Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning

Ninth post in Accessibility series. Improving the accessibility of Online Course Content pages. #A11Y

Many educators use one or more programs contained in Microsoft® Office when creating course content or other instructional materials for online courses. In this post we’ll focus on a few tips and techniques for making accessible content using Microsoft® Word, although similar concepts would apply to other word processing programs.

Using Word Documents in Online Courses

First, an opinion regarding word processing documents. From an accessibility perspective, the same content provided in an HTML page would usually be more accessible than a word processing document. If at all possible, provide online course content as a web page. If that is not possible, then providing a Word document that is created in an accessible manner is one alternative to consider.

Accessibility Tips and Techniques When Using Word

In this post, we’ll consider the following items:

  • Proper use of Word Headings
  • Where to add Alt Text
  • Formatting of tables
  • Using the built-in Accessibility Checker

Proper Use of Word Headings

Proper uses of the heading structure help people with low or no vision to understand how a document is organized. Screen reader users can jump from one heading to the next, which makes page navigation more efficient than if there are no headings.  The concept of using proper headings in a Word document is the same as previously covered when creating HTML pages.

You should always use the built-in Styles to identify Heading 1, Heading 2, etc. in a Word document. Simply changing the font size or making it bold does not make it a heading.

The default style in Word uses light blue heading colors. These headings do not have the necessary color contrast for accessibility. Make sure to change those headings to a darker color. You can also edit the default template so that all new documents also have the preferred darker headings.

Where to add Alt Text in Word

If you’ve learned how to add Alt Text to an image in an HTML page, you need to follow a slightly different procedure when adding Alt Text to a Word document. Alt Text should be added to the Description field in the Format Picture box, and the Title field should be left blank. Below is an example of a photo in a Word document on the left and the Format Picture box on the right.

User-added image

Additionally, when using Word, you should also add Alt Text to the following:

  • Tables
  • Charts
  • WordArt
  • Shapes
  • SmartArt graphics

Here is an example using SmartArt. This is the feedback cycle for learning. Start at the top with Understanding & Meaning, and proceed clockwise. As with the photo above, Alt Text goes in the Description field.

User-added image

Formatting of Tables

There are significant issues for screen reader users when trying to learn from a data table in Word. You are able to add column headers in Word, but it does not support the concept of row headers, which can be problematic for screen reader users.

Steps to follow when designating the header row depend somewhat on the version of Word that you are utilizing. The screenshot below is taken from Word 2016.

  1. Put your cursor in the top row of your data table.User-added image
  2. The Table Tools tab will display.
  3. Click on the Design tab under the Table tab.
  4. In the Table Style Options group, select the Header Row check box.

Next, change to the Table Layout tab, as shown below, and click the button “Repeat as Header Rows,” which provides structure for navigating the table if it appears on multiple pages.

User-added image

Perform one final test on your table before sending it out into the wild. Screen reading software will read tables from left to right, top to bottom, one cell at a time with no repeats. The order in which the cells will be read can be thrown off if your table contains split cells or merged cells.

Always test the reading order of Word tables by placing your cursor in the first cell of the table, then continuously pressing the Tab key to navigate through the table. Pay attention to the order in which the cursor moves through the cells, as this will be the reading order that a screen reader would follow.

Using the Built-in Accessibility Checker

Starting with Word 2010, there is a built-in tool that checks your document for accessibility problems. The Accessibility Checker makes it much easier to identify and repair accessibility issues. To use the tool, select File > Info > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility.User-added image

Categories of items found by Accessibility Checker

Errors: Content that makes the document impossible or very difficult to read and understand for people using assistive technology. Common errors in Word documents include:

  • No headings applied and no Table of Contents used
  • Missing Alt Text for non-text objects
  • Proper table header formatting

Warnings: Content that will likely (but not always) make the document difficult to understand for people using assistive technology. Common warnings include:

  • Table structure (split or merged cells, nested tables, or completely blank rows or columns)
  • Hyperlink text that is not meaningful or descriptive
  • Repeated blank characters

Tips: Content that should be understood with assistive technology, but could be better organized to improve the experience. Common tips include:

  • If there is a video, it will alert you to check for closed captions
  • If an image has a watermark, it might be misunderstood
  • Headings follow in a logical order, no levels are skipped

In the next post, we’ll consider the accessibility features of creating content in Microsoft PowerPoint®.

Much of the content in this series of posts comes from WAMOE, the Web Accessibility MOOC for Online Educators; co-created by Karen Sorensen of Portland Community College and Barry Dahl of D2L.

Microsoft and PowerPoint are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text
  5. Finding Videos with Good Captions
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning