What you need to know about creating accessible documents using Microsoft Word

There are certain things you need to keep in mind when creating accessible documents using Microsoft Word.  To begin with, there are general principles and standards that relate to accessibility.  This article will provide you with an overview of these.

You’ll also find practical tips to guide you when creating accessible Word documents.

Here are some links to get you started …


What is accessibility?

Accessibility is a broad term. Generally, it can be defined as the ease with which something is able to be reached, entered, used or understood.

When we think about accessibility, the first things that often come to mind are the physical. One example is a ramp to provide access to a building for people who use wheelchairs. Another is a raised platform to make it possible to get around using public transport.

It’s clear to see how these built structures help people with disability better navigate our physical environment. And in designing for people with disability, our physical environments now also provide greater accessibility for a wider cross-section of the community. For example, the elderly or people with baby strollers.

Taking the same approach with our documents ensures that information is also accessible for all.

What is document accessibility?

People with disability often use assistive technologies to access information. For instance, users who are blind or have low vision use screen readers to read the contents of documents. People who have low vision also use screen magnifiers to increase text size. For people with impaired motor skills, keyboard shortcuts help them to navigate the information within a document.

Document accessibility addresses these (and other) differing levels of ability. It does this by ensuring information is structured and formatted accordingly. This makes documents easy to navigate, read and understand by every person, equally.

For example, Word documents formatted using heading styles allow people who use screen readers to assess the overall structure of a document. Additionally, heading styles enable all users (regardless of their level of ability) to easily navigate the information within a document.

Why is document accessibility important?

Disabilities can include varying levels of visual, auditory, physical and cognitive abilities. Disabilities can be permanent or temporary. Likewise, as people age, many find that their level of ability diminishes.

Whatever the case may be, document accessibility ensures equal access to information by all. In a broader sense, it means that every person has the same access to opportunities available within our society. Document accessibility also provides a greater level of independence for people with disability.

Your Obligations

Why do I need to ensure my organisation’s Word documents are accessible?

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that accessibility is a human right. Specifically, Article 9 of the Convention requires parties to ‘promote access for persons with disabilities to new information and communications technologies and systems, including the Internet’.

Likewise, Article 21 of the Convention requires the provision of ‘information intended for the general public to persons with disabilities in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities in a timely manner and without additional cost’.

As signatory to the Convention, Australia must uphold and promote the rights of people with disability.

Additionally, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 provides for the equal treatment of people with disabilities in every aspect of daily life. It covers areas ranging from work, accommodation and education, to the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs. Under the Act, it’s illegal to discriminate against people with disability.

It’s up to each of us to implement accessibility at a practical level. And so, where information is provided in Word format, that information should be accessible by all.

What are the standards that govern accessible Word documents?

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2) provide a set of requirements and techniques for accessibility. However, these guidelines relate to the accessibility of websites and PDF documents, not Word documents.

There are presently no standards specific to Word documents. Even so, WCAG 2 techniques can be used to make Word documents more accessible.

Microsoft Word

What is an accessible Word document?

Among other things, an accessible Word document:

  • Provides for a better user experience;
  • Enables easy document navigation;
  • Contains information that is logically presented;
  • Includes additional information where necessary;
  • Includes clear and descriptive links.

Accessible Word documents are not only helpful for people with disabilities. When optimised for accessibility, Word documents are easier to access and use by all. Here’s how …

Accessible Word documents provide for a better user experience

When well-designed, accessible Word documents:

  • have a clear structure and are formatted so users can access all information within the document; and
  • do not include elements that add unnecessary content.

These principles work side-by-side to ensure a better user experience.

So, for example, while text boxes are a great way to segment and highlight text, they shouldn’t be used within an accessible Word document. That’s because screen readers do not always properly detect and/or read information within text boxes. To overcome this, other layout and formatting techniques are used to present the information.

Likewise, screen readers often read empty paragraphs (spaces, etc) as blanks. This may be problematic for people who use screen readers as it can lead them to assume they’ve reached the end of a document. Given this, all empty paragraphs (spaces, etc) are removed from an accessible Word document. Other formatting techniques are then used to add ‘white space’ where required. This also has the added benefit of reducing the amount of unnecessary content announced by a screen reader.

Accessible Word documents enable easy document navigation

They do so via the use of elements which bring structure to the document.

This is important because screen reader and other assistive technology users often rely on heading styles to navigate a document. Also, while sighted users can visually identify the structure of a document based on formatting applied to headings, screen reader users rely on heading styles to better understand a document’s structure without the need to listen to it in full. Neither is possible if headings have direct formatting applied to them, e.g. applying bold to text and changing the font size / colour.

As such, accessible Word documents always make use of Microsoft’s built-in heading styles (Headings 1 – 9) to add structure and enable easier document navigation.

Accessible Word documents contain information that is logically presented

Often documents include information that could cause confusion if kept in its current format.

This might occur, for instance, where the document contains a table that uses table rows to simulate headings. This is problematic because screen readers do not identify ‘heading rows’ as such. A better outcome is to restructure the content within the table. In this case, the table is separated into smaller tables, and a heading inserted above each table (in place of ‘heading rows’).

Accessible Word documents include additional information where necessary

This is important for elements within a document that a screen reader cannot access.

One way of providing additional information is by adding alternative text to images. The alternative text must clearly and fully outline the content of the image. This enables screen reader users to obtain the same information that a sighted user would gather from viewing the image.

For complex images (e.g. a flowchart), more detailed descriptions are included (generally at the end of the document) with links to the description, and back again to the image.

Accessible Word documents include clear and descriptive links

Clear and descriptive links within Word documents enable users to immediately identify and/or navigate to linked resources.

So instead of ‘click here’, an accessible link specifies the name of the resource. This is particularly useful for web addresses, especially lengthy ones that include non-meaningful text such as a string of numbers. But it’s also helpful for links to other points within a document.

Examples of links within an accessible Word document include hyperlinks, bookmarks and cross-references.

What is Word’s Accessibility Checker?

Word’s Accessibility Checker identifies accessibility issues found within a document. The Checker outlines why it’s important to resolve the issue(s), and how to achieve this for better accessibility.

Note: the Accessibility Checker is only available in Microsoft Office 2010 and later versions.

Can I rely solely on Word’s Accessibility Checker?

Word’s Accessibility Checker is a good place to start. However, the Accessibility Checker only highlights technical areas that require improvement. It cannot assess if a document’s content is fully optimised for accessibility. This requires human input.

Here’s a practical example. A Word document may include an image of a flowchart that shows a very detailed process but only has very simple alternative text applied to it. The Accessibility Checker won’t identify this as an issue. And so while the Accessibility Checker may have classed this image as accessible, the document will be missing important information that an end user who relies on alternative text needs.

Will my document remain accessible once I convert it to PDF?

When the correct process is used to convert an accessible Word document to PDF, a PDF will retain many (but not all) of the accessible features found within the original Word document. As such, additional steps are required to meet WCAG 2 standards relating to accessible PDF documents.

Nevertheless, given that Word documents are often used to create PDFs, it’s a good idea to incorporate as many accessible features as possible within that source document. This then reduces the work needed to bring a PDF into compliance with accessibility standards.

If you need support creating your accessible Word document(s), find out how we can help here.