Do Microsoft Word Docs Need to Be Accessible?

January 13, 2022

The goal of digital accessibility is to create more useful content for everyone, and that goal isn’t restricted to internet-only content like websites and mobile apps. Offline documents should be made accessible wherever possible.

If your organization employs people with disabilities (which it most likely does), spending time on accessible document design will help your entire team stay engaged in their work. And given that 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. live with some form of disability, a sizable portion of your audience may be affected by your design decisions.

Microsoft Word is a popular word processor that contains several helpful accessibility features for content creators. However, accessibility isn’t automatic. Below, we’ll provide a few tips for creating better Word documents (and avoiding common accessibility mistakes).

Structure your Word documents for accessibility

Many of the best practices of web accessibility apply to Microsoft Word documents. Page structure is an excellent example — many readers scan through content to find the information they need, and proper page structure can make your page more scannable.

A few quick tips to keep in mind:

  • Use appropriate subheadings. Make sure your subheadings explain what readers can find in each section. For instance, “Read More" might not be as useful as “More Information About Our Products."
  • Use headings in sequential order. As with web content, Word documents use sequential headings. In other words, an H2 subheading divides your content into smaller, more digestible sections, while an H3 tag divides the content under an H2 tag. 
  • Use lists where appropriate. Lists can break up your content and improve understandability. Make sure to use the right type of list; unordered lists group items without a particular order (the list you’re currently reading is an example of an unordered list). Ordered lists display items in a related order (for instance, steps in a process). 

By giving your Word documents a clear structure, you’ll provide a better experience for people who use screen readers and other assistive technologies. You’ll also make your documents more understandable for people with low vision, neurocognitive conditions, and other disabilities — and when you clearly organize your content, all readers will benefit.

Related: Why Headings Aren't Simply Style Elements

Pay attention to color contrast

Color contrast is the difference in light between foreground elements (such as text, shapes, or tables) and your document’s background. For accessibility, your documents should maintain a minimum color contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text with a minimum 18 pt. font or 14 pt. bold font.

If your Word document exclusively uses black text on a white background, you don’t need to worry about color contrast. However, if you change the color of the background, use Microsoft’s Accessibility Checker to make sure that your content is legible for all readers. To use Accessibility Checker, select the “Review" tab, then “Check Accessibility.”

Related: The Basics and Importance of Color Contrast for Web Accessibility

Include alternative text for images and other media

Alternative text (also called alt text) explains the function and purpose of an image, video, or other media. Some users may not be able to perceive media visually — the text alternative provides another way to engage with your content.

To add alt text to images, right-click the image and select “Edit Alt Text.” Provide a simple description. Use the first words that come to mind and focus on providing important details in plain, everyday language.

Other tips for providing text alternatives in Microsoft Word: 

Try to keep your documents simple. Images can add visual flair and keep readers engaged, but audio content may not be necessary — and your audience might skip over multimedia when reading. Use your best judgment, but when in doubt, look for ways to provide a simple, predictable experience for users.

Related: 5 Steps for Writing Alt Text for Accessibility

Microsoft's Accessibility Checker can find some barriers

Microsoft’s Accessibility Checker is a useful tool for identifying and fixing common barriers. By selecting “Check Accessibility" from the “Review" tab, you’ll run an automated test to find Word document accessibility issues including: 

  • Text contrast issues
  • Missing alternative text 
  • Missing column header information in tables
  • Document access restrictions that may affect screen reader users

However, all automated tests are limited, so you’ll still need to manually review your documents. For example, Accessibility Checker can identify missing alt text, but it might not tell you if your alt text is poorly written.

For more guidance, we recommend reviewing the principles of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the most commonly cited international standards for digital accessibility. By designing your documents for accessibility, you’ll improve the experience for all readers — and once you understand the basics, you’ll be able to avoid common mistakes that affect your audience.

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