7 Simple Steps to Create Accessible Documents with Microsoft Office

We’ve all had to do a group project at some point in our lives, now imagine you’re in a class and the project involves collaborating on a document, but you have low vision or no vision at all. How can you be expected to get the job done?

This is what countless disabled students and professionals face on a regular basis. Fortunately, Microsoft has always put forward efforts to make everything in their operating system as accessible as possible, and this includes creating accessible Word documents.

If you’re here to find out precisely that, then give yourself a pat on the back because the world could use more people like you. There are always small ways to make something accessible for our co-worker, friend or study buddy, and it’s high time more of us stepped up to find out what they are.

So, how can we make life easier for the more than 6 million people who need screen-readers (in the US) to read documents? Here are 3 things you can do:

Step 1: Add alt texts to all graphics

Add alt-text to any images, graphics and tables in your document so screen readers can tell the user what they’re all about. Avoid using just an image to convey all the important information though, if you must use an image with text in it, make sure to repeat that text in the document.

You can add the alt texts by going into the Format menu option while working on an image, you’ll find the fields to add a good description about it. Try to be descriptive but brief, just enough words to give people a clear mental image of what’s on the screen.

Step 2: Add hyperlinks that read clearly

If you’re adding links, avoid embedding them into words that won’t give any context to someone using a screen reader. For example, “read this” is a hyperlink that really doesn’t say much about the link’s destination, whereas “read Why is Document Accessibility Important?” gives a much clearer idea, even to people not using screen readers. So you know what? Just cut your losses and always do this.

Step 3: Use headings and styles

Word has built-in heading and styles you can use in your document to give your content structure and to also make it easier to read. Tab order plays an important role in this, since tabbing is how screen readers go through content.

When using headings, you can choose from Word’s options but make sure you’re using them in a logical order. Like the main heading is Heading 1, the sub-headings are Heading 2, and so forth.

Built-in headings in Word

For styles, things like lists can be confusing if not styled properly. Using bullet points for lists gives an easy-to-read structure, and numbered lists are great for when you have more than 7 items.

Built-in bullet points in Word


Step 4: Careful with your color choices  

This is another of those tips that is useful whether accessibility is at stake or not. No one wants to read an article in blue text over a black background, and for documents you should make sure your texts are clearly visible and easily readable (preferably black text on white or light grey background). Also ensure that none of them are using colors to convey specific messages. Keep in mind that color blindness is a visual impedient too.

Usually you can tell just by visually scanning your document, but if you’re not sure about the contrast then use this Color Contrast Checker. If you have a graph or something that relies on the use of color to convey information, try this Color Blindness Simulator to see how it would look to your color-blind buddies.

Step 5: Simplify your tables   

Some people (me) take a very long time making their tables more complicated than they need to be. Merged cells, split cells, blank rows, tables within tables…they’re all things we can do in Word, but really shouldn’t. Even more so when it comes to accessibility, since screen readers count the cells to keep track of their location in a table, so if there’s a table within another table or if a cell is merged or split, the screen reader will lose count and won’t be able to provide helpful information to the poor user.

So skip all the decoration and just make sure your table has headers and each row and column is filled in with the important information.

Step 6: Export your document to an accessible PDF 

In many projects you’ll need to export your documents to PDF since not everyone has the same version of Office (oh how we despise those compatibility issues) or even the same software for documents. So good ol’ Office allows you to transfer the accessibility features within the Office document to the PDF, so when exporting you can check the option Document structure tags for accessibility.

Step 7: Check if your document is accessible

This would be the final step just to ensure everything you have in your document is accessible. There is a great feature called Check Accessibility where you can just click a button and scan your document for any issues that may make it difficult for screen-readers to process it. It’ll even give you suggestions on how to fix them, which is nice.

And you’re done! Nothing too hard, was it now?

Doing these simple things won’t take too much extra time for you, but they will certainly reduce many hours of struggling for those who wouldn’t be able to access it any other way.  So if you have the chance to do it for your students, co-workers, class companions or whoever it may be, please do!

If you’re interested in learning more about Microsoft’s accessibility features, visit their Microsoft Accessibility News  page. For assistance making your own website accessible to reach a larger audience, give us a call.

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