Make Your Word-Processed Documents More Accessible

Most of us are aware of the importance of the issues around digital accessibility through our own disabilities and supporting our students in virtual and blended classrooms. Some organizations offer accessibility training for educators and learners. Due to accessibility legislation and policies, software vendors build accessibility features into their wares. This opportunity allows us to make our documents more accessible. This post suggests some features available in the Microsoft Word app that instructors may leverage to make their digital documents more accessible. Please be aware that this is not a comprehensive accessibility resource, but an introduction for interested educators. 


Use the word processor’s Styles feature and use it consistently for section headings. Using common text modifiers such as bold, font size, italics, or underline only allows the sighted user the ability to distinguish titles and section headings in a document. Headings or section titles such as Heading 1, Heading 2 or Subtitle, when used consistently, allow audio screen-readers to read text and produce audio for users that require audio cues. Use the Style functions in an ordinal fashion. Heading 3 always follows Heading 2, which always follows Heading 1. Consistent heading structure in longer documents allows all readers to follow the document more easily, as it allows for quick and reliable creation of a document table of contents. To use Styles with MS Word, select the Home tab, and the ribbon should display the styles.  Styles are also useful when a document is converted from MS Word to either PDF or HTML format. 

Using ALT text with Images 

In word-processed documents, images have two important associated accessibility attributes. These are the ALT description text and the word wrap layout of an image. The ALT text is a written description of the image that does not appear on the document but the text is coded for screen readers. This text is read aloud for those using a screen reader. In some cases, technology may not display the image and the ALT text will appear providing the reader with an understanding of what the image represents. To include ALT text with an image, right-click on the image, and choose Format Picture. 

Text-wrapping around images & tables 

Screen readers also need to know the order of elements in a document so that when the content is read aloud, the sequence of the audio is what was intended by the document’s author. To ensure that the image is in the correct order in the document, the image should be set to a text-wrapping setting of “In Line With Text.” To set the text–wrapping of an image, right-click on the image and choose Wrap Text, then choose, “In Line With Text”. 


Another easy practice is to never use watermarks. Watermarks are graphics that are embedded into the background of a document and are usually set at a low opacity. Document readers might read the watermark’s ALT text out of sequence and confuse the end user or person reading the document. 


Tables are frequently used to display data-specific topics. Creating structured tables will help everyone understand the information in the table and its purpose. If a table is complex, consider breaking it into two or more simple tables. Tables should be designed to be read from left to right and top to bottom. As well, define if the table headings appear in the first row or first column of a table. Take care to add a table ALT description, similar to image ALT descriptions, to describe the table’s contents. This will be announced as the title of the table by a screen reader. To create a table ALT description, right-click on the table, click on the Table Properties option, choose the ALT text tab, and enter the table description. 


Fonts that are clear and not excessively decorative are preferred over ones that imitate handwriting, calligraphy, or themes such as Halloween. Choose a font size that balances the document layout but is still conducive to easy reading.  Ensure that the text colour and page background offer a high contrast.  Black text on a white page is an example of high contrast. Red text on a pink background is an example of low contrast. 


When creating lists in your documents, use MS Word’s built-in features for creating both numbered and bulleted lists. This provides a navigational structure that ensures that document or screen readers follow the author’s intended order.  In addition to this, using the provided bullet styles ensures that list indentation and line spacing are consistent throughout your document. 


Links to web resources should clearly express the destination and provide a brief description of the website’s content.  Avoid using terms like “click here”, “link” and “go to site”. 

Final Thoughts 

These tips may be useful for those who have had little exposure or support in creating documents with accessibility in mind. MS Word’s accessibility function displays elements of their document that may not align with accessibility norms. To see this, in MS Word, click on File, click on the Check for Issues button, and finally select the Check Accessibility option. A report appears in a column to the right of your document.  If your institution offers accessibility support, it might be a good idea to reach out to them for guidance on accessibility issues. If you’ve already had experience creating accessible documents, can you suggest more tips below? 

Hi—I'm John Allan. I am an educator who works in the technology enhanced language learning field. I create online learning opportunities and mentor instructors on the Avenue project. I have experience teaching ESL and EFL in Canada and the Middle East. I hold an MSC in Computer Assisted Language learning, a M.Ed. in Distance Education, TESL B. Ed., a B.Ed. (OCT), and a variety of TESL relevant certifications from TESL Canada, TESL Ontario and the Ontario Ministry of Education. For more articles, learning objects, projects and blog links see


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