Introduction to Word Documents & Accessibility

Accessibility is fundamentally about making sure people can access the content you create. To create an accessible Word document, you will need to consider the accessibility of all the information in the document, including elements like the document structure, hyperlinks, lists, and images.

There are a variety of actions you can take to improve accessibility in Word documents, and they are fairly straightforward. They will take deliberate practice to integrate into the workflow you have when creating a document. However, once these actions become habits, the amount of time it will take you to create a document shouldn’t be significantly longer than it is now.

This article has recommendations to support accessibility for a variety of users, including those who use assistive technology like screen readers and screen magnifiers, as well as individuals with hearing, motor, and cognitive disabilities. 

Components of an Accessible Word Document

Most of these items have instructions available specific to your operating system in the Microsoft Word accessibility guide.

Text and Visual Styling

Unstyled text is generally accessible to all users. However, there are a variety of visual styling techniques that can reduce the accessibility of text. Follow the guidelines in this section to ensure the text of your document is accessible.

  • Keep styling simple. 
    • Use text styles like italics, underline, and strikethroughs sparingly, as they can be hard to read for people with low vision or processing disorders. Preferably avoid these styles using unless they are required for proper grammar or formatting citations.
    • Avoid using all caps except for acronyms.
    • Avoid using justified text, as it can be difficult for some readers to keep track of their location when both the left and right sides of text have straight edges.
  • Do not use style or color alone to communicate meaning. 
    • Screen readers generally do not announce when text is bolded or styled in some way. Text color or highlight color is not announced to a screen reader user.
    • Avoid instructions that rely solely on visual perception to be able to accomplish. E.g., “define the underlined words in the following sentence”.
    • Any time that style or color is used to signify any sort of meaning, ensure the meaning is also communicated through written text. 
      • For example, if “Required texts are in bold,” you would need to write: “Required: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”.
  • Use familiar, simple fonts. 
    • They are often easier for people with low vision, dyslexia, and processing disorders to decipher. Avoid using novelty fonts, such as script. 
    • Sans serif fonts like Arial are recommended for greatest readability.
  • Avoid using images of text. 
    • Users should be able to change the color, size, and other features of the text to make it more readable, and images of text are not adjustable.
  • Ensure there is adequate color contrast between the text color and background color. 
    • High contrast makes text easier to read for everyone.
    • Some individuals with color blindness or low vision may struggle to detect the presence of text at all if contrast is low.  
    • Consult a color checker tool to determine the color contrast.
  • Avoid positioning text over images. 
  • Avoid locking the document.
    • This ensures that users will be able to remove text styling, adjust color contrast, and increase the font size as needed to improve readability.

Structure and Meaning

Many document creators rely solely on visual styling to communicate the intended purpose or function of an element on a page, such as making the title a larger font size and bolded so it will stand out visually to sighted readers. However, assistive technology cannot look at and interpret the finished visual form of a Word document the way a sighted user can to decipher the function or importance of different elements. Instead, assistive technology relies on the document owner to create and mark content in a way that tells assistive technology how to interact with it or interpret it.

For example, some people may use an asterisk or a dash to indicate items in a list and don’t use the list button to make it a “real” list. Assistive technology cannot interpret what a dash means in context the way a sighted reader can. If the content creator did not deliberately mark a set of items as a list, the assistive technology will not be able to tell a user with a vision disability that these items are all supposed to be in a list.

When creating your Word document, ensure that you use the proper way of setting up elements like tables of contents, lists, tables, and more to ensure that all readers are able to understand how your document functions. 

  • Headings
    • Structure your document with headings. 
      • You can add headings with the styles pane or in outline view
      • You can use the shortcut Ctrl-Alt-# (Windows) or Cmd-Opt-# (Mac) to add the style as you type, where # is the level of heading you want to apply (1, 2, or 3).
    • Make your headings clear and descriptive. Accurate headings help users navigate quickly to the information they need and make it easier to understand the purpose of each section of the document.
    • Use proper outline hierarchy.
      • Heading 1 should be the broadest, most important level of content, and each increasing level is more specific.
      • Only increase heading levels by 1 when moving to the next level of specificity. Never jump straight from heading level 1 to 4, for example.
    • Don’t use the “Title” style. The title should be a Heading Level 1, major sections should be Heading Level 2, and so on.
    • If you like, you can modify the appearance of a particular heading level by changing the style template.
  • Table of contents
    • A table of contents is especially helpful in long documents so people can jump straight to the content they want. 
    • Create a table of contents through the Reference ribbon. (This will only work if you have already defined headings for your document.)
    • Don’t create the table of contents manually. In a table of contents created properly, the numbers and sections will update as you make changes. In addition, each section is hyperlinked to that part of the document, which is beneficial to all users and particularly useful to someone navigating with a keyboard or touch screen.
  • Lists
    • Use the list buttons in the Home ribbon to create lists. 
    • Check if your list is properly created: if you hit Enter, a new bullet point or the next list number should automatically appear on the new line.
  • Hyperlink text
    • Ensure hyperlink text describes its destination, is unique, and makes sense out of context.
    • Assistive technology users might skip from link to link in a document without reading the surrounding text, so links should be understandable outside of their context.
    • Avoid using full URLs for link text unless they are short and intended to be memorized (e.g., canvas.colorado.edu)
    • If the link destination is a web-hosted document (PDF, .ppt, .doc, etc.) rather than a web page, indicate the document type at the end of the link text, like Org Chart (PDF).
  • Tables
    • Use a simple layout, because a complicated table can be difficult to navigate with a screen reader.
      • Avoid nested tables and blank cells. 
      • Break up a complex table into multiple tables if possible. 
    • Add a header row to your table.
      • A screen reader user frequently navigates a table one cell at a time and is unable to look up to the top or left of the table to check on what the information in the cell relates to.
      • Add a header column to your table if appropriate by selecting “First Column” in the Table Design ribbon.
      • This allows assistive technology to read out the heading for the new row when the user is navigating vertically through the table.

Objects & Images

  • Provide alternative text to all meaningful images or shapes. 
    • “Alt” text is a brief description of the meaning of a graphic or image. The goal is to convey the purpose or meaning of the visual, not just to thoroughly describe every aspect of what you see. 
    • If a graphic or object is entirely decorative, mark the graphic as decorative so assistive technology knows to ignore it.
  • Reading order of objects and text
    • If your image or object has a Wrap Text property that is not ‘In Line With Text”, you will need to ensure that the page reading order makes sense with the image. 
    • An object or image will be read out to screen readers at the point where its image anchor is located. (Learn more under “Understanding Anchors”.) If the image will not make sense at its current anchor location, you can click-and-drag to relocate the anchor in the page reading order.
  • Avoid using text boxes. 
    • Text box content is not accessible to a screen reader user.

Multimedia

  • All video content (including external content linked to from the document) should have captions, and audio content should have a transcript. 
  • It is not possible to add a caption file to an embedded video in Word, so open captions will need to be burned into the video. 
  • If external content does not have captions, other content should be used. 
  • For more information about captioning at CU Boulder, visit the captioning service website.

Advanced Features

  • Document Protection
    • If the document is protected to prohibit editing, assistive technology often cannot read the content. Avoid using this feature.
    • If you need to protect a document and an assistive technology user needs access, it is preferable to send them an unprotected copy of the document, as opposed to trying to implement different protection rules for specific users in the original document.
  • Forms

Exporting to PDF

Please consult the WebAIM tutorial on exporting to PDF. This step is critical to create an accessible PDF from your accessible Word document.

Accessibility Checker

The accessibility checker in Office Products such as Word will identify some accessibility problems, such as inadequate color contrast, missing alt text for images, a lack of table headers, and restricted document access. The accessibility checker will designate each problem as an “error,” a “warning,” or a “tip,” with “errors” being the most severe problems and “tips” being the least severe. (The accessibility checker in Office will identify the absence of captions as a “tip,” but at CU Boulder, all audiovisual media must be captioned). The accessibility checker will also offer options for a way to fix problems. 

However, there are some accessibility problems an automated checker will fail to identify, and it is important to learn to identify them or to ask an expert to look over the document. For example, the accessibility checker will not identify if headings are assigned to the appropriate level, if text color or style is used exclusively to convey information, or if there are inaccuracies in alt text.