Microsoft Word
Creating Accessible Documents

Article Contents

  1. Current page: Page 1: Microsoft Word — Creating Accessible Documents
    1. Introduction
    2. Headings
    3. Alternative Text for Images
    4. Data Tables
    5. Links
    6. Lists & Columns
    7. Other Principles
    8. Accessibility Checker
    9. Converting to PDF
    10. Principles into Practice
  2. Page 2: Word 365 and 2019 for Mac
  3. Page 3: Word 365 and 2019 for Windows
  4. Page 4: Word 2016 for Mac
  5. Page 5: Word 2016 for Windows
  6. Page 6: Word 2013 for Windows
  7. Page 7: Word 2011 for Mac
  8. Page 8: Word 2010 for Windows


Microsoft Word is the most widely used word processor on the market, and the .docx format is the de facto format for text documents. It is also often used to create PDF and HTML files for websites. There are several things you can do to make your Word Documents more accessible for people with disabilities, and this capability improves with each version of Office. About this article The following best practices are provided to help you maximize the accessibility of your Word documents. On this page you will find general principles for increasing accessibility in all versions of Word. When you are ready to put these recommendations into practice, select your version of Word from the article contents or at the bottom of this page.


A good heading structure is often the most important accessibility consideration in Word documents. When encountering a lengthy Word document, sighted users often scroll and look for headings to get an idea of its structure and content. Screen reader users can also navigate Word documents by headings. For example, screen reader users can access a list of all headings in the document, jump from heading to heading, or even navigate by heading levels (e.g., all second-level headings). However, this only works if Word’s styles are used. Unfortunately, it is a common practice to create a «heading» by highlighting the text and applying a different font, a larger font size, bold formatting, etc. using Word’s Font styles. These Font styles will provide visual headings but not the document structure needed for navigation by assistive technology users is missing. Heading levels should represent the structure of the document.

  • A is the document title or a main content heading. There is generally just one Heading 1 per document, although it is possible to have more than one (e.g., a journal where each article is a Heading 1).
  • A is a major section heading.
  • A is a sub-section of the Heading 2.
  • A is a sub-section of the Heading 3, and so on.

You should not skip heading levels, such as using a after a with no Heading 3 between the two. Note Word supports Heading 1-9, but web pages and PDF files only support 6 levels of headings. For this reason, we recommend limiting yourself to Heading 1-6.

Alternative Text for Images

If an image presents content or has a function, you must provide an equivalent alternative text for this image. This information will be presented to a screen reader user when they encounter the image. There are two ways to provide alt text in Word documents:

  1. Use the You can add «Alt text» text to Pictures, Shapes, Charts, SmartArt, and (in Office 365) Icons and 3D Models.
  2. Provide an alternative in the surrounding text.

For complex images like charts, you will often need to provide succinct «Alt text» plus a table or lengthier text alternative near the image. Alternative text should be:

  • Accurate and equivalent – present the content or function as the image.
  • Succinct – a few words are usually enough; a short sentence or two is sometimes appropriate.
  • NOT be redundant – do not provide information that is in the surrounding text.
  • NOT use descriptive phrases – screen reading software identifies images, so do not use phrases such as «image of…» or «graphic of…».

Data Tables

A data table is a grid of information organized into columns and rows. Sighted users scan a table to make associations between data in the table and their appropriate row and/or column headers. Screen reader users make these same associations if tables are structured correctly. The tools for creating accessible tables are limited—especially in older versions—but you can identify a single row of column headers and a single column of row headers.


Links in Word documents allow users to visit web pages, send an email, and to navigate to headings or bookmarks within the same document. When you paste a webpage address—or URL—into a document and hit Enter or Space, Word automatically creates a link and uses the URL as the link text. It is usually best to give the link more descriptive text. Follow these principles to create accessible links:

  • Use descriptive link text that does not rely on context from the surrounding text.
  • Keep the amount of text in the link to a minimum.
  • Use underlined text with a color that stands out from the surrounding text.

Important Screen reader users may skim a document by navigating from link to link. Avoid ambiguous link text that is difficult to understand out of context (e.g., «click here»).

Lists & Columns

Lists and columns add important hierarchical structure to a document. Sometimes users create «lists» and «columns» manually by hitting the Tab to indent content. While this provides visual structure for sighted users, it does not provide the document structure needed for assistive technology users. There are two types of lists used in Word: bullets and numbers. Bulleted lists are used for a group of items without an order or hierarchy:

  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Pickles
  • Onions

Numbered lists present a group where the number of items matter or where there is an order or sequence:

  1. Preheat grill with «high» heat setting.
  2. Cook hamburgers on «medium» heat setting.
  3. Flip hamburgers when juices are visible on the top of the patty.
  4. Remove hamburgers when the inside temperature is 160℉.

Other Principles

  • Use simple language.
  • Ensure that font size is sufficient, usually a minimum of 11 points.
  • Provide sufficient contrast between text colors and background colors.
  • Do not use color as the only way to convey information.
  • Be careful with the use of watermarks. They can impact readability and create low contrast.
  • Provide a table of contents for long documents.

Accessibility Checker

Word has an Accessibility Checker for identifying and repairing many accessibility issues. The checker’s classifies accessibility issues into three categories:

  • Errors: content that makes a document very difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to access.
    • Example: an image with no alt text.
  • Warnings: content that in most—but not all—cases makes the document difficult for people with disabilities to access.
    • Example: a link with text that is not descriptive of its function.
  • Tips: content that people with disabilities can access, but that might be better organized or presented.
    • Example: skipping from a first-level heading to a third-level heading.

Clicking an item in the results highlights the corresponding item in the document and displays the section:

  • Why Fix: explains why the issue impacts accessibility.
  • How to Fix: suggestions for repairing the issue.

The following examples are illustrated in Microsoft Word 2016, but the principles are
universal. Most programs have equivalent tools to perform these features.

Document Headings

While sighted users can scan a page for large or bold text to identify headings, non-sighted
users who rely on screen readers miss these visual cues. Adding section heading styles
to your documents provides important semantic structure that screen readers can access.
Don’t use text size or emphasis (bold, underline, italic) as the sole means of identifying
a heading. Assign headings based on their hierarchy in the document. The main title or description
of the document should be assigned Heading 1. There should only be one Heading 1
element in your document. Sub-headings of equal importance should follow as Heading
2. These can be thought of as the main chapters of the document. Headings at level
3 would break off from a Heading 2 element. Any further sub-headings should continue
this pattern (Heading 4, etc.). Never skip a heading level (e.g., don’t go directly from
a Heading 1 to a Heading 3). To add a heading style:

  1. Select the heading text in the document.
  2. Click the appropriate heading level from the styles area of the Home ribbon

Headings selection in styles area of the Home ribon Word 2016 for Windows Bonus: Once you have added heading styles, Word can easily build an accurate table
of contents for the document.

Alternative Text (Alt text) on images

Blind or low vision users obtain information provided from images by listening to
text-based descriptions called alternative text or alt-text. All images that contain
important information should include alt-text. The alt-text should be as concise as
possible (up to 150 characters) and describe the content and function of the image.
Guidance on what makes effective alt-text varies, but one helpful approach is to imagine
describing the image to someone on the phone. To add alternative text:

  1. Right-click on image and choose Format Picture.
  2. Select the Layout and Properties tab (Size and Properties on Mac) and enter alternative text in the Description field, NOT the Title field.

Descriptive Hyperlinks

If fully-formed hyperlinks are used as display text, a user who relies on a screen
reader or text to speech software can easily become confused as the hyperlink is read
out one character at a time. A better option is to use natural language as display
text instead of the full hyperlink. For example, instead of using the hyperlink, use more descriptive display text like Michigan Tech Undergraduate Admissions page. Both hyperlinks will take the reader to the same webpage, but the more descriptive
link provides better context for all users. To add a descriptive hyperlink:

  1. Enter the descriptive natural language link text in the document.
  2. Select the link text, right-click and choose Hyperlink.
  3. Enter the full hyperlink in the Address field.
  4. Click the ScreenTip button and enter the same descriptive link text from the document

edit hyperlink text dialog box If you expect users to print the document, including both the full hyperlink text
and the descriptive link text may be appropriate.

Avoid generic link display text

Screen reader users can browse all links in a document to determine the content. To
avoid confusion, don’t use generic link display text such as «click here» or «more
info.» When multiple links use the same link display text, a user has no way of differentiating
between them.


Use tables to present information and not as a method of controlling the layout and
alignment of information in your document. Use column and/or row headers to provide
proper table structure for screen reader users to properly access the table information.
To create a table:

  1. From the Insert tab in Word click on the table icon and select the desired number of rows and columns.table icon in Insert tab in Word Table tool in Microsoft Word 2016 for Windows
  2. To ensure accessibility click to select the column headers in the first row of the
  3. Right-click and select Table Properties.
  4. From the Row tab in the Table Properties dialog check the box to «repeat as header row at the top of each page.» Also make
    sure the option to «Allow row to break across pages» is not checked. Choose the Alt Text tab in the Table Properties and add an alt-text description.

table properties dialog table row breaks across pages Example of a table with rows breaking across pages If the table has proper structure you should be able to navigate through using only
the tab button on your keyboard. Avoid the use of split cells and merged cells in
tables. These can create accessibility problems for screen reader users.


Use the list creation tool in the Home tab of the Word ribbon to create numbered or bulleted lists in your documents. This
is the only way to create lists that are accessible. Using the tab key to create indented
rows with dashes or numbers may create the visual appearance of a list, but it will
not be accessible. list function buttons in Word in Mac and Windows List function in Microsoft Word 2016 for Mac (left) and Windows (right) To create a list (option 1):

  1. Click the bulleted or numbered list button from the Home tab of the ribbon.
  2. Begin typing list items.
  3. Click list button again to close the list tool.

Multiple Columns

Use of the tab key or spacebar can create the appearance of columns in a document. However,
this approach can create problems with the reading order of content accessed by a
screen reader. Use the Columns tool in the Layout tab of the ribbon to create accessible columns. To create multiple columns:

  1. Select all text that needs multiple column formatting.
  2. Click the Columns tool in the Layout tab of the ribbon.
  3. Select the number of columns and any other alignment options desired from the More Columns option.

columns tool in layout tab

Color Contrast

To support people with low vision or color blindness, pay attention to the contrast
ratio between text and the document background. Aim for a contrast ratio of at least

  • A very good contrast ratio (foreground text=black, background=white, ratio=21:1
  • A satisfactory contrast ratio (foreground text=#6C6C83, background=white, ratio=5.1:1
  • A failing contrast ratio (foreground text=#A6A6A6, background=white, ratio=2.4:1

The Colour Contrast Analyser is a free utility for checking the contrast ratios of text and other elements in
your Word documents.

Color as Context

Never rely exclusively on color to provide information, make a comparison, or to illicit
a response. Blind or color blind users will likely not be able to use this information.
Although color can be used in your documents you should also use text-based methods
to convey information, instead of relying solely on color.

Bad color example

Items below in red are vegetables:

  • Banana
  • Celery
  • Pumpkin
  • Strawberry
  • Corn

Good color example

Items below in red are vegetables:

  • Banana
  • Celery (vegetable)
  • Pumpkin
  • Strawberry
  • Corn (vegetable)

The table below demonstrates effective use of color and text to convey meaning. The
color coding supports sighted users while the text descriptions support non-sighted
or color blind users (green= «passed», yellow= «review», red= «errors»). example of a table that incorrectly uses color to convey meaning

Using the Accessibility Checker

To identify accessibility barriers in your documents Word has a built-in Accessibility
Checker. To access the checker:

Word 2016 for Windows

  1. With your document open select the File tab.
  2. Click Check for Issues>Check Accessibility. accessibility checker button

Word 2016 for Mac OS

  1. With your document open select the Review tab
  2. Click Check Accessibility from the ribbon. check accessibility button in word toolbar

The Accessibility Checker will open in a panel to the right of your document with
results. When you choose an item in the Inspection Results panel the item is selected
in the document. At the bottom of the results panel Word provides information on
why and how to fix each issue. accessibility checker button The Accessibility Checker identifies three categories of issues; Errors, Warnings
and Tips. Errors are the most serious issues and should always be fixed. They contain
content that cannot be read by screen-reader users and others with disabilities. Warnings,
though less serious than errors, can also pose problems for some people reading the
document. Tips are potential problems that Word identifies to help you better optimize
the document’s readability and usability for everyone. accessibility checker results


Microsoft Word Accessibility video training WebAIM: Microsoft Word 2016 training resources Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Headings Tutorial National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) Cheatsheets: Word 2016 (Mac), Word 2016 (Windows)

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