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How to Make Your Word Documents Accessible

June 26, 2024
Author: AO Editor

Blind Man Typing on Keyboard in Office Setting. Woman Sitting Next to Him Observing.Creating accessible Word documents ensures that all users, including those with disabilities, can access and understand your content.

Additionally, creating accessible Word documents helps your organization comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), US laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508, and Section 504, as well as the European Accessibility Act (EAA), Web Accessibility Directive (WAD), and technical standards defined under EN 301 549.

For some fast-moving companies, digital accessibility compliance is super hard.

To speak with an expert to make sure you’re meeting digital accessibility compliance standards, submit the inquiry form on our Businesses page.

Enough of the legal stuff! Here are the detailed steps you’ll need to make your Word documents more accessible and meet compliance standards…

1. Use Accessible Templates To Get Started

Accessible templates in Word are awesome because they enable you to leverage Word’s accessibility features out of the box! Three examples of accessible Word templates are the Meeting Agenda, Newsletter, and the Project Report   templates.

Accessibility features in these templates include:

·         Table of contents for easy navigation.

·         Alt text placeholders for images.

·         Clear headings and subheadings for easy navigation.

·         Proper use of lists to outline your points.

·         High contrast text and background for readability.

Even if you have no desire to use a Microsoft Word template, reviewing these templates for their accessibility features is a cheat code for helping you maximize the accessibility of your Word documents.

2. Use Headings To Improve Navigation & Create Structure

Whether for blog content or Word documents, headings create a logical structure that enables all users to navigate easier and find information faster.

Here’s the accessibility best-practices and instructions for incorporating headings in your Word documents.

·         Headings need a logical Order. I’ll provide a specific example of how to do this below, but start with Heading level 1, and then use level 2 and level 3 headings as needed to break up your content. FYI: This blog post is also using this accessible headings best-practice.


·         Headings need to be Descriptive. Give your reader a clear indication of the content that follows.


·         Avoid Skipping Levels. Going from a Heading level 1 directly to a Heading level 3 can confuse readers and disrupt the document's structure.

How To Create A Logical Reading Order and Structure with Headings

Here’s how to create a logical reading order (choosing heading 1, 2, or 3 for your content).

The title of your document, the main purpose, your blog title, should be a level 1 heading. There should only be one level 1 heading in a document. In this case, the level 1 heading is “How To Make Your Word Documents Accessible”

Level 2 headings make up the bigger points or sections within your Word document. For example, this content is under the level 2 heading titled “2. Use Headings To Improve Navigation & Create Structure”

But subsections within main sections are great for level 3 headings. Like right now, explaining more details on logical heading order is a great sub section (level 3 heading) underneath the bigger main section on headings (level 2 heading).

Ready for the next subsection underneath a main subsection?

How To Insert Accessible Headings In Your Word Document

Now that you understand best-practices, logical order, and heading structure, let’s show you how to set them up in your Word document.

1.       Highlight the Text. Click and drag your mouse over the text you want to format as a heading, or simply place your cursor anywhere within the text if it’s a single paragraph or line.

Highlight the Text

2.       Select the Style. Go to the Styles Group on the Home tab. Click on the heading you need for the content and document structure-Heading 1 for the document title, Heading 2 for a main subsection in the document, and Heading 3 for a sub section within the document’s main subsections.

Select the Style

3.       Use the Navigation Pane. Use the Navigation Pane to see the structure of your document and easily navigate between headings. To open it, go to View > Navigation Pane.

Use the Navigation Pane

AccessAbility Officer Pro Tip

Use keyboard shortcuts to format headings quickly!

With your cursor on the text you’d like to apply a given heading, press the following keyboard shortcuts to format the text as a heading.

To insert a Heading 1, press Ctrl+Alt+1

To insert a Heading 2, press Ctrl+Alt+2

To insert a Heading 3, press Ctrl+Alt+3

Give that the old college try and let me know what happens.

3. Add Alt Text to Images

Alt text is a text-based description of a visual image. Alt text ensures individuals who are blind can understand the content and context of your images within your Word documents.

Also, missing alt text is one of the most common ADA accessibility violation claims made in digital accessibility litigation, yet it is one of the easiest to prevent and fix! So, how should you describe images with alt text?

How to Write Alt Text For Images In Word

1.       Be Descriptive and Concise. Clearly describe the content and function of the image in a few words or a short sentence.


2.       Avoid Redundancy. Don’t include phrases like “image of” or “picture of” in the alt text.


3.       Context Matters. Tailor the alt text to the context of the image’s purpose and function in the document. For example, if the image is a graph or a chart, describe the key information it conveys and the main point you want readers to take away. Describing a chart as a chart, or a graph as a graph, does not convey the same information to someone who is blind.

How To Insert Alt Text Into An Image

Here’s how to add alternative text, or alt text, to your images and graphics in a Word document.

1.       Right-click the image, select Format Picture, and then click the Layout & Properties icon.

Right-click the image and select Format Picture

2.       In the Alt Text section, provide a clear and concise description of the image.

Alt Text section

4. Use Meaningful Hyperlink Text

If a link in a Word document is unlabeled and does not tell a user where it will take them, that’s an accessibility violation. It’s also a terrible user experience.

To fix this, provide a descriptive label for your links in Word documents. The description should be concise and tell users exactly where it will take them. In other words, “Click Here” is not an accessible link label.

Here’s an example of what not to do:

Click here to go to the AccessAbility Officer homepage.

Here’s what you should do instead:

Click here to go to the AccessAbility Officer homepage.

5. Create Accessible Tables in Word

Tables in Word documents are meant to display data in a structured way. For example, a list of names with corresponding phone numbers and addresses. In this table, each piece of data (the name, the phone number, and the address) goes into its own cell within the table.

However, sometimes Word documents incorrectly use tables to create a visual layout of your content. For example, using a table to position images or text boxes side by side is not a good practice.

Because screen readers read tables row by row and cell by cell, if you use tables to arrange content visually, the reading order usually does not make sense, users get confused quickly, and this practice violates accessibility standards.

If you want to arrange the visual elements of your Word document in a particular way, use Word’s layout tools like columns, text boxes, and image alignment options instead of a table. Just make sure to get your reading order correct when using fancy layout options like this.

How To Create Accessible Tables in Word

·         Define header rows. Select the top row of your table, right-click, choose Table Properties, and check the option “Repeat as header row at the top of each page.”

·         Provide Alt Text for Your Tables’ content and purpose. Right-click the table, choose Table Properties, go to the Alt Text tab, and enter a descriptionAlternative Text window

·         Avoid Merging and Splitting Cells. Instead of merging cells, use separate rows or columns to present related information. This ensures that each cell contains distinct data and can be read sequentially. And, instead of splitting cells, use an additional row or column. This helps maintain a clear and logical structure of your table while maximizing accessibility for all.

6. Use Accessible Lists In Your Word Documents

Lists improve document navigation and accessibility for users relying on assistive technologies like screen readers. Here’s why you need to include accessible lists in your Word documents.

1.       Lists break down information into digestible chunks, making it easier for readers to scan and understand key points quickly.

2.       Bulleted and numbered lists help present information in a logical, easy-to-follow sequence, improving the clarity of your documents.

3.       Hierarchy: Numbered lists are particularly useful for indicating a sequence or prioritizing items, while bulleted lists are ideal for items that don't have a specific order.

How To Create Accessible Lists in Word Documents

1.       Bulleted Lists:

o    Highlight the text you want to format as a list.

o    Go to the Home tab and click on the Bullets icon in the Paragraph group.

Bulleted Lists

2.       Numbered Lists:

o    Highlight the text you want to format as a numbered list.

o    Go to the Home tab and click on the Numbering icon in the Paragraph group.

Numbered List

3.       Multi-level Lists:

o    Highlight the text you want to format.

o    Go to the Home tab, click on the Multilevel List icon in the Paragraph group, and choose the desired list style.

Multi-level Lists

This post is bursting at the seams with accessible bulleted and numbered lists! Notice how the lists are organized and intertwined to differentiate list content (using bulleted lists inside of numbered lists).

7. Ensure Sufficient Color Contrast in Word Documents

Documents with good color contrast are not only easier to read but also appear more professional and well-designed. Additionally, many people with visual impairments, such as color blindness or low vision, rely on high contrast to read text.

Color contrast is a principle of universal design, which is the process of making information universally accessible to the widest possible audience, including older adults and people with temporary impairments.

AccessAbility Officer Pro Tip

WCAG recommends a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text. Also, you should avoid using color alone to convey information. Instead, use text labels or patterns alongside color to ensure accessibility compliance.

How To Test Color Contrast in Your Word Documents

1.       Open the Accessibility Checker

On the ribbon, go to the “Review” tab, in the Accessibility group click on “Check Accessibility”. This tool will run an accessibility check on your Word document, test for color contrast, as well as other accessibility issues.

If the contrast ratio is insufficient, you need to adjust either the text color or the background color.

2.       Change the text color

Highlight the text and go to the “Home” tab.

Click on the “Font Color” dropdown and select a darker or lighter color to increase contrast.

3.       Change the background color

Select the paragraph or table cell with the background color, go to the “Home” tab, and Click on the “Shading” dropdown.

Select a better contrasting color.

4.       Re-check the Contrast

Re-run the Accessibility Checker in Word to verify that all contrast issues have been resolved.

8. Run Microsoft Word’s Accessibility Checker

It cannot find all of them, but Microsoft Word’s built-in Accessibility Checker tool can help you find some accessibility violations.

While accessibility automation can save us time, many issues accessibility automation cannot detect are the most severe violations for people with significant disabilities, like violations that block the blind, deaf blind, quadriplegics and those without hands or arms from accessing your Word documents. Manual testing is required to find accessibility violations that automation testing cannot find.

How To Use Microsoft Word’s Accessibility Checker

1.       Go to the "Review" tab on the Ribbon and click on "Check Accessibility" in the Accessibility group.Check Accessibility button

2.       The Accessibility Checker pane will open on the right side of the document to display your results and are categorized into three sections.

o    Errors. These are accessibility issues that make the document very difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to read and understand.

o    Warnings. These are accessibility issues that make the document difficult for people with disabilities to read and understand.

o    Tips. These are suggestions for improving accessibility, which can enhance the document's overall accessibility.

3.       Click on an issue in the Accessibility Checker pane to see more information about it. Then, follow the instructions to correct the errors and warnings.

The Accessibility Checker will often provide you with instructional steps to correct the accessibility issue found and informative links with additional information.

4. Verify the Changes are correct. After making changes, run the Accessibility Checker again to ensure that all issues that can be found by accessibility automation have been remediated for compliance.

Remember, manual testing with a screen reader and a keyboard is the only way to comprehensively test for and validate accessibility compliance. However, incorporating accessibility checks like this into your regular workflow is a great first step in creating or editing accessible documents.

Wrapping Up How To Make Word Documents Accessible

By following these instructions and best practices, you can create Word documents that are accessible, inclusive, and compliant with accessibility standards!

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