A Few Tips to Create Accessible Word Documents

Introduction

The accessibility movement is a global phenomenon that has implications for all stakeholders in education.  Many nations and regional jurisdictions have passed legislation related to accessibility and more recently, digital or web accessibility. Beyond complying with legal expectations, educators should develop digital materials with the viewpoint that incorporating accessibility supports users with disabilities, improves the learning experience for all, allows more people to participate in your courses, ensure that your materials are structurally uniform and finally, it is the right thing to do.

Some general guidelines to improve document readability are:

  • consistent titles,
  • legible fonts,
  • easier to understand tables ,and
  • colour contrast considerations.

Over the past decade, I have attended accessibility and UDL (Universal Design for Learning) certification workshops and courses. These training events involved document accessibility design, mobile App design, video captioning, and web accessibility design and usability.  The amount of information has been overwhelming. I have found that intentionally practicing these concepts ensures that they become a habit while creating digital content.

Below is a basic list of good document preparation practices for creating a basic word processed document that can be printed or shared as a PDF document through a digital network. Many instructors and developers will already be performing these good habits.  However, there may be some instructors that can use the items below to improve the accessibility of their documents.  Please be aware that this is not a comprehensive accessibility resource, but an introduction for curious instructors.

In all of the examples below, it is assumed that the instructors are using Microsoft Word.

Styles

Use the word processor’s Styles feature, and use it consistently for section headings.  Using common text modifiers such as bold, font size, italics, or underline only allow the sighted user the ability to distinguish titles and section headings in a document. Headings or section titles such as Heading 1, Heading 2 or Subtitle, when used consistently, allow audio screen-readers to read text and produce audio for users that require audio cues. Use the Style functions in an ordinal fashion.  Heading 3 always follows Heading 2, which always follows Heading 1. Consistent heading structure in longer documents allows all readers to follow the document more easily, as it allows for quick and reliable creation of a document table of contents.   To use Styles with MS Word, select the Home tab, and the ribbon should display the styles.  Styles are also useful when a document is converted from MS Word to either PDF or HTML format.

Image Considerations

Using ALT text

When creating documents containing images, there are a few basic practices that can improve the accessibility of your document.   In word processed documents, images have two important associated characteristics. These are the ALT description text and the word wrap layout of an image. The ALT text is a written description of the image that does not appear on the document but the text is coded for screen readers.   This text is read aloud for those using a screen reader.  In some cases, technology may not display the image and the ALT text will appear providing the reader with an understanding of what the image represents. To include ALT text with an image, right-click on the image, and choose Format Picture.

Text-wrapping

Screen readers also need to know the order of elements in a document so that when the content is read out loud, the sequence of the audio is what was intended by the document’s author.  To ensure that the image is in the correct order in the document, the image should be set to a text-wrapping setting of “In Line With Text.” To set the text –wrapping of an image, right-click on the image and choose Wrap Text, then choose, “In Line With Text”.

Watermarks

Another easy practice is to never use watermarks.  Watermarks are graphics that are embedded into the background of a document and are usually set at a low opacity. A very common watermark is the word “Draft” as it ensures that the document will not be mistaken for a final or official. Document readers might read the watermark’s ALT text out of sequence and confuse the end user or person reading the document.

Tables

Tables are frequently used to display data specific topics.  Creating structured tables will help everyone understand the information in the table and its purpose. If a table is complex, consider breaking it into two or more simple tables. Tables should be designed to be read from left to right and top to bottom. As well, define if the table headings appear in the first row or first column of a table. Take care to add a table ALT description, similar to image ALT descriptions, to describe the table’s contents.  This will be announced as the title of the table by a screen reader. To create a table ALT description, right click on the table, click on the Table Properties option, choose the ALT text tab, and enter the table description.

Fonts

Fonts that are clear and not excessively decorative are preferred over ones that imitate handwriting, calligraphy, or themes such as Halloween.  Choose a font size that balances the document layout but is still conducive to easy reading.  Ensure that the text colour and page background offer a high contrast.  Black text on a white page is an example of high contrast.  Red text on a pink background is an example of low contrast.

Lists

When creating lists in your documents, use MS Word’s built-in features for creating both numbered and bulleted lists. This provides navigational structure that ensures that document or screen readers follow the author’s intended order.  In addition to this, using the provided bullet styles ensures that list indentation and line spacing are consistent throughout your document.

White Space

Many of us press the Enter key a few times to add extra white space between paragraphs.  It is a better practice to use the paragraph settings.   To access these options in MS Word, right-click on the paragraph and alter the settings in the pop up.  To create horizontal white space, instead of holding down the space bar and eyeballing the insertion point for the next character, use the tab feature to create this horizontal white space, which is in alignment with best accessibility practices.  Screen readers reading these repetitious characters may indicate to the end user that the end of the document has been reached.

Hyperlinks

Links to web resources should clearly express the destination and provide a brief description of the website’s content.  Avoid using terms similar to “click here”, “link” and “go to site”.

Final Thoughts

I hope that these tips are useful for those who have had little exposure or support in creating documents with accessibility in mind.  Microsoft Word has an accessibility function that instructors can use to see exactly what elements of their document may not align with accessibility norms.   In MS Word, click on File, click on the Check for Issues button, and finally select the Check Accessibility option.   A report appears in a column to the right of your document.  If your institution or centre offers accessibility support, it might a good idea to reach out to them for guidance on accessibility issues.  If you’ve already had experience making accessible documents, what are some tips you would recommend?

John Allan
Latest posts by John Allan (see all)
blank

John Allan

John is a Canadian who writes about learning object development and online facilitation from a teacher's perspective.

One thought on “A Few Tips to Create Accessible Word Documents

  • 13th January 2022 at 3:47 pm
    Permalink

    Good post John – I expect many teachers never think about the accessibility of their Word or PDF documents uploaded to their online courses?
    Together with the new accessibility tool in Moodle paying attention to this becomes easier.

    Reply

Add a reply or comment...

%d bloggers like this: