Making Word documents accessible

Universal design is one of the phrases that stuck with me when I did a Masters module on accessibility in online learning. It struck a chord because I see in the physical day-to-day world, the problems that occur when something is designed or built and then access for wheelchairs is considered as an afterthought. That is when we (disabled people) become a frustration or an inconvenience. It is much easier to design and build something (a house, a shop, a piece of eLearning, even a Word document) that is accessible for all, if you think about access at the beginning. It would be transformational if everything that was ever designed was designed with all needs in mind.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I hear that a piece of eLearning isn't AT (assistive technology) compliant and as a mitigation for this, the content is put into a Word document. In many cases, nobody thinks that the Word document isn't compliant either. And yet, it's really not difficult to make a Word doc compliant.

How can you make your documents AT compliant?

1. Structure it properly

Don't be tempted to just format your text to create headings, subheadings, etc, by making them bold and bigger. Use the styles that are on the HOME ribbon. Most documents have a title. Type it, highlight it and click TITLE in the styles. The same for headings - use the heading style. There are several levels of heading. Use them in the logical order. When JAWS reads it, it will tell the user when something is a heading, so that they can understand the structure.

2. Give your images alt text

Imagine you are reading a book (or document) to a person who can't see it. You would read the text, word by word but what would you do about pictures, diagrams, charts, graphs, etc? You would have to describe them. How you describe them might depend on the story, theme or context of what you are reading. It's the same for Word docs. When you add any graphic element to your document, take a moment. Right click and select EDIT ALT TEXT. A pane will appear where you have a choice. If the image is purely decorative (e.g. a rectangle at the bottom of each page) tick the box to indicate that. Otherwise, describe the image. If the image has text or data in it, make sure you add that too.

3. Keep images inline

Many of us use the image wrapping to make our images so that we can move them around and place them exactly where we want them. The only problem is that can mess with the order that screen readers read them in. The content will be read from top to bottom and left to right, but if you move your image to fit alongside your text, there is the possibility it will get missed. The easiest way is to keep images inline, but if you don't, it's a good idea to run your document through a screen reader to check that it reads correctly.

4. Test it

I have the trial version of JAWS. You can download and install it for free and use it in 40 minute mode. This gives you the opportunity to test your document and be sure it 'reads' correctly. Also, use the accessibility checker that you can find in the REVIEW ribbon. It will check your document and tell you if you have missed something.


I made this interactive screenshot for one of the eLearning challenges a couple of weeks ago. It shows in more detail, how this works in practice.

Screen shot of interactive activity. This should link to the actual page which is AT compliant.


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