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Creating Accessible Documents in Microsoft Word

Aug 24, 2023


More than 1.3 million companies in the U.S. use Office 365, the productivity suite that includes Microsoft Word. Clearly, Word documents remain a common form of workplace communication. If these documents aren’t accessible to everyone who needs them, they can keep employees from doing their jobs.    

In fact, a poorly designed Word document might increase your risk of noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all “employment related activities.” That could include working with Word documents.  

Accessible design isn’t just crucial for internal communications, however. Your Word documents may also reach outside audiences. If you post these materials on your website or social media accounts, they’re considered “web documents,” and should conform to the current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). 

The good news is that you can create more inclusive Word documents by following accessible web-design strategies, including those outlined in WCAG. Follow these five tips to start creating more accessible documents in Microsoft Word: 


1. Start with an accessibility mindset 


It’s easy to think of accessible design — for a Word document, a website, or any other digital experience — as a simple list of dos and don’ts. In fact, accessibility should be more of an organizational value. Ideally, it’s an approach that informs your work from the start.

Before you even open Office 365, try to understand your users. Be aware of their needs, abilities, and preferences. When in doubt, start accessibility conversations with your employees, customers, or the disability community at large. Consider this input when you make decisions about designing documents, in Word or any other tool.

Download our free ebook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset


2. Organize the document with Word’s header styles


Web pages use HTML header tags (H1, H2, etc.) to organize content into a coherent semantic structure. Microsoft Word does something similar through its Styles menu, available on the Home tab. 

Use Word’s Heading 1 or Title style to describe the purpose of your document. Then organize content into subsections using the Heading 2 and Heading 3 styles. 

It’s important to keep these headings in numerical order. Screen readers use these headers to navigate through documents, allowing users to scan, browse, and understand the organization of the page. 

Also, stick to Word’s heading styles to indicate section titles. Don’t just use bold or larger fonts for headers; these elements don’t convey the same structural information to assistive technologies.


3. Use more accessible fonts and formatting


For many readers, some fonts are easier to perceive than others. In general, look for fonts that are simple and undecorated, without extra lengths or curlicues running from letters. There’s a word for these decorations: serif. Fonts that omit these serifs are called sans (French for “without”) serif

Many readers find sans serif fonts like Arial, Helvetica, or Roboto to be relatively distraction-free. That can be helpful for people with low vision, dyslexia, or cognitive disabilities. 

Once you’ve chosen an accessible font, be careful with your formatting. Don’t use text color alone to convey meaning, as some users may not perceive these color differences. Also, keep bold and italics to a minimum; they can be distracting or hard to read for some users. 

Related: Best Fonts to Use for Website Accessibility


4. If you insert pictures, include alternative text


Lots of Word documents include images, which can convey vital information. To make this information available to people who use assistive technology, you must include alternative text (or “alt text.”) 

Luckily, alt text is easy to add in Microsoft Word. In the version of Word that’s current as we publish, you just have to right-click the image. Then select View Alt Text from the dropdown menu. You can enter your own description of the image, ask Word to create an AI-generated description, or mark the picture as decorative. Purely decorative images generally don’t require alt text.

Related: 5 Steps for Writing Alt Text for Accessibility


5. Use the Microsoft Word Accessibility Checker


Microsoft Word offers an automated tool for spotting common accessibility errors. Find this tool in the Review tab, under Check Accessibility. You can run the accessibility tool after a draft is complete, or select Keep accessibility checker running while I work for guidance while you work. 

Of course, automated review tools can’t spot every potential barrier. Be sure to manually review your Word document for potential accessibility errors. Learn more about Microsoft’s accessibility tool in our post titled Understanding the Limits of Microsoft’s Accessibility Checker

These five tips can help you create more accessible Microsoft Word documents. When you make accessibility a core part of your design process, however, your entire digital ecosystem will become more inclusive — regardless of file format.

Use our free Website Accessibility Checker to scan your site for ADA and WCAG compliance.

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