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Accessibility Considerations for Excel Spreadsheets

Jul 28, 2017

Microsoft Excel is a popular spreadsheet program used by many organizations, large and small. If an Excel workbook or single worksheet could potentially be shared with a user who relies on assistive technology, the creator must address some accessibility considerations.

While Excel is compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and access software such as JAWS can be integrated with the program, sighted users should be familiar with how to set up workbooks and spreadsheets for vision-impaired users.

If the purpose of the spreadsheet is to present a data set, the Excel file should be shared as a comma separated value (.csv) file, not as an .xls file. This will ensure that data can be read and navigated with assistive technology.

There are also a number of features and options within Excel that could complicate things for screen readers: Collaborators should deactivate any floating toolbars, as screen reading software might not be able to access data in the cells behind these toolbars. If members of the team will be modifying the Excel worksheet, the “Track Changes” feature should be turned off. Spreadsheet users should avoid using filters, but if filters are necessary, they should be paired with signposts or comments to indicate which cells contain the drop-down menus. Also, avoid using “Freeze Panes” or “Hide Columns” and other viewing options that obscure data or make page navigation difficult.

After problematic features have been disabled, there are three primary areas to consider regarding accessibility: sheet design, structure, and information.


Enhance readability through proper worksheet design. In most cases, simplicity is the best option for formatting and design practices. For example, users should avoid using color to highlight certain information, as color perception can be problematic for those with vision deficiencies. Instead of choosing your own colors, leave the color settings to “Automatic”.

There should be no empty rows or columns. Avoid split cells, merged cells, blank cells, and nested tables. Give your data tables row and column headers to aid navigation. Avoid large gaps in data, as this can cause confusion for assistive programs.

Use sans serif fonts for text clarity. This helps those with low vision read information more easily. Times New Roman, Verdana, Arial, Tahoma, Helvetica, and Calibri are all recommended fonts. To preserve readability, there should be no animated or flashing text.

Sheet tabs should be labeled with clear, meaningful titles for maximum clarity. This helps a user identify each sheet’s purpose. Remove any blank sheets to avoid confusion.


Use the first sheet in a multi-sheet workbook as a guide for navigation, with links to tabs, charts, headings, and other elements. This can help the user identify points of interest and understand the workbook’s structure. When using links to provide navigation, make each link clearly descriptive of where it is linking to make navigation easier.

Use worksheet headings to define a hierarchy that can be easily navigated through links. Set the hierarchy when creating a worksheet to ensure that screen readers can interpret all column headings properly.


Visual elements should be supported with alternative text (alt text). Alternative text is read by screen readers to relay the content and function of images, charts, or graphics to those with visual or cognitive disabilities. Fill in the description with as much detail about the image as possible. As an alternative, describe the image in a caption.

When it’s practical, include a notation in cells adjacent to cells containing formulas to inform users of functionality, but avoid using text boxes and special characters.

Use meaningful text for all hyperlinks, which means avoiding “click here,” “more,” or other vague instructions.


If your looking for assistance testing digital media such as Excel, contact BOIA.

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