How to make documents accessible using Microsoft Word

Many people, including people using assistive technologies, use Microsoft office for personal, business and academic purposes. For this reason, it is very important to include basic design principles to make sure that everyone has equal access to the documents, produced in its applications.

Fortunately, Microsoft Word has enough built-in tools to achieve this, such as built-in styles that would help to apply correct formatting, options to text and an Accessibility Checker. These tools can help blind and partially sighted people understand the structure and importance of content presented to them, but also allows them to create documents to the same level as sighted people.

Accessibility Checker

Accessibility Checker is a Microsoft built-in tool, similar to a spell checker that seeks to solve the most common accessibility issues that could prevent blind and partially sighted people from accessing content of a document. These include:


Tables are good for organising data and information but if not designed correctly, their structure may be confusing for screen reader users. To make tables easy to navigate and read, Accessibility Checker would check for the following issues:

  • Column headers make a table consistent and easy to navigate. To ensure that table headers are correctly applied, you need to create a new table and under its options, select Repeated Header Row so that screen readers are able to identify column headings.
  • Make tables as simple and logical as possible, which can be achieved by avoiding merged cells, split cells or nested elements.
  • When a table is created and formatted, use the tab key on your keyboard to check the order that the cursor goes through columns and rows.

Visual content

In addition to data, it is important to use Accessibility Checker to adjust visual content to the needs of blind and partially sighted people, such as:

  • Missing alternative text in visual content which may include pictures, SmartArt graphics, shapes, groups, charts, embedded objects, and videos. In some cases, where a long description may be required to describe data, it is better to provide a text alternative below or equivalent table, since they may not be accessible for a screen reader user. Accessibility Checker would help to learn how to briefly describe images and always remember about the existence of the alternative text.
  • Meaningful hyperlink text. People who use screen readers may often browse through a list of links to quickly find the information they need. For this reason, links should convey clear and accurate information about the name and the source of the page. For example, instead of ‘Click here’ link, include the full and meaningful title of the website.
  • Use of colour to convey information. Often people who are blind, partially sighted, or colour-blind struggle to understand the meaning of the content described by certain colours. Accessibility checker helps to find instances of colour-coding, by visually scanning documents and suggesting alternative means of presenting the information to the users.
  • Sufficient contrast for text and background colours. While creating accessible documents, it is important to make sure that there is sufficient colour contrast between foreground and background text. The visual presentation of standard sized text should have a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1. Accessibility Checker is able to look for text in your document that may be difficult to read or to distinguish from the background and will offer steps on how to update, reformat or change the contrast ratio.

For more information on how to use Accessibility Checker in Microsoft Word go to: Improve Office Accessibility with Accessibility Checker

Using built-in styles

After your content has been scanned for errors using the Accessibility Checker, the next step would be to look at the formatting of a document, since the checker can only find only certain types of accessibility problems. For the best user experience, it is important to include built-in styles, available in Microsoft Word.
Built-in styles contain the set of features that allow screen reader users to identify different parts of text and sections of a document, such as:

  • Headings are used to organise content into sections and make finding information easier. People who use screen readers frequently start reading a document by first moving through the headings. This allows them to estimate the complexity of the material and the length of the document. If a document is marked with a logical heading structure in mind, blind users can create a mental map of the content. Also, the table of contents is created based on heading structure, so it is vitally important to use the heading structure correctly for easy navigation.
  • Lists help assistive technology users to understand the total number of items and their relative position. Using built-in tools, it is possible to create ordered (numbered) and unordered (bulleted) lists.
  • Screen Readers are able to navigate to the headers and footers and read the content, but in most cases, they are not aware of the presence of these elements, unless the user chooses to explore the document from the beginning to the end. Therefore, any confidential information that requires immediate response from a client, must be duplicated near the main content area,
    footnotes or end notes.
  • To create a footnote or end note, make sure that you use a corresponding Insertion tool available on the References Tab. This will create an accessible reference that can be easily navigated and read by blind and partially sighted people.
  • Numbering the pages of a document helps blind and partially sighted users to effectively navigate, edit and reference the content. However, it is important not to insert page numbers in a footer as this may not be easily accessed by assistive technology users.

In addition to heading structure, styles can also be used to adjust fonts, font sizes, tabs, borders, line spacing and line justification. In fact, it is also possible to create a bespoke style. As well as providing an accessible way of navigation for screen readers, by having set styles you can ensure consistency across documents for multiple people.

To find out more about using built-in styles go to: Make your Word documents accessible to people with disabilities.

Final check

The last step in accessibility checking is human judgement, a final check of a formatted document to avoid certain issues that may cause potential accessibility issues that are beyond the scope of Accessibility Checker. For instance:

  • Floating objects. When you add images, charts, or other objects, they don’t become a part of normal structure of a document but located in a separate drawing layer. If you use floating objects, screen reading software may ignore them altogether or read their Alt text in the wrong order.
  • Paragraph formatting. Avoiding text justification and keeping the spacing to 1.5 lines or 2 lines can increase the readability, especially for readers with dyslexia who may lose track of their place on the page.
  • With fonts, try to choose the plainer ones, such as Arial or Times New Roman.
  • Don’t emphasise everything with capital letters, since screen reader users can only recognise it when spelling the word. To convey the meaning of certain parts it is better to prefix them with the word ‘Important’, rather than using decorative or fonts to highlight the significance of a phrase.
  • Check that image descriptions are correct. A tool can see if a description has been added, but not if the description is accurate.

In Conclusion

It is very important to make sure that the documents are accessible for users with assistive technologies. If there is no formatting throughout a document, a screen reader user would have to listen to the whole document and work out the important sections. Likewise, a person with dyslexia may struggle to understand the text if there is no formatting available. This leads to a number of issues and barriers. At worst documents may become totally unreadable if the images are not properly described or the formatting causes the wrong tab order of the content or the lack of logical structure of the sections of a document.

It may take time to learn the accessibility features within Word, but if accessibility is being considered from the start and every part of a document is formatted and thoroughly checked before it is emailed, shared or appears on the web, it won’t be seen as a struggle but just as a part of a routine process of document production.