Create Accessible MS Word 2019 Documents


Microsoft Word is a commonly-used application and is reasonably accessible. The text within Word documents can be read by assistive technologies such as screen readers and electronic Braille devices. Word is often used as an authoring tool and can be converted to PDF and HTML files for websites. Good design makes documents more usable for everyone. The following best practices are provided to help you maximize the accessibility of your Word documents.

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Create a uniform heading structure by using styles in Word. This allows individuals using assistive technologies such as screen readers and Braille devices to navigate the document more efficiently, as well as improving accessibility for everyone.

Pages should be structured in a hierarchical manner:

  • Heading 1 is usually a page title or a main content heading. It is the most important heading, and there is generally just one.
  • Heading 2 is usually a major section heading.
  • Heading 3 is usually a sub-section of the Heading 2.
  • Heading 4 is usually a sub-section of the Heading 3, and so on, ending with Heading 6.

NOTE: Lower degree headings should be contained within headings of the next highest degree. Do not skip heading levels, for example, using a Heading 4 directly below a Heading 2.

Apply Heading Styles

  1. Start a new line to create a heading or select text to change to a heading.
  2. Under the Home tab, choose the appropriate heading in the Styles panel.

Styles panel is emphasized under the home tab

NOTE: It is often common for users to create a "heading" by changing the text directly, such as applying a different font type, color, bold formatting, etc. These changes will provide a visual structure for some of your users, however, the document structure needed for navigation by assistive technology users will be missing. For this reason, use Heading Styles provided in Word.

Modify Heading Styles

There are two ways that you can modify your heading styles.

  • Right-click on the heading style you want to modify and select Modify. From here, you can change formattings such as font size, color, borders, and more. Once you've made your changes, select OK. The new style will be reflected in the style group.

Modify heading style option is highlighted

  • The other option is to change the style in your text and choose Update Heading 2 to Match Selection (or whatever level heading you are changing).

Update heading 2 to match selection option is highlighed

Visit Microsoft's website for more information about heading styles.

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Alternative Text for Images

Alternative text provides a non-visual means of representing the content or function of an image. Those using assistive technology such as a screen reading software are able to "read" the image when alt text is added correctly.

There are multiple ways to provide alt text in Word documents:

  • Use the Description field in the Alt Text box, OR
  • Provide information about the content or function of the image in the surrounding text.

NOTE: When the equivalent text cannot be provided succinctly in text near the image, you may link to another section of the document (e.g., an appendix) or to an accessible web page.

Adding Alt Text

There are two ways to add alt text to images in Word.

  • When the image is selected, click on the Format tab under Picture Tools, then select Alt Text.

Alt text option highlighted under the picture tools, format tab.

  • Another way to add alt text is to right-click on the image, then select Edit Alt Text.

Edit alt text option highlighted when right clicked on image

  •  A panel will pop up on the right side of your document. This is where you will enter the Alt Text.

Alt text panel with the words "Type alt text here" located in the description box

NOTE: There is an option to "Generate a description for me", however, it is not recommended to use only this option to create alt text. Always use your best judgment to ensure alt text is meaningful.

Best Practices for Alt Text

Alt text should be:

  • Accurate and equivalent - present the same content or function as the image.
  • Succinct - no more than a few words are necessary, though rarely a short sentence or two may be appropriate.
  • Include any text which happens to be in the image.
  • NOT be redundant or provide the same information as text within the context of the image.
  • NOT use descriptive phrases such as "image of..." or "graphic of..." to describe the image. Screen reading software identifies images for the user.

Visit Microsoft's website for more information about adding alt text to an image or object.

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Data Tables

The purpose of data tables is to present information in a grid, or matrix, and to have columns or rows that show the meaning of the information in the grid. Word has limitations when it comes to making tables accessible. A simple table with one row of column headers (headers in the first row of the table) and no nested rows or columns can be made accessible in Word. Unfortunately, Word does not support the use of row headers (headers in the first column of the table). More complex tables can only be made accessible within HTML or PDF (using proper table markup).

NOTE: Complex tables can often be simplified or "flattened" in order to make the content more accessible. This might mean breaking them into multiple simple tables with a heading above each.

To create a table, select the Insert tab then click Table. From here, select the number and rows and columns for your table.

Table option has a dropdown menu in order to select rows and columns for the table

Next, you want to identify the header row. There are two steps that need to be taken to ensure the header row is marked up properly.

The first step is to select the Header Row. This step will mark the header row for assistive technology and will carry over when converted to PDF. It will also update your table style options.

With your table selected, navigate to the Table Tools ribbon and select Design. Make sure the box labeled Header Row is checked.

Design tab is selected under table tools, header row is highlighted and checked.

The next step is to select Repeat Header Rows. When Repeat Header Rows is selected, it will identify the header row to assistive technologies, as well as repeat the header if the table extends past one page, which benefits sighted users. There are two ways to accomplish this.

  • With your cursor in the header row, right-click and select Table Properties. Select the tab labeled Row, then check the box labeled Repeat as header row at the top of each page. Click OK.

Table properties option is highlighted toward the bottom of the listSecond tab option is labeled row. Repeat header rows is checked.

  • The second option is to navigate to the Table Tools ribbon, select Layout, then select Repeat Header Rows. The Repeat Header Rows box will turn gray when selected.

Layout tab is one of two options under table tools. Repeat Header Rows is highlighted.

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Meaningful Hyperlinks

When a URL is entered into a Word document, Word automatically creates a link and uses the URL as the display text. Because the URL text may not make sense to a user (both sighted and those using assistive technologies), it is recommended to edit the link text.

To edit link text:

  • Right-click on the link and select Edit Hyperlink.

 Edit hyperlink option is highlighted

  • In the box labeled Text to display, type your descriptive link text then select OK.

Descriptive text is written in text to display, which is highlighted.

NOTE: You can also create a link by highlighting the text you wish to create the link from, right-click, and type or paste the URL in the Address box. The text you highlighted will appear in the Text to display box.

Best Practices for Creating Accessible Links

  • Use descriptive link text that does not rely on context from the surrounding text. Assistive technologies can navigate through a list of links on the page, therefore, the links must make sense out of context.
  • Keep the amount of text in the link to a minimum.
  • Use underlined text with a color that stands out from the surrounding text (keep good contrast in mind).
  • Avoid ambiguous link text such as "click here", "learn more", "video", "article", etc.
  • If the document is likely to be printed, you can also include the full URL. If the URL is long, consider creating a smaller URL by using a service such as or A suggested format would be as follows:

Visit Microsoft's website for more information about accessible links.

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Lists and Columns

Lists and columns add important hierarchical structure to a document. Using the Tab and Space bar create a visual structure for sighted users, however, it does not provide the document structure needed for assistive technology users.

Creating Lists

Use true numbered and bulleted lists to emphasize a point or a sequence of steps.

  • In the Home tab, you can select bulleted, numbered, and multilevel lists.

Three list options highlighted under the home tab

Creating Columns

Always use true columns. Do not create columns with Tab. This can disrupt the reading order of the document for assistive technology users.

  • Select the Page Layout tab.
  • Select Columns under Page Setup and choose the appropriate number of columns.

Columns option is highlighted and selected, revealing multiple options.

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Using Color and Ensuring Good Contrast

Using color can enhance the overall accessibility of content, especially for those that can see the color difference. However, considerations must be taken to ensure sufficient contrast between foreground and background and when using color to convey meaning.

Provide Good Contrast

Good contrast is vital in terms of accessibility. Users must be able to perceive the content on a page. There must be sufficient contrast between the foreground and background for them to do so. This includes text on images, icons and buttons. In addition, colors used to convey information on diagrams, maps, and other types of images must be distinguishable. The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 (WCAG2.1) provides guidance on the minimum level of contrast needed to meet accessibility standards, which is 4.5 to 1 or better for "regular" sized text (less than 18pt). 

There are several excellent online tools that you can use to analyze contrast, but first, you have to determine the RGB color code for the colors you are checking.

Place the cursor on the text that you want to check. Select the dropdown arrow on font color, then click More Colors.

Font color is selected. The color of the text is shown under Theme colors. More colors button is highlighted.

When the Colors dialog box appears, select the Custom tab. Here you will see the RGB color codes. Record those numbers.

Colors dialog box, custom tab is selected. The RGB code is highlighted for the selected color text in the document.

Next, you will need to use a contrast analyzer. There are several options, but not all accept RGB codes. One that does is the WCAG Contrast Checker. Another great tool that can be downloaded as a desktop app and used on any document is the Color Contrast Analyzer.

When entering the RGB, you must first click on the multicolor square on either the foreground or background option. Enter your RGB values and click OK. The contrast checker will let you know if the contrast is sufficient to meet the standard you want.

Multicolor square is highlighted to the right of the Hex code under foreground. This pulls up the RGB color selection

In this case, there is insufficient contrast between the yellow text and the white background. You can see that the checker tells you the ratio, as well as if it passes AA standards for both regular and large text.

Results of contrast, ratio is at 2.77 and fails AA standards.

One way to find a contrast that is sufficient is by using the hex value and the WebAIM Contrast Checker. From here, you can enter the hex value and slide the Lightness bar to a passing contrast ratio.

Sliding the lightness bar keeps the same color but changes the lightness/darkness.

Color and Contrast tools:

Avoid Using Color Alone to Convey Meaning

Color should not be used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element. Those who are colorblind or using assistive technology such as a screen reader would not be able to distinguish the color, or the information if color is the only way that meaning is conveyed.

TIP: View/print the document in greyscale in order to spot where color might be the only visual means of conveying information and to see if there is any missing information. 

Pie Chart Example

In this example, the pie chart is being viewed in greyscale. Ask yourself, if the meaning is still clear without the use of colors? Consider adding the descriptions (or a label) to the chart itself.

List Example:

  • Students listed in green will present in week 3
    • Joselyn
    • David
    • Alexis
    • John
    • Ted

Consider listing students in separate lists, a table, or labeling the week by each student.


  • Students listed in green will present in week 3
    • Joselyn (week 3)
    • David
    • Alexis
    • John (week 3)
    • Ted

NOTE: In addition to text color, don't rely on highlighting alone to convey meaning.

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Other Principles

  • Ensure that font size is sufficient, using 11 points as a minimum.
  • Provide a table of contents for long documents (TOC uses headings)
  • Use simple language.
  • Use readable, common fonts. Sans serif fonts are generally preferred for digital content.
    • Arial
    • Calibri
    • Verdana
  • Avoid overly-decorative fonts
  • Don't overuse formattings such as ALL CAPS, Bold, Italic, and Underline.

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Accessibility Checker

Word has a built-in accessibility checker which can help you identify accessibility issues within your document. 

Under the File tab, select Check for Issues and click Check Accessibility.

The check accessibility option is highlighted under the check for issues dropdown menu

The checker provides Inspection Results, feedback about the importance of each item, and tips on how to repair issues.

Results of the accessibility checker appear in a new window pane in Word

Visit Microsoft's website for more information about using the accessibility checker.

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Additional Resources

For previous versions of Word and for Mac users, please view the following guides:


Article ID: 107041
Thu 5/7/20 9:57 AM
Mon 5/10/21 2:09 PM