How to create accessible Word documents

Reading Time: 7 minutes

First, some definitions

An accessible document is a document that people with a range of physical and cognitive impairments can read and understand.

An accessible document is, typically, also a document that people with no physical or cognitive impairments can read and understand better, and faster.

Also typically, an accessible document is easier for content authors to maintain. Because it uses tools that are baked in to Word and other MS Office applications to support accessibility and improve workflow.

So, here are some tips on creating accessible Word documents.

Use headings to create structure

Many people create headings in their documents by selecting the text, increasing the font size, and making it bold. They might also change the colour, add a background or underline. 

This is not a heading 

But doing that does not make the text a heading. It just makes it a big, bold, blue paragraph. The font size and weight have no semantic meaning – they don’t say anything about the nature of the text. 

To make a proper, accessible heading: 

  1. Place your cursor anywhere in the line you want to make a heading (you don’t need to select it all) 
  2. In the Home ribbon, in the Styles chunk, click the heading level you want.
Creating a Heading 1 heading in Microsoft Word
Creating a Heading 1 heading in Microsoft Word

You can see all the headings in your document using the Navigation feature (this used to be called Document Map). From the View menu, in the Show chunk, check Navigation Pane. It looks like this: 

Screenshot showing the navigation pane for this document
Screenshot showing the navigation pane for this document

As you can see, the big, bold, blue ‘This is not a heading’ is not included here, because, well, it’s not a heading.  

The navigation pane is clickable so you can go straight to the section of the document you need. 

Benefits for readers

  • These headings are available to assistive technologies, so text-to-speech software can provide a list of all the headings. This enables readers to ‘scan’ the document and get an idea of what it’s about 
  • All readers can navigate through the document quickly and easily, without having to scroll 

Benefits for authors

  • Far quicker that adjusting text properties 
  • If you’re planning to export your document as a PDF, your headings will all be included 
  • You can change the appearance of all your headings in one go. Simply right-click on the style in the Styles chunk and select Modify… from there you can change font size, colour, background, add an underline. And all instances of that style will be instantly updated 
Modifying an existing style in Word
Right-click the style you want to change and select Modify…
The Modify Style dialog in Word
In the Modify Style dialog you can change all attributes of a style

Structure documents properly 

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that headings are nested or indented in the Navigation Pane. 

It’s important that this nesting only goes down one level at a time, so that each heading can be associated with its ‘parent’ for context. 

The following sequence (using h1 – h6 to indicate heading levels) is fine: 

  • h1 
    • h2
      • h3
      • h3
    • h2
    • h2
      • h3
        • h4
      • h3

However, this sequence is incorrect: 

  • h1
    • h3
    • h3
    • h2
      • h4
    • h3

You can see that just in the way the bullet points are indented it makes no hierarchical sense. Stick to a proper hierarchy, and don’t choose a particular heading level solely for aesthetic purposes. 

Benefits for readers

  • Well-structured documents are easier to navigate and grasp an overview of 

Benefits for authors

  • You can reuse sub-headings (such as ‘Benefits for authors’) because they are in the context of their parent heading 
  • Having a properly thought through structure will make it easier to organise your thoughts and write a better, clearer document 
  • If you’re planning to export your document as a PDF, your structure will be preserved  
  • If you need a table of contents, you can create one in seconds. And if the text is edited, you can update the contents with a click 
Screenshot showing Word's ability to generate and update a table of contents from the headings in the document
Word can use your document structure to create and update a table of contents

Provide alternative text for images

If your document contains an image or other visual element like a graph or chart, we have to remember that not everyone will be able to see it. So we need to describe it with text. 

There are a number of ways to do this. With a graph, it’s frequently the case that we refer to it in the text and set out the key points to draw from it. For example,  

As the graph that follows shows, interest rates have been almost zero since 2009.

Now someone with low vision knows that: 

  1. there is a graph, and 
  2. what information it conveys 

But it’s worth also adding alternate text to the image itself. In this case, Chart showing interest rates from 2005 to 2021 would be sufficientWithout the explanatory text in the content, the alternate text would need to be much fuller so it covers both what the image is and the information it conveys

Alternate text should convey the purpose of the image, not necessarily what it looks like. So, an image that’s used as a link should describe what the link will open, not that the image resembles an arrow. 

Adding alternate text in Word is simple. Either right-click the image and select Edit alt text… or double-click the image to open the Picture editing ribbon, and click Alt Text. 

Adding alternate text to an image in Word
Adding alternate text to an image in Word

Benefits for readers 

  • People who are blind or have low vision can fully understand the content 

Benefits for authors 

  • Alternate text is indexed by search engines so can make your content easier to find 
  • If you’re planning to export your document as a PDF, your alternate text will be automatically included 

Use descriptive link text 

Links stand out in documents because they are blue and underlined. Avoid the temptation to change this style; it is universally recognised.  

Both sighted and non-sighted people can (and will) scan your document for links, headings, bullet points… anything that stands out. So work with that fact. 

Link text should tell the reader what will happen if they open the link. 

Avoid using ‘click here’ or using naked URLs (like https://design.scotentblog.co.uk for example) because they lack information scent – clues about what the link is and where it goes. So readers have to backtrack to understand the context. 

There’s a strong possibility that your document will be read on paper rather than on screen. So, as in the example above, add a footnote (References > Insert Footnote) with the URL 

Benefits for readers 

  • Readers can quickly scan your document and get a sense of what it’s about 
  • Readers know exactly what will happen if they open the link – they don’t have to read surrounding copy to figure it out 
  • People reading from a printed copy still have the option to visit the link 

Benefits for authors 

  • If you are including a link, it’s highly likely you want your readers to use it. This makes  it more likely to happen 

Make sure there’s enough contrast 

People with low vision can struggle to make out text where the contrast with the background isn’t high enough. So ensure there is. 

… but not too much 

Black text on a white background is (or the reverse) is, obviously, the highest-contrast option. But the flip side of this consideration is that, for people with some reading disorders, too much contrast can make it difficult for them to parse the text. For some, it can be physically painful. 

… and don’t justify text 

Similarly, justified text can negatively affect readability for people who have dyslexia or other reading disorders. Because the space between words is inconsistent, it’s harder to see the shapes of the words (which is how people read, they don’t go over every single letter).  

Justified text is also prone to ‘rivers’ where word spaces align to form a gap that runs through it. Again, this can be hugely distracting for people with some cognitive conditions, to the point where they find it impossible to focus on the text. 

A river of white in text
A river of white in text. Image from WikiMedia2

Putting all these together, it’s best to make your default font dark grey on a white background, with text ranged left. 

Benefits for readers 

  • Clear, simple typography is easier for everyone to read, regardless of any disability 

Benefits for authors 

  • These techniques make your document accessible to the widest possible range of people 

Don’t rely on colour alone to convey information 

We’ve all come across documents with something like this: a RAG report. 

Project workstream 1  
Another project workstream  
You get the general idea  

Which is fine, as long as you can perceive the colours. But around 1 in 12 men (a much lower proportion of women) are colour blind – and red/green colour blindness is the most common. 

Instead, convey the information using text as well as colour. Like this: 

Project workstream 1 Behind schedule 
Another project workstream On schedule 
You get the general idea Ahead of schedule 

Make sure the colours you choose offer sufficient contrast, though. 

Benefits for readers 

  • People who are colour blind can read the words, they don’t need to be able to perceive the difference between the colours 
  • Those who have colour vision can see the status of each row at a glance 

Benefits for authors 

  • This technique provides a definition of what you actually mean by red, amber or green 
  • In the first example, what’s actually the problem with workstream 1? Is it behind schedule? Over budget? Under-resourced? 

And use a big enough font size 

Larger text sizes are easier for everyone read. For some people, they are essential to have any hope of reading the text.  And for people like me, who sometimes mislay their glasses … 

The Scottish Accessible Information Forum recommends a minimum of 12 point and preferably 14pt text for body copy. Headings should be larger.  

Benefits for readers 

  • Larger text is easier for everyone who is reading the page visually 

Benefits for authors 

  • You are also a reader 
  • You only need to do this once – modify your Normal style to 12pt and forget about it 


1 https://design.scotentblog.co.uk
2 Image by Jeff Dahl – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3739407

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