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Creating Accessible Documents in Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word is a commonly-used application among individuals with a variety of disabilities, and is reasonably accessible. The text within Word documents can be read by assistive technologies such as screen readers and Braille devices. However, in order for Word documents to be fully accessible, authors must follow the core principles outlined in the Overview of Accessible Documents. Below are the basic steps for implementing these core accessibility principles.

Use Headings

how to add headers in microsoft word

Using good heading structure helps people without eyesight to understand how the document is organized. Screen reader and Braille users can also jump between headings, which makes navigation much more efficient than if there are no headings.

Making text larger and bold does not make it a heading. In order to convert text to a heading in Microsoft Word, you must use the built-in Heading styles like "Heading 1" and "Heading 2", available under Styles in the Home tab.

Visit Microsoft website for more information about creating Headers in Word.

Headings should form an outline, using the "Heading 1" style for the main heading, and "Heading 2" for sub-headings. If there are additional levels of headings within the document's outline, using "Heading 3", "Heading 4", etc.



Use Lists

how to use lists in microsoft word

Lists should be created using Word's built-in tools for ordered (numbered) and unordered (bulleted) lists. Without using these tools, a list is not really a list, which makes the content more difficult for screen reader users to fully understand.

Note that both ordered and unordered lists are highly customizable. Just click on the arrow adjacent to the desired list button to design a list that meets your needs.










Use Meaningful Hyperlinks

how to add hyperlinks in microsoft word

Adding meaningful hyperlinks in Word is simple. Include language in your document that conveys relevant information about the destination of the link, highlight that text and right click and select Hyperlink. Include the URL in the Address field and select OK.

Visit Microsoft website for more information about creating accessible links.








Alternate text for images

how to add alternate text for images in microsoft word

In most versions of Word, you can enter alternate text by right clicking an image and selecting Format Picture. Within the Format Picture dialog, select Alt Text and enter information in the Description field.












Identify Document Language

how to identify each foreign language in microsoft word

In Office, select Tools > Language from the application menu to define the default language. To define a different language for part of the document, select each foreign language individually, then select Tools > Language to define the language for each.

NOTE: Currently language settings only effect accessibility of the Word document itself. They do not survive when exported to PDF. If PDF is the final format in which you intend to distribute your document, you will need to define language in the PDF directly using Adobe Acrobat Pro. For help see Fixing Inaccessible PDFs Using Acrobat Pro.











Use Tables Wisely

how to create a table in microsoft word

Word has limitations when it comes to making tables accessible. As explained in the Overview of Accessible Documents, tables can be very difficult for screen reader users to understand unless they include markup that explicitly defines the relationships between all the parts (e.g., headers and data cells). For a simple table with one row of column headers and no nested rows or columns, Word is up to the task. However, more complex tables can only be made accessible within HTML or Adobe PDF (accessible table markup can be added to the PDF using Adobe Acrobat Pro).

Often complex tables can be simplified by breaking them into multiple simple tables with a heading above each.

For simple tables, the only step necessary for accessibility is to identify which row contains the column headers. To do this in Word, select that row (Table > Select > Row), then right click the row and select "Table Properties". This brings up the Table Properties dialog. In this dialog, click the Row tab, and check the checkbox that says "Repeat as header row at the top of each page".

how to create table headers in microsoft word

In addition, when creating a table two new tabs will appear in the ribbon. Selecting the Design tab will reveal the Table Styles Option group where you can define your Header Row.

Visit Microsoft website for more information about creating Accessible Tables.

Use the Accessibility Checker

how to use the accessibility checker in microsoft word

Microsoft products have a built-in accessibility checker which can help the document author test the overall accessibility of the document (Review > Check Accessibility). The checker provides Inspection Results, feedback about the importance of each item, and tips on how to repair issues.








Exporting to PDF, Understand How to Preserve Accessibility

There are right ways and wrong ways to export to PDF. The steps required depends on which version of Microsoft Word you're using.

Word (Windows)

  • Go to File > "Save As..." and select PDF from the choices provided. By default this produces a PDF that preserves the document's accessibility features.

  • When saving, select Options and be sure that "Document structure tags for accessiblity" is checked. This is checked by default, but could become unchecked under certain circumstances.

  • If you select "Minimize Size" to reduce the size of your PDF, be sure to repeat the preceding step, as this option might uncheck the "Document structure tags for accessibility" checkbox.


Word (Mac)

  • Go to File > "Save As..." select PDF from the choices provided. By default this produces a PDF that preserves the document's accessibility features.

  • When saving, be sure the radio button labeled "Best for electronic distribution and accessibility" is selected.


Older Versions of Word

  • In Windows, exporting to an accessible PDF in Office 2007 and 2003 requires a plug-in. The Adobe PDFMaker Plugin ships with Adobe Acrobat Pro, and the plugin is installed into Office and appears as an Adobe toolbar and menu item. With this plug-in installed, use the Adobe toolbar or the Adobe menu item to Save As PDF. By default this produces a PDF that preserves the document's accessibility features.

  • On a Mac, Word did not include accessibility features at all until Office 2011, and did not support saving to tagged PDF until Office 2016. In Office 2011, you can create an accessible Word document, but in order to export to tagged PDF you must take that final step in Word for Windows or LibreOffice for Mac.

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