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Faculty Resources and Services: Accessible Word Documents

Learn about library resources and how to use them to improve your teaching.

Accessibility: Start at the Beginning

Although it is certainly possible to edit previously-created documents to make them accessible, the easiest way to ensure documents are accessible is to build them that way from the beginning.  Once you decide to make all documents accessible, build new ones using the accessibility standards and work through old documents by starting with the ones that are least accessible (i.e. need the most work to become accessible)--since those would be the least useful to someone using adaptive technology.

Accessibility: Word Documents

Even if a Microsoft Word document only has text in it (no images or links), there are still steps to take to make it truly accessible for someone using a screen reader.  Word has built-in features that work with the screen reader's software to improve the experience of the user who is unable to see the visual organization--when those features are used in the creation of documents.  (Pre-existing documents can be edited to use the features, but it is easiest to build documents from the beginning.)

  • Headings: This is probably the single-most helpful feature for Word documents.  Although having headings in a text-heavy document is helpful for regular users, only the use of the Headings feature will make a document truly accessible--this means using the built-in Heading styles like “Heading 1” and “Heading 2”, available under Styles in the Home tab.  See "Add a heading" from Microsoft Support for details.
    • If the text is in outline format (i.e. main headings, subheadings, etc.), then all headings at the same level should have the same style (e.g. "Heading 1" for the highest level, "Heading 2" for the second.
  • Lists: As mentioned on the Home page of this guide, it is important to use the features to create formatted lists so that screen readers can communicate that to the user.  Word can create bulleted or numbered lists--any format will work with the screen readers.
  • Links: As also mentioned on the Home page of this guide, any hyperlinks should have meaningful text (like the "Add a heading" link above).
  • Tables: Tables can be great for organizing information, but they can be difficult for screen readers to interpret--especially the more complex they are.  Just like with Headings, Word has a feature that enables the document author to indicate which part of the table the Header row is. Visit the Microsoft Support page "Create accessible tables" for instructions.

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