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Do Word Documents Need to be Accessible?

Jul 7, 2017

Microsoft Word might be the world’s favorite desktop word processing software, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all documents created with the program are readily accessible to those with disabilities. Fortunately, Word provides a wide range of features to help publishers enhance their documents for improved compatibility with screen readers and other assistive solutions. In more recent versions, you can also check your documents for potential issues by using the Accessibility Checker.

Providing an Optimized Document Structure

The blind and visually impaired often rely on screen readers for translating text into synthesized speech or refreshable braille. In turn, screen readers rely heavily on the structure of digital content, such as webpages and Word documents, for navigating and determining the hierarchy of the page. Having a solid heading structure will also help other readers navigate the document more effectively.

Word provides several title and heading presets, and you can easily customize these with your desired font, format, and color. The built-in heading tool allows you to easily establish a hierarchical structure for your document, thus making it easier for users of screen readers to navigate. The default headings include Heading 1 for document titles, Heading 2 for chapter titles, and Subtitles for subchapter titles.

The controls provided in Word are primarily meant to make it easier for users to create structured documents, but they’re also great for enhancing accessibility. For example, if you want to organize content in the form of a list, always use the list settings in the Home screen. Using numbered, bulleted, or multilevel lists is far better than manually creating lists using hyphens or asterisks because screen readers can identify them and inform the reader that they’re reading a list.

Choosing an Appropriate Font and Size

When making your content accessible, two of the most important things to think about are font style and size. If you intend to distribute your document, don’t be tempted by aesthetic or heavily stylized fonts that might be difficult or uncomfortable for people to read. Generally, sans serif fonts like Arial and Verdana are a great option because many users find them easier to read than serif fonts, such as Times New Roman. For bodies of text, you’ll want to use a font size of at least 12 points.

Text to background contrast is another very important accessibility element. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) define a minimum contrast ratio of 4.5:1, which makes many color combinations unsuitable. For best results, stick to the default of black text on a white background, which is always compliant. However, you’ll want to pay special attention to this when creating tables that use alternating colors to separate rows or columns. The built-in Accessibility Checker cannot identify contrast issues, so you might want to stick to the predefined table layouts or use a third-party tool.

Creating Accessible Hyperlinks and Other Elements

When including hyperlinks in your document, always make sure that the linked text itself is meaningful. Screen readers will identify links but, to make it easier for users to determine what the links point to, you should avoid using generic link text such as “click here” or anything else that is vague or dependent on a particular type of device, such as a mouse.

If you’re adding images, be sure to include alternative text to explain what the image illustrates. After inserting an image, open the Format Picture dialog and select the third option from the left to add alt text. Enter a brief description of no more than 120 characters in the Title box and, if necessary, put a longer description in the other box.

Final Words

When you’re finished creating your document, ensure the Word file is saved as a .doc file type because it’s more widely supported than the newer .docx. Keep your audience in mind and follow the above advice to reach the widest possible audience, whether you’re distributing the file as a Word document, a webpage, or a PDF.

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