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Accessible MS Word Documents

When using MS Word, there are several procedures to follow to include accessibility into the document. Including such information not only supports individuals using assistive technologies, but improves usability for all individuals, particularly if converting to other formats (e.g., accessible PDF, ePub, braille, etc.). Document accessibility can be improved using the following solutions:

  • Document Headings
  • Descriptions for Images
  • Tables for Data
  • Readable Hyperlinks
  • Multiple Columns

Document Headings

Headings can provide an organizational and navigational framework for a document's content. When headings are included in a document, an individual using assistive technology can "jump" from heading to heading to more easily navigate through the document information. The easiest method to create headings is to use the Styles pane in MS Word.

Heading Styles in MS Word

  1. Place the cursor on the content you wish to change.
  2. From the Home tab in the top ribbon, select the appropriate heading level (Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, etc.).Screenshot of MS Word for Windows Style Panel for headings.
  3. Headings should follow a logical structure that identifies content based on its importance in the document. Maintain a sequential organization for headings; that is, do not skip headings just for visual appearances.
  4. Change the formatting of a heading through the Modify Style window. Avoid using the styles options on the Home ribbon as this will create a new Heading styles.

    Screenshot of MS Word Styles Panel to modify heading styles.

Images in MS Word

Images need a text alternative that describes the content and/or function of the image. For images that communicate relevant information, include a text alternative that describes the image's content or function. If a long description of the image is necessary to fully explain its content, consider providing a more detailed description of that image within the document itself (e.g., either before or after the image).

  1. Insert the image into the document. Right-click on the image and select "Format Picture."
  2. Under the "Layout and Properties" tab, open the Alt Text panel.
  3. Enter a short description in the "Description" field. Be descriptive, but not overly verbose as to the content and purpose of the image.

Screenshot of the Format Picture panel in MS Word.

Tables in MS Word

Tables should be used for information, not for controlling the layout or presentation of a document. To create a data table in MS Word, choose "Table" from the menu bar and select "Insert Table". Identify the appropriate columns and rows and enter in the data for your table.

Generally, the first row of the table consists of the column headers. These help "define" the category of information for the data in that column. If there is more than one row that defines the column headers, then select all the rows that include the column headings.

  1. Create your data table using the Insert Table option under Table on the menu bar.
  2. Select (highlight) the first row of the data table with your column headers.
  3. Right-click in the highlighted area and choose Table Properties.
  4. Under the Row tab, check the checkbox "Repeat as header row at the top of each page."
  5. Choose OK and return to the MS Word document.

Multiple Columns

If creating a multi-column document in MS Word, use the Column tool to control the layout and presentation of the content. This will ensure a correct reading order and logical flow to the document. Using the tab-key, spacebar, or text boxes will cause problems to the logical order of content. While the document may look correct, the underlying text information may not be in the appropriate reading order and will cause problems when converting to other formats

  1. Select the text you wish to change from a single column to a multi-column layout.
  2. Choose the "Layout" ribbon and select "Columns...".
  3. Select the number of columns for your document. Choose the More Columns… option to control the spacing and layout options.

Document Hyperlinks

Documents containing hyperlinks to websites or other online resources can be improved by including hyperlink text that is more easily understood by the reader. Using the full hyperlink URL may not make sense to the reader without some context. You can modify the text displayed in the document while retaining the hyperlink destination.

  1. Right-click on the hyperlink text in the document and choose Edit Hyperlink, or press Ctrl+K (Mac: Cmd+K).
  2. In the field "Display" (or "Text to Display" for MS Word for Windows) enter the desired on-screen text.
  3. Including both the text description and full URL can be helpful, particularly for when the document is printed.

Screenshot of the Edit Hyperlink window in MS Word.

Creating Accessible PDF Documents

The easiest solution to creating accessible PDF versions is to start with the original MS Word or PowerPoint file and to make any necessary accessibility corrections prior to conversion. By authoring accessibility into the MS Word or PowerPoint file, the conversion to PDF will include the relevant accessibility information and result in an accessible PDF document.

Converting MS Office Files to PDF - macOS

  1. Create/open the document in MS Word or PowerPoint.
  2. Follow the instructions for authoring accessibility into the document/presentation. Run the Accessibility Checker (macOS) to verify the document is correct.
  3. Choose File > Save As (or press Command+Shift+S) and choose where you want the file to be saved.
  4. In the Save As dialog, go to the File Format drop down box and select PDF.
  5. Select the radio button "Best for electronic distribution and accessibility (uses Microsoft online service)." This ensures the PDF is tagged.
  6. Press Save and the document will be converted.

Please note - the macOS version of MS Office uses Microsoft's online conversion service to provide the necessary functionality for saving a tagged and accessible PDF version. For more information about this service, please review the support information Why does the Microsoft online service need to convert some Office files?

Converting MS Office Files to PDF - Windows

  1. Create/open the document in MS Word or PowerPoint.
  2. Follow the instructions for authoring accessibility into the document/presentation. Run the Accessibility Checker (Windows) to verify the document is correct.
  3. Choose File > Save As… and specify the file location.
  4. Under Save As Type, choose PDF and press the Options button.
  5. Ensure the following checkboxes are checked:
    1. Create bookmarks using
    2. Document properties
    3. Document structure tags for accessibility
  6. Press OK and save the document.

Screenshot of the PDF export options from MS Word for Windows.

You should only have to set these PDF options the first time when saving a PDF copy. These settings will persist and be retained for the next PDF document you convert.

Converting PDF Documents – Windows/Mac

The easiest method to create accessible PDF documents is to obtain the original file and make the necessary accessibility changes before saving out from MS Word or PowerPoint. However, it may not always be possible to obtain the original file and you may need to use different tools to convert the PDF back into a MS Word version.

Option 1 – Convert the PDF to Original Format

  1. Open the PDF document in Adobe Acrobat Professional
  2. Choose File > Export To and select the desired export format
  3. Open the newly exported document and make the necessary accessibility changes.
  4. Save as a PDF using the process above.

Screenshot of the Export To option from Adobe Acrobat.

Note – Some content may be rendered in a text box and should be moved into the main document structure as part of the remediation process.

Option 2 – Use OCR Software to Convert PDF to MS Word

A second option is to use online tools (e.g., NitroPDF) or Google Drive to convert a PDF document to MS Word and then make any changes as appropriate. This process is more labor intensive and may require you to perform more copy/paste exercises depending on the original document format.