How to Create Accessible Word Documents

A little-known fact is that Microsoft Word includes several features that make creating accessible Word documents easy. Many of the steps simply incorporate principles of good design; better yet, most only require knowing how to use basic Word features. Here are five ways to make your Word documents more accessible. Follow these suggestions, and you’ll be well on your way to more accessible documents—which, ultimately, become more accessible eLearning content!

1. Use templates and styles

Be honest: How many of you use spaces to indent text, or manually bold and enlarge your section headings?

Manually formatting text trips up screen readers and often leads to inconsistent formatting. And it is much harder to update these documents. Using a template allows you to create structured documents.

The first element of an accessible document, and the only way to create content that a screen reader—and other assistive technologies—can read, is building in consistent structure. That means using HTML tags. But here’s the great part: If you use a Word template, the styles include the HTML tags.

With a template, you set up a style for the document title and headings at different levels, maybe Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3. When you create lists, use the ordered (numbered) or unordered (bulleted) list styles, rather than numbering manually. Create or adjust the styles for body text, lists—bulleted, numbered, both, different levels of lists, whatever you need. Rather than create a template from scratch, you can change the characteristics of styles in an existing Word template to achieve the look you want. Once your styles are defined, you simply apply the right style to the text and, when you convert the document to a PDF or use it online, guess what? The HTML tags are there automatically.

Any time you want to update the look of your content, you simply change the styles—and everything tagged with the changed style automatically and instantly gets the new look. Styles can set the typeface and size; stipulate whether text is bold, italic, or roman; and set indents, line spacing, and space above or below a paragraph. They determine the hierarchy (heading level or list level), text color, and more.

2. Choose colors carefully

Two main accessibility issues arise with the use of color in content: contrast and conveying information.

Most people can see and distinguish high-contrast color pairs, like black text on a white or yellow background. Design palettes that veer into shades of blue or gray often use colors that are too similar and can be harder to read. Check color choices and combinations with an online contrast checker (like this one from WebAIM) or use the MS Word Accessibility Checker. Note that if the Accessibility Checker does not appear in the Review toolbar, you can add it by customizing your ribbon or toolbars.

To improve accessibility, you should never use color alone to convey information. For example, if you have a chart with bars or lines of different colors to represent different departments or pieces of information, in addition to the colors, use a different shape (dashed lines) or fill pattern, or include clear text labels. This allows people with color blindness to distinguish the elements, even if they cannot distinguish the colors.

3. Describe images

Images—photos, graphics, charts—often have captions, which a screen reader will read. But captions often place an image in context or label it; they generally do not describe what the image shows. For readers who are visually impaired, a description of  the image is essential if the image includes important content. Graphics that are decorative, like page borders or a cover photo, do not require descriptions.

An image description uses an HTML tag, <alt text>. It’s very easy to add alt text descriptions in Word. Let’s say you wanted to insert a pie chart. You’d insert the image, then maybe resize it or adjust the text wrapping. At the same time, simply write a concise, clear description. Note that each segment of the chart has both a different color and a different fill pattern, which makes the chart more accessible to learners who have color blindness.

The pie chart shows that first quarter sales were 59 percent of the year’s total; second quarter sales were 23 percent; third quarter were 10 percent; and fourth quarter sales were 9 percent of the year’s total.

In the Format Chart Area dialog, click on the Layout and Properties option.

The Format Chart Area dialog box has a place where you can enter an alt text description of your chart or graphic.

Write a short description in the Description box. You can add a title, but that is not required. For the pie chart above, the description might be something like: “The pie chart shows that first quarter sales were 59 percent of the year’s total; second quarter sales were 23 percent; third quarter were 10 percent; and fourth quarter sales were 9 percent of the year’s total.”

Your alt text description should include any information that sighted learners will glean from the chart that is not already included in the text content.

The Format Picture dialog includes an identical alt text entry area in the Layout and Properties option.

If you enter a title, it will be used as hover text or a “tooltip” on web pages that support that functionality, but not all browsers (or screen readers) will use the title attribute. The alt text description is the essential piece for accessibility.

4. Tag tables for accessibility

Tables present information in a logical visual format—but they can be very difficult for people with disabilities, particularly people who rely on screen readers, to understand. An accessible table has to use tagging to clarify the data relationships that sighted learners understand from the visual hierarchy a table establishes.

If you do use tables, keep them simple. Avoid complex formatting, such as headers that span multiple columns or merged cells. Be sure to give your table a caption or title. A table caption is essentially a title for the table that provides some context. When the screen reader reads it, the learner will know what information the table presents. Along with properly formatted headers and data cells, the caption helps visually impaired learners understand data tables. Word has a macro for inserting a caption on the References toolbar:

Use the Insert Caption option on the References toolbar to enter a caption or title for your table.

When you run this macro, a dialog box appears; enter the caption or table title here.

The table caption functions as a title and tells screen-reader users what data the table presents.

As with other text, when creating a table, use proper formatting rather than tabbing or entering spaces to line up elements of content. Using the Insert Table macro that is built into Word will create a tagged table that is correctly formatted for a screen reader or other assistive device. Be sure to include a designated header row; header rows use different tags than data rows, and Word will only tag them correctly if you designate them accurately.

Do not allow table rows to break across pages. This characteristic can be set in the Table Properties dialog box; Word allows lines to break as a default, so you’ll need to uncheck that box:

In the Table Properties dialog box, you can decide whether to allow rows to be split across page breaks. This box needs to be unchecked to override Word’s default setting.

5. Use readable link text

Hyperlinks are a ubiquitous and useful element of eLearning content. To be accessible, the “link anchor text,”—the text on the screen that is usually underlined and colored to show that it is a link—should make sense to readers. It should describe the target (or destination) of the link. For example, “click here” is not helpful link text. “Try WebAIM’s contrast checker,” where the link is on “contrast checker,” tells readers—and learners using a screen reader—exactly what they will get if they follow the link. While readable, comprehensible link text is the most elemental way to make hyperlinks more accessible, it’s not the only one. Additional tips are available in “Ten Ways to Create Useful Hyperlinks.”

But here’s a final tip that helps turn text content into accessible web content: If the content is going to become part of a long or complex web page, build in “skip navigation” links. Learners who can see the page and use a mouse can easily move past content like logos, icons, navigation bars, and other content elements that are not actually part of the eLearning content but occupy space on the page. Learners who cannot use a mouse, and those who use screen readers, might have to endure (on every page) their assistive device’s laborious wading through these elements, though some screen readers “know” to go straight to the first heading tag.

Adding a skip navigation link allows learners using assistive devices to jump past the logo and navigational elements, as all the other learners do. A skip navigation link is like a bookmark; it’s a link to the first real content item on the page. You can build it by placing an anchor or bookmark at the beginning of the eLearning text, and then linking to it using an <a href=“”> link.

Conclusions

Much of the advice provided about making Word documents more accessible simply applies sound design and suggestions for creating well-structured documents. Accessibility is useful not only to learners who have disabilities; all learners benefit from accessible Word documents because they are easier to understand. They are the foundation of clear, navigable web pages and eLearning content.

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