Creating Accessible Documents in Microsoft Word

Microsoft’s popular and powerful suite of software products is widely used to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations and more. Office 2013 and 2016 include an Accessibility Checker built into most of the suite.

A variety of accessible templates can be found by searching for “Accessible” in the template chooser from the New tab in each Microsoft Office app. The results are templates that have been tagged as accessible. However, you should always verify their accessibility with the Accessibility Checker.

Accessibility Checker

Finding the Accessibility Checker in MS Word can vary depending on your version of Word. If your version of Word still has the light bulb icon next to the tabs, start typing “Accessibility” to see if it reveals the tool.  In some versions, you should find it under Tools >> Check Accessibility. It will automatically run and shows results instantly. If the Accessibility Checker is turned on while working on a document, it will give accessibility feedback on the fly.

Use Headings

Using good heading structure helps people without eyesight to understand how the document is organized. Screen reader and Braille users can also jump between headings, which makes navigation much more efficient than if there are no headings.

Making text larger and bold does not make it a heading. In order to convert text to a heading in Microsoft Word, you must use the built-in Heading styles like “Heading 1” and “Heading 2”, available under Styles in the Home tab of the Ribbon in Office versions 2010  and higher.

Headings should form an outline, using the “Heading 1” style for the main heading, and “Heading 2” for sub-headings. If there are additional levels of headings within the document’s outline, using “Heading 3”, “Heading 4”, etc.

Add Alternate Text for Images

When images are present, use alt text, or descriptive text to describe the image.

  1. Right-click on the object, and click Format Picture
  2. Click Layout & Properties.
  3. Expand the Alt Text section.
  4. Type a description of the object into the Title and Description boxes.

alt text

To enter alt text in Office 2007, right click an image and select Size and Positioning. Then select Alt Text.

Use Tables Wisely

Word has limitations when it comes to making tables accessible. As explained in the Overview of Accessible Documents, tables can be very difficult for screen reader users to understand unless they include markup that explicitly defines the relationships between all the parts (e.g., headers and data cells). For a simple table with one row of column headers and no nested rows or columns, Word is up to the task. However, more complex tables can only be made accessible within HTML or Adobe PDF (accessible table markup can be added to the PDF using Adobe Acrobat Pro).

Often complex tables can be simplified by breaking them into multiple simple tables with a heading above each.

For simple tables, the only step necessary for accessibility is to identify which row contains the column headers. To do this in Word, select that row (Table > Select > Row), then right click the row and select “Table Properties”. This brings up the Table Propertiesdialog. In this dialog, click the Row tab, and check the checkbox that says “Repeat as header row at the top of each page”.

Use Lists

Lists should be created using Word’s built-in tools for ordered (numbered) and unordered (bulleted) lists. Without using these tools, a list is not really a list, which makes the content more difficult for screen reader users to fully understand.

Note that both ordered and unordered lists are highly customizable. Just click on the arrow adjacent to the desired list button to design a list that meets your needs.


Word automatically creates a link, and uses the URL as the display text. It is recommended that the link text be edited because the URL text may not make sense to a user.

Follow these principles to create accessible links:

  • Use descriptive link text that does not rely on context from the surrounding text.
  • Keep the amount of text in the link to a minimum.
  • Use underlined text with a color that stands out from the surrounding text.

Identify Document Language

In Office 2011 (Mac), select Tools > Language from the application menu to define the default language. To define a different language for part of the document, select each foreign language individually, then select Tools > Language to define the language for each.

In Office 2010, the same option is located in the Ribbon. Within the Review tab, select the Language button, then select “Set Proofing Language”.

NOTE: Currently language settings only effect accessibility of the Word document itself. They do not survive when exported to PDF. If PDF is the final format in which you intend to distribute your document, you will need to define language in the PDF directly using Adobe Acrobat Pro. For help see Fixing Inaccessible PDFs Using Acrobat Pro.

When Exporting to PDF, Understand How to Preserve Accessibility

There are right ways and wrong ways to export to PDF.  The steps required depends on which version of Microsoft Word you’re using. For details see Creating Accessible PDFs from Microsoft Word.


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