Creating Accessible Word Documents

This Knowledge Base article will teach you how to create accessible Word documents and test them using the accessibility checker that is built into Microsoft Word.

Table of Contents

Structure Your Word Document with Headings

"Adding structured and meaningful headings to your Word document will enhance your document's accessibility by about 70-80%."

- Jess Thompson, Program Administrator, eLearning & Open Education, Washington SBCTC

Adding headings to your Word document is fairly simple.  Headings enhance the appearance of your document for users without disabilities, but they are very necessary for users who are low-vision, legally blind or completely blind, and rely upon a Screen Reader. Screen readers like JAWS or NVDA traverse through a document, reading aloud the content and structure, or lack thereof in most cases.  It will be most effective to add headings via the Styles under the Home menu:

Word Screenshot of the Home menu, highlighting the Styles panel

To add headings to your document, do the following:

  1. Locate your headings you created in your document (and likely formatted without actually making them functional headings).
  2. Starting at the top-most heading, like the title of your document, highlight the content of the heading and click the Heading 1 in the Styles area of the Home ribbon.
  3. Move onto the next heading, use the same process from the previous step, but click Heading 2.
    (Note: Headings are meant to structure like an outline or list, not necessarily as a sequence)
  4. Continue this process of converting your visual headings to functional headings throughout your document.

 TIP: If you wanted to visualize your content in relation to the different heading levels, go to View > Outline.

Using a Syllabus as an example, you might want to structure your document like the following example:

(Note: the list structure used below is used only for showing the hierarchy of the headings in your document)

  • Heading 1: Course Name
    • Heading 2: Description
    • Heading 2: Outcomes
    • Heading 2: Division Policies
      • Heading 3: Student Responsibilities
      • Heading 3: Academic Integrity 
      • Heading 3: Academic Dishonesty
    • Heading 2: Institutional Policies
      • Heading 3: Student Code of Conduct
      • Heading 3: Disability Support Services (DSS)
      • Heading 3: Withdrawal
      • Heading 3: Title IX
    • Heading 2: Institutional Statement
      • Heading 3:Removal From Class For Non-Attendance

One thing to notice is that the structure follows a logical format like an outline and there is no skipping of heading levels. An example of what not to do is below:

  • Heading 1: Course Name
    • (skipping Heading 2) Heading 3: Description
    • Heading 2: Outcomes
    • Heading 2: Division Policies
      • (skipping Heading 3 and 4) Heading 5: Student Responsibilities
      • Heading 5: Academic Integrity 
      • Heading 5: Academic Dishonesty

Skipping Headings will cause an error in the Accessibility Checker.

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Create Your Own Styles With the Right-Click of a Button!

If you are like me, you probably tried styles at one point and did not like how the default styles looked, so you went back to your old ways of clicking to change the font size to "28", then selecting "Comic Sans MS" as your font, then clicking on the font color of Medium Blue and maybe you clicked another few times to make your "custom heading" bold, italicized and/or underlined. However, we can make our lives easier and documents accessible by simply applying our custom formatting to the Styles that Word gives us:

  1. Select a heading in the Styles.
  2. Type the text for your heading.
  3. Change the formatting of your heading as you normally would until you think it is perfect.
  4. With the cursor positioned somewhere within your heading, right-click on the heading that you want to apply this formatting to in the Styles selection toolbar.
  5. Select the menu item that says Update Heading to Match Selection:
    Screenshot of the right-click menu with the menu item "Update Heading 1 to Match Selection" being selected for a Heading 1 Style in Word.
    The heading in the Styles selection toolbar should now look different, taking on all your formatting attributes:Screenshot of the Styles selection toolbar with Heading 1 displaying custom formatting applied to style
    Furthermore, if you have already setup your document correctly by using Styles, then all of the headings at the same level will inherit your changes.
  6. Repeat steps 1-5 for any of the styles that you want updated.

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Alt Text on Images

Most people are familiar with the saying "a picture is worth a thousand words".  So how does a blind-user get to experience images when they are encountered in a Word document?  Through Alt Text.

Alt text serves as an alternate representation of the element for which it is applied to when that element cannot be rendered.  It is also what screen readers will read out loud to a blind person when the screen reader encounters an image.  To setup alt text on an image that you have inserted into your Word document, simply follow the steps below:

  • Right-click on your image and then click on Format Picture.
  • When the Format Picture options appear, click on the Layout & Properties button:
  • Screenshot of the Layout and Properties button in the Format Picture Options of Word
  • The alt text should be added to the Description field:
    Screenshot of the Alt Text description in Word's Format Picture Options
    Accurately describe the picture, but also look to enhance the quality of the alt text by conveying emotion or explaining the significance of the picture in relation to your text-based content.

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Decorative Images

If your image is decorative, then adding alt text may add confusion as to the relevance of the image within your document.  In cases like this, you could use one of the following methods:

  • Type "decorative" as the alt text for your image, OR...
  • In the Description field, simply type a space and enter

The second method from above is a better way of designating an image as decorative. However, when you run your document through the Accessibility Checker, it will flag this image as not containing an alt text:

Screenshot of the Alt Text description in Word's Format Picture Options when Image is decorative

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Text as Graphics

The only time you should use text as a graphic is when you there is no other effective way to present a visual while preserving the meaning you wish to convey to your user.  However, try to verbally articulate the same meaning in your alt text (see the Alt Text on Images section for directions) applied to the image:

Word Screenshot of an image of the word Bully, rendered as a word-cloud of bulling attributes

Otherwise, use actual text to represent text.

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Alt Text on Shapes

Add alt text to shapes, including shapes within a SmartArt graphic.

  1. Right-click a shape, and then select Format Shape.

  2. In the right pane, select Layout & Properties, and then select Alt Text.

  3. Type your alt text into the Description field.

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Grouped Shapes

If you are using shapes to create a diagram or chart, you can combine the shapes as a group and then apply Alt Text to describe your diagram or chart:

  1. Select all of the objects in your diagram/chart.
  2. Right-click on the selected objects  > click on the Group menu button and click the Group menu item.
  3. Right-click on your diagram/chart, click on the Format Object menu item.
  4. Click the Layout Options button located at the top right of your group object and make sure In Line with Text is selected.
  5. In the right, click the Layout & Properties button under the Format Shape task pane's Shape Options, and then select Alt Text.
  6. Type your alt text into the Description field:

Word Screenshot of a grouped shape, with layout set to in-line, alt text set and Accessibility Checker showing no issues


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The contrast of your text, compared to the background color of your document is something of great importance to all users, but is critical for users who are color-blind or have low-vision.  The following tools will help you take the guess work out of determining the color contrast of the text in your document:

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Making accessible tables starts with the understanding that they should not be used to align text and images.  Tables should be used for displaying a matrix of information in a structured format for understanding and/or comparison.

Once you have your table added to your Word document, you need to make the following adjustments to make your table accessible

Add a Caption to the Table

  1. Click anywhere inside the table and you should see the table's move handle appear in the top-left corner of the table.
  2. Click on the table's move handle (selecting the whole table).
  3. Right-click on the table's move handle, to open the table's right-click menu and click on the Insert Caption menu item:Word Screenshot of the right-click menu on a table in Word, with the Insert Caption option highlighted
  4. Type a short description of the what is presented in the table in the Caption field of the Caption Window and click OK:
    Word Screenshot of Table Caption Window
  5. Your caption will display immediately before your table:
    Screenshot of Caption appearing above a new table in Word

Add Column Headers

  1. Click anywhere inside the table and you should see the table's move handle appear in the top-left corner of the table.
  2. Click on the table's move handle (selecting the whole table).
  3. Right-click on the table's move handle, to open the table's right-click menu and click on the Table Properties menu item:
    Word Screenshot of the right-click menu on a table in Word, with the Table Properties option highlighted
  4. When the Table Properties window appears, click on the Row tab, check the box: Repeat as header row at the top of each page
    Screenshot of the Table Properties in Word with box checked for Repeat as header row at the top of each page
  5. Click OK to close the window.
  6. Although the alt text is somewhat redundant to the information in the table, the Accessibility Checker will still throw an error if you do not add to the description field under the Alt Text tab.  So add a helpful description of the table contents or just add a space with a carriage-return (Shift + Enter):
    Screenshot of the Table Properties in Word with the Alt Text options being displayed

Other Tips

  • Do not split cells, merge cells, nest tables, or insert completely blank rows or columns.  If you want to ensure the accessibility of your tables, use the Accessibility Checker to validate the tables in your Word document.

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Have you ever tried to visually make columns or grids of content, using extra spaces?  Not only will the content never line up perfectly, but it causes errors in the Accessibility Checker:

Screenshot of an Impropper Column Layout Using Extra Spaces

Furthermore, a screen reader will be reading this content left-to-right, which would be rendered like:

"Ken Wardinsky...Steve Smith...Jeremy Seda
CIO...Manager of User Services...IT Accessibility Coordinator...

In order to have the screen readers accurately read each person's title, department and email right after his name, this content should be typed as such:

Ken Wardinsky
Information Technology

Steve Smith
Manager of User Services
Information Technology

Jeremy Seda
IT Accessibility Coordinator
Information Technology

To pretty up that content and save document real-estate, use Columns:

  1. Highlight your content that you want to appear in a Column layout.
  2. Go to the Layout menu and click the Columns drop-down.
  3. Click on the appropriate number of columns you desire for your layout (in this case, Three).

When this three-column content is encountered by the screen reader, each person's name, title, department and email will be read in the right context, and we are still able to present this information in a condensed format without issues with accessibility:

Screenshot of an Accessible Three-Column Layout to display Contact Information for Three People

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Using formatted lists is another way to provide structure and enhance accessibility to your Word document.  If you type out a numbered or unordered list, then screen readers won't read it as such, which can be confusing to a blind user relying upon a screen reader to experience your content.Using the list formatting tool allows a screen reader to determine the length of the list and the reader can understand how the content is organized and how many items are on the list.

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A few tips around links in your accessible Word documents:

  • Do not use generic descriptions for your link text, like click here, learn more, download, etc.  Instead, provide something descriptive for your link text, like:
    learn more about Accessibility Vs Accommodation
  • If you think that some of your users will be viewing a printed copy of your Word document, then you might want to make note of the URL right after the link itself.  For example:
    learn more about Accessibility Vs Accommodation.
    (Note Full URL: 

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Accessibility Checker

An easy way to verify that all your accessibility efforts are paying off is by using the Accessibility Checker that's built into Microsoft Word. This tool will locate elements that might cause problems for people with disabilities and screen readers. 

  1. Go to the File menu > under the Info options locate and click the Check for Issues button > click on Check Accessibility menu item
    Screenshot of the Info Menu in Word with Check Accessibility Selected

    The Accessibility Checker will open in a Task Pane.  The Inspection Results will display the objects with accessibility issues or tell you there are "no accessibility issues found...".
  2. If your document contains accessibility issues, then click on the object's name in the inspection results:
    Screenshot of the Accessibility Checker Task Pane in Word
    Most errors will be resolved with the directions within this Knowledgebase Article.
  3. Fix each issue in the Inspection Results until you receive the following message:
    Screenshot of the Accessibility Checker Task Pane in Word with message of No accessibility issues found
  4. Should you have any issues that you can not fix, contact Jeremy.Seda@NIC.EDU for further trouble-shooting.

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Other Tools


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Document Accessibility Toolbar

A toolbar for Microsoft Word that puts accessibility-related funtions in one organized ribbon:

Screenshot of the Document Accessiblity Toolbar in Word

The DAT puts the power of accessible functionality into the hands of content authors, for the ultimate benefit of consumers with disability or age-related impairment.

Download the Vision Australia DAT Toolbar
(full URL:

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One of the most widely used screenreaders. Unlocking a full license of  JAWS costs a pretty penny, but Freedom Scientific is still pretty generous with their Trial mode of the software.  You can use the screen reader for 40 minutes and then need to reboot before you can continue using the software.  

Download JAWS
(Full URL:

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NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) is a free “screen reader” which enables blind and vision impaired people to use computers. It reads the text on the screen in a computerised voice. You can control what is read to you by moving the cursor to the relevant area of text with a mouse or the arrows on your keyboard.

Download NVDA
(Full URL:

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Article ID: 47812
Mon 2/5/18 2:46 PM
Wed 12/21/22 3:30 PM