Tips for Creating Accessible Word Documents

Information and publications are often made available and viewed electronically, either online as a webpage or as a document file in an electronic format, such as Microsoft Word or PDF. Ensuring that the digital environment is accessible to all is good practice, allowing everyone to tap into information, goods and services. The process of creating accessibility begins with the source document. For many, this is likely to be MS Word. MS Word provides a number of formatting options and tools that make it a good choice for designing accessible documents. This page provides 10 top tips for creating a properly formatted MS Word document that is optimised for accessibility.

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Top tips for creating accessible Word documents

1. Templates

Using MS Word features, such as Styles, to format the content of a document will provide the underlying structure for optimising accessibility. When the MS Word document is finished, it is the document’s formatting that provides the necessary information for creating a PDF that is tagged. It is this tagged structure, that sits behind the document content that make it accessible to users who rely on Assistive Technologies (ATs) like screen readers or Text-to-Speech (TTS) software.

Templates allow documents to be created with a distinct look by incorporating pre-defined Styles, font and font combinations. Therefore, they provide an excellent way of matching your brand style. For example, paragraph and heading Styles can be custom-designed so that it is easier to create ‘branded’ documents.

2. Heading Styles

Heading Styles are a key element in creating an accessible document as they give it a logical structure. Text formatted as 'headings' is used in Word to generate a Table of Contents to aid navigation and also to apply tags for creating accessible PDFs. Always apply the headings in sequential order - don’t jump from Heading 1 to Heading 3.

3. Colour contrast

A good contrast between the text and background colours is needed to make sure that the content is legible. For standard body text, a 4.5:1 ratio is the minimum recommended by accessibility standards. For larger text and text that is bold, a contrast ratio of at least 3:1 is required. For example, black text on a white background provides a high colour contrast, achieving a 21:1 ratio.

4. Text size

Make sure the font size for body text is not too small and hence difficult to read. The size of letters varies in different fonts, but as a general rule of thumb, a font size of at least 11 or 12 points is recommended.

5. Tables

Keep Tables as simple as possible. To maximise the accessibility of a Table, try to ensure it doesn't contain blank cells, split cells, merged cells, or nested Tables. The more complicated a Table is, the more difficult it will be to read and navigate. For example, blank cells could mislead someone using a screen reader into thinking that there is nothing more there and so miss information. It is worth noting that complex Tables created in MS Word will probably need remediation after they have been converted into a PDF format to make sure that they are accessible.

6. Alternative Text

Adding Alternative Text, commonly known as Alt-Text, to images, figures and graphic objects will enable people using ATs to identify them. Alt-Text should be brief and meaningful, and never comprise more than a short description. Too much information in Alt-Text may mean that it can’t be opened by an AT or that it might cause an application to crash. Don’t use Alt-Text to repeat information that is already contained in the surrounding text or in a caption.

7. Document title

Adding a title to the Document Properties will provide information that helps the Word document and any subsequent PDF meet accessibility criteria. ATs will use the document title (instead of the file name, which is likely to be less meaningful), when reading or displaying the publication.

8. Highlighting information

Don’t rely on any one of colour, shape, size or location to highlight important information or to convey meaning. Always combine colour and other visual characteristics with text so that it is legible to people with sight impairments.

9. Hyperlinks

Provide descriptive text for hyperlinks so that it is clear where the user will be taken if they are clicked. Links should describe their destination, function and/or purpose. Avoid leaving a raw URL as the link text.

10. Accessibility Checker

The MS Word Accessibility Checker can identify problems within a document and explain what needs to be fixed.

A Word document is often converted into another format for publication, such as a PDF file or as HTML code to create content on a web page. In such cases, the converted file should be checked to make sure that the accessibility features have been preserved. The longer and more complicated a document is, the more likely that it will need to be corrected to ensure that it is fully accessible after conversion.

The process of checking and correcting the accessibility of a file after conversion is often referred to as 'remediation'. For PDFs this is done using professional editing software, while a programming application or text editor is needed to recode HTML.

Whichever format is chosen for publication, be it Word, PDF or HTML, it is important that it is accessible to make sure that all users can understand, interact and use the information as intended.

This tip sheet appeared in JONO Design e-news. The e-news is published once every couple of months and each issue contains a specially designed infographic.

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