Creating Accessible Word Documents
This document I outlines how to make your MS Word or MS Office document accessible.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Select Tools>Autocorrect Options
Click the ‘Autoformat AsYou Type’ tab and check the following:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Accessibility features were not included in Word until Office 2011, and options to save to tagged PDF were not included until Office 2016.
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.
Documents will be optimised for accessibility if the following guidelines have followed:
I provided feedback on the WCAG 2. I have two decades of experience and worked with hundreds of organisations.
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