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5 Tips for Creating Accessible Spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel

Sep 15, 2023

 

Microsoft Office has gradually introduced dozens of features to help people create accessible documents. That’s important, since documents (and other digital content) needs to be accessible to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws.

Spreadsheets pose particularly significant issues for users with disabilities. Often, spreadsheets contain long lists of data — and outputting that data with screen readers (software that converts text to audio) and other assistive technologies can be difficult. 

Additionally, Excel files may include graphs and other visual-first content. To make those elements accessible, you’ll need to think about accessibility when creating your spreadsheets. Here are a few tips to help you get started. 

 

1. Make sure your Excel spreadsheet can be read by other software

 

For a visual-first user, spreadsheets may have an obvious method of organization. For example, on a time-tracking spreadsheet, a user who opens a document might immediately understand that columns show dates, while rows show times.

 

But for a screen reader user, that might not be immediately evident. If the spreadsheet doesn’t have defined headings for columns and rows, these users may have trouble interpreting the data. 

Microsoft’s Accessibility Checker is an excellent tool for finding missing headers, nested cells, and other issues that might impact assistive technology users. 

To use the Accessibility Checker in Excel:

 

  • Select the Review tab.
  • Select Check Accessibility. 
  • Excel will scan your spreadsheet for potential issues. Select an issue under Warnings or Errors, then review the Recommended Actions.

 

While the Accessibility Checker is a powerful tool, fixing dozens of issues can be time-consuming. The best practice is to plan for accessibility when building your spreadsheet. That’s especially important when you’re designing visual content. 

 

2. Pay attention to use of color

 

When working with data, it’s common to use color to convey meaning. For example, you might show negative balances in red, while positive balances are represented in green. 

Remember, some users can’t perceive color — and others may have difficulty reading text that has a low contrast with its background. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which function as the international standards for digital accessibility, provides guidance for using color in an accessible way: 

 

 

Excel’s Accessibility Checker can identify most instances of low-contrast text. However, you’ll still need to manually review your document, particularly if you have any images with text (the best practice for accessibility is to avoid images of text, but if you do render text on an image, make sure that it follows WCAG’s color contrast requirements). 

 

3. Write accurate alternative text for visual content

 

Images, graphs, and other visual content should include alternative text (also called alt text). 

Generally, the best way to write alt text is to describe the content with the first words that come to mind. Avoid using phrases like “image of" or “graph of,” since screen readers will announce the type of content before reading the alternative text.

Don’t write too much — screen readers will announce the full alt text, so keep it brief and to the point. For additional guidance, read: 5 Steps for Writing Alt Text for Accessibility.

 

4. Trim out blank spreadsheets and give your sheets descriptive titles

 

Often, the biggest issue with Excel spreadsheets is information overload. Like other users, screen reader users will typically navigate from sheet to sheet in multi-sheet documents to find the data they need.

If your document includes blank spreadsheets — or if the spreadsheets aren’t labeled — some users may have trouble navigating. 

Once again, the best practice is to keep things simple. Describe sheets with the first words that come to mind, and consider the user: Will someone be able to determine what they can find on the spreadsheet by reading the title alone? If the document has multiple sheets, are they presented in a logical way? 

 

5. Start thinking about accessibility early

 

Remember, you have a responsibility to make your spreadsheets accessible for as many users as possible. Some quick additional tips to keep in mind when building your documents:

 

  • Provide navigation options for large, detailed spreadsheets. Where relevant, include hyperlinks with descriptive link text. 
  • Try to avoid using text boxes and special characters. 
  • Use a widely available sans serif font. Popular options include Times New Roman, Arial, Tahoma, Helvetica, Verdana, and Calibri.
  • Avoid using flashing or animated content. 
  • Leave color settings set to “automatic,” which gives users more control over the visual presentation. 
  • Avoid using “Freeze Panes" or “Hide Columns,” which may make navigation more difficult.

 

At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we help businesses create long-term strategies for digital compliance. Whether you’re fixing accessibility issues on a single document or a library of Excel spreadsheets and PDFs, we can provide your team with straightforward guidance for following the best practices of inclusive design.

To get started, send us a message to connect with an accessibility expert.

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