a green check mark will appear in the accessibility panel.