Creating Accessible Word Documents

This document I outlines how to make your MS Word or MS Office document accessible.

Run the accessibility checker

The first thing you should do is to open run the built-in accessibility checker. Find it via Tools/Check Accessibility or from the tools ribbon at Review/Check Accessibility.

Microsoft Word Tools Ribbon

When you run the checker it will open a set of tabs on the right-hand side of the page. The text field within the accessibility tab shows any issues found.

MS Word Accissibility Check Sidebar

Underneath the list of issues, Word provides a short explanations and suggested fixes.

Accessibility issues commonly found include, images with missing alternative text, images that are not inline, and contrast issues. The accessibility checker is a great tool but it does not check everything. So, you should also check that all headings, lists, paragraphs and so on are formatted using styles.

Add document structure by formatting text using styles

Using styles adds semantic structure to your page content.

A clear, hierarchical document structure will help screen reader users summarise and understand document content; for example, they can extract a list of headings or links – and jump quickly between them. If headings are not marked up properly (i.e if you just made the text a bit bigger and bold) assistive technologies will not recognise them as headings – therefore making it more difficult or certain users to navigate the document.

The structure will be retained when the document is exported as a PDF.

Use the navigation pane to check how your heading are organised

To view the sidebar click on the View tab, then click the ‘Navigation Pane’ box in the show group. You will be able to navigate through your document quickly by clicking on the headings. This gives you an overview of your document structure and a sense of how screen reader users summarise content and navigate via headings.

Word navigation pane

Remove superfluous spacing

If you need to create space above and below paragraphs, use the ‘Spacing Before’ and ‘Spacing After’ paragraph properties, rather than hitting the Enter key. If you had previously added spaces manually (i.e. by hitting the return key) go through you document to remove it.

Styles should be used to set the formatting for:

  • bullet lists
  • numbered lists
  • chapters
  • blocks of text
  • headings
  • images
  • URLs and email addresses
  • Tables of contents

Turn on automatic formatting

If you are not adding styles, ensure that the preference for automatic formatting is set – this will assist in the creation of lists, internet, email addresses and so on.

Setup automatic formatting:

Select Tools>Autocorrect Options

Click the ‘Autoformat AsYou Type’ tab and check the following:

  • • Automatic bulleted lists
  • • Automatic numbered lists
  • • Internet and network paths with hyperlinks
  • • Define styles based on formatting

For documents that are expected to be converted to PDF, XML or RTF – be more deliberate in your application of styles (e.g. Heading 1, Heading 2, lists and so on).

Add alternative text to images

The latest version of Microsoft Word adds Alt Text automatically when you insert a new image; it does this based on the file name of the image.

Right-click on the image, select ‘Edit Alt Text’ and change the default text. Keep the alt text short but describe the image adequately.

When adding decorative images, tick the ‘Mark as decorative’ box instead of adding a text description.

Mark as decorative text

How to write alt text descriptions

Keep your descriptions short, say between 2 and 7 words. Granted, you will sometimes need it to be longer, and that’s fine, but keeping text descriptions as concise as possible is always a good idea.

In terms of the wording; consider the context; think about why the photo or image is being used; what was the writer trying to add or clarify by using that photograph or image? For example, if it’s just an image of the author, the alt text can be just their name and their job title. If it’s a photo of a craft item on a sales page, you should describe the item; ‘A packet of multicoloured glass beads’. Always be thinking, ‘why is this image here?’ ‘What’s it for?’ And you will come up with an appropriate text description.

Never add, ‘image of’ or ‘photo of’ prior to your description. Screen readers announce images by saying the word, ‘Image:’ If you add ‘Image of…’ to your text description, you have added redundant text.

Adding alternative text to complex images

Alt text should be short, but what do you do if the image contains a lot of complex information? In that case, add an appropriate short description, but also add a longer description in the body of the article, close to the image.

Wrapping styles

Word offers five different text wrapping styles: inline with text, square, tight, behind text, and in front of text.

Only inline retains the graphics’ position relative to the document’s text. The other wrapping styles are treated as floating objects.

For accessibility graphics should be inserted inline with the text. This will ensure that they retain their proper reading order. You may have to adjust your layout if you have previously used a different wrapping style.

An explanation for using inline with text

Floating objects appear on a different ‘Drawing Layer’ from the surrounding content. It’s a bit like the having your main text sitting under a piece of glass and placing you images and text boxes on the glass itself, i.e. they float about the text. Screen readers can find it difficult to deal with these floating objects and text boxes.

For example, JAWs, can recognise the floating objects, but it has problems placing them in the correct sequence with surrounding content.

So, avoid using floating objects and text boxes. Instead put them ‘inline with text’. This places them on the same layer as the surrounding text.

The downside to this change, is that it will effect the layout of your page. You will have less flexibility in terms of where you place objects such as pull-quotes or images.

One additional issues is that floating objects do not translate well to other formats, e.g. conversion to PDF.

Check colour contrast

If you are using coloured text in your document check that the colour has sufficient contrast with the background. The WCAG provide guidelines for minimum colour contrasts as a ratio. 1:1 means white on white. 21:1 means black on white. For standard text the ratio should be at least 4.5:1 for and for large text (18pt and above) it should be at least 3:1

3:1 contrast example

To check colour contrast select your text, click on the coloured text icon then click ‘More Colours’ and copy the hex value for the colour (on Mac the hex value can be found on the colour sliders tab). I use the contrast checker tool provided by the WebAim website to check the contrast between the text colour and background colour. That tells me if the contrast is above or below the required ratio to pass WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) guidelines. The WCAG guidelines are as relevant to offline documents as they are to online documents.

4.5 to 1 contrast example

Ensure links are accessible

Ensure that links use meaningful text. Don’t use ‘click here’ and don’t use a URL as the link text. A screen reader will read out URLs a letter at a time, which will be very irritating. It also makes it difficult to for them to know where a link goes.

To make a link descriptive, right click and choose Edit Link (or Edit Hyperlink – depending on what version of Word you are using). Change the link text to something meaningful.

Alternatively type your text in first, then add the link. To add the link right-click and choose ‘Link’. Add the URL.

If the document is for printing you can add the URL, in brackets, after the link.

Create accessible tables

Simple tables can be made accessible within MS Word, however, when it comes to trying to make more complex tables accessible Word has some limitations. For example, with more complex tables, you often need to know both the table row heading and table column heading to understand the content of a cell. MS Word is unable to add that level of detail; therefore, screen readers cannot give users the information they need to understand the contents of each cell.

More complex table can however be made accessible within Adobe PDFs and within HTML pages.

Create a table of contents

A table of contents is another way to add structure to your document. Put your cursor at the point where you want to add the table of contents, the go to the References tab then click the ‘Table of Contents’ icon. Choose the style you prefer and click that style. This will insert the table of contents.

Identify document language

From the Applications menu select Tools/Language and define the default language of your document. You can also set a different language for different sections of your document by selecting the text and then choosing Tools/Language to update for the selected text.

Note: if you are converting the document to PDF, you will need to redefine the language after conversion as the language does not survive the conversion process.

Convert to an accessible PDF

Once you have ensured that you Word document is accessible you want to ensure that all the work you have done is preserved when you convert it into a PDF. Export the file to PDF and ensure that ‘Document structure tags for accessibility’ has been checked within the export preferences pane.

Creating PDF from Apple Mac Word

If you are using Word on Mac choose Save As, choose PDF as the File Format option form the pull-down menu and then click the check box next to the option, “Best for electronic distribution and accessibility”.

Do not ‘print to PDF as this will not preserve the documents accessibility features.

Older versions of Word


Office 2007 and 2003 require a plug-in. The Adobe PDFMaker Plugin ships with Adobe Acrobat Pro and appears as an Adobe toolbar and menu item in Office. With the plug-in installed, use the Adobe toolbar or the Adobe menu item to Save As PDF. By resulting PDF preserves the document’s accessibility features.

Apple Mac

Accessibility features were not included in Word until Office 2011, and options to save to tagged PDF were not included until Office 2016.

Add document summary information

After you have created your PDF document, you should always add summary information. Document summary information is used by search engines to create the text for the search results page.

Select File>Document Properties and add a document title and summary.

Document Accessibility Checklist

Documents will be optimised for accessibility if the following guidelines have followed:

  • Use simple and straightforward layouts.
  • Use styles to format headings, paragraphs, lists and other page elements.
  • Avoid unnecessary ornamentation – such as background images, text overlaying graphics, overlapping figures and so on.
  • Don’t use the return key to add spaces between paragraphs, headings and other items on your pages. Instead add the appropriate amount of space using styles.
  • Ensure good contrast between text and background colours. You can obtain the RGB values from Words text colour palette and then use an online contrast checker such as the one provided by the Level Access website. Minimum contrast ratio for standard text is 4.5:1 for and for large text it is 3:1.
  • Avoid using text boxes. Text boxes are know to create difficulties for people using adaptive technologies such as screen readers . Avoid creating watermarks (as these require text boxes).
  • Do not paste graphics into a text box – as they are considered floating objects in the page.
  • To create a table, use the Insert Table Command, or Draw Table tool. Don’t use tabs and spaces to create tables. Keep tables simple; avoid split cells, merged cells and nested tables. Ensure you add structure to the table by specifying the header row.
  • When creating columns use the Columns command, i.e. don’t use tabs to simulate columns. Format/Column and adjust as required. For maximum accessibility avoid using multiple columns.
  • Use common sans serif fonts: for example, Arial and Helvetica.
  • Provide alternative text for all images and graphs. Newer version of Word will automatically add default text for an image, which you can then edit.
  • Avoid using overlapping text and graphics. Overlapping text can result in text being unreadable or garbled by screen readers. It also makes it more difficult to read for people with visual impairments and cognitive conditions such as dyslexia.
  • Ensure links use meaningful text; don’t use URLs as links. Screen reader users will find URLs difficult to understand – as it reads them out one letter at time. The user will not necessarily know where the link goes. Don’t use ‘click here’ as screen reader users are likely to be reading the link out of context.
  • Add a document summary via File>Document Properties.
  • Run the accessibility checker before converting to PDF.
  • When converting to PDF use the export option and click the “Best for electronic distribution and accessibility” checkbox.
  • Insert graphics inline with the text, and ensure images and photos are close to the content they refer to.
  • Create a table of contents. A table of contents is another way to add structure to your document.
  • Remove superfluous spacing. Often if documents were originally created without using styles the author will have used the return key to add space between different page elements. These returns should be removed.

Document Accessibility

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Working with non-profits, charities, voluntary and public sector organisations and social enterprises for over 20 years. Jim set up one of the worlds first website accessibility web agencies in the mid 1990s.