Accessibility and Office Documents

About the Revision

Beginning a little more than three years ago, I began a series of articles regarding accessibility and office documents. The articles were written initially for the Maine State Government Office of Information Technology (OIT) but have been posted in numerous locations in print and digitally.

Since that time I have expanded my vision of "office documents" and see them more as "digital documents" and extensions of the daily communications that take place in nearly every work, educational and social setting. In addition, new versions of software have made an appearance and new applications are coming on the market every day. So, I feel the need to do some major revising.

As in the original series of articles I have provided some step-by-step directions on how to create accessible digital documents. Usually these involve Microsoft Office products not because they are the best, but because they are usually the most widely used. In some cases I have and will feature products from Adobe and other vendors. It is important to understand that just about all of the accessibility features promoted in these articles can be accomplished in some way or another, and in the case where a product cannot be used to make an accessible document, I'll let you know.

About this Article

In this, the first of the revised articles, I have kept the best of the old, added the new, and made additions and deletions as necessary. Here we will look at digital documents that are created by traditional word processor applications. Since so much of our digital communications these days start out at as a word processed document, it seems the appropriate place to start.

Accessible Word Processor Documents - Revised

Perhaps the most commonly used desktop application - next to your web browser - is the word processor. In the relatively short history of these ubiquitous applications, we have seen a broad expansion in their usage as well as in their functionality, with many features most people hardly ever use. While the typewriter was the dominate office equipment twenty years ago, the word processor has become the dominate office application today. But its use is not limited to the office. In all locations where people create content, be that in a jet at 30,000 feet writing up a marketing report or cuddled up on your living room sofa writing commentary for your blog, the word processor is a dominate application.

Historically, most word processed documents were simply printed out and then shared with others in paper format. However, in the dominant form of digital communication these days word processed content is most often shared as attachments to e-mails, posted on web pages or through web portals, and/or converted to other formats. While this contributes to the ease at which information can be shared, it also increases the chance that clients, customers or colleagues will be "left out" if the document does not adhere to some basic accessibility "guidelines."

By accessibility "guidelines" we mean a group of rules and standards designed to ensure that persons using various assistive technology devices can access the content. For most word processed documents, the accessibility guidelines are rather simple and easy to accomplish. There are four principal areas of concern: images, styles and headings, tabled information and general presentational issues.


Images embedded in digital documents present the biggest challenge to persons using an assistive technology (AT) device called a screen reader. These devices, typically used by people who are blind or have vision impairments, convert written text into spoken words, often referred to as text-to-speech (TtS). In a related AT, content is sent to a device called a refreshable Braille display which converts the written content into Braille.

When a document contains an image the screen reader alerts the reader. However, the screen reader cannot communicate anything else about the image unless the author has added an "alternative description." This description, sometimes referred to as the "ALT description" based upon the HTML attribute ALT, provides the screen reader - and therefore the user - with more information about the image (e.g., student raising his hand in a classroom). While images in documents are typically decorative in nature - what I like to call "pretty pictures" - occasionally there are images inserted in documents that include graphic text or information that is essential to the understanding of the document. Whenever an image is placed in a word processor document, to meet accessibility guidelines, you must add an alternative description.

Microsoft Word 2007 and 2010

These are step-by-step directions for adding alternative descriptions to images in Microsoft Word 2007 and 2010. Please also see more information below about how to use MS-Office 2010 and the Accessibility Checker:

  1. Insert image or clip art using the Insert tab on the Ribbon (Alt-N, P)
  2. After the image has been inserted, click on the image and it will create a new tab on the Ribbon called Picture Tools Format
  3. Click on Picture Tools Format and in MS Office 2007 choose the Size box on the Ribbon (this should be the box furthest to the right); in MS Office 2010 choose the Picture Styles.
  4. In the lower right corner, there is an icon that will open a new dialog box, click on this to get to the Size or Picture Styles dialog box. (Alt-JP, O).
  5. Choose the ALT text tab option of the dialog box
  6. Insert Alternative text Description and Title. NOTE: A shortcut to steps 3, 4, 5, is to Right-click on the image and chose "Format Picture" from the drop down menu
  7. Click Close

It should be noted that when a word processed document is converted into another format such as a PDF file or HTML document, the alternate description will often be converted along with the image. However, this is not always the case - this will be discussed in other articles in this series.

In Word 2010 you are given the option of including an Alternative Text Description and a Title. I recommend that you add the same information to both boxes.

For our purposes here, the "alternate description" should be kept as simple as possible. Tthe exception is when the image is a chart or graph. In this case, it makes sense to generally provide the description of the chart/graph in the body of the document and then refer to the chart/graph as a "figure" (i.e., Figure 1, Figure A, etc.). Since charts and graphs are by their nature visual amenities, they may be of little use to many users with complete blindness. For users with visual impairment, it makes sense to provide the chart/graph in a size that can be readily viewed perhaps providing this on its own page or as a separate attachment. Here is more information about writing good ALT text for images.

Styles and Headings

Styles and Headings are one of the most overlooked tools found in the modern word processor. All word processor applications contain this tool but few people get into the habit of using them.

Using styles and headings can make your documents easier to navigate by persons using a screen reader. The reason is that most screen reading technologies allow the user to navigate or "scan" through the document by jumping or skipping from heading to heading. In much the same way a person without visual impairments may quickly scan down the length of a document to determine its content and intent, the screen reader user, by skipping from heading to heading can accomplish the same.

The Style and Heading feature in most word processors are usually prominently displayed in the tool bar. In MS-Word, it is located in "the Ribbon" at the top of the screen (see Image 1 below - Style section of Ribbon highlighted in bold blue box). As in most word processors, MS-Word also gives you a choice of styles to use (the "Change Styles" button is located to the right of the Styles display).

Image 1: MS Office Ribbon showing Styles

More important than the way the style looks, is the order of Headings. MS-Office styles often provide one called "Title." This can be used when creating the title of your document, but the preferred method - from an accessibility perspective - is to choose "Heading 1." The first subheading would be Heading 2 and you can continue Heading 3, Heading 4, etc. as you move down the document as necessary. What is important to remember, to the person reading your document with a screen reader, the hierarchical order of the headings will give the reader a semantic picture of the theme of your document. If you jump around from Heading 1 to Heading 4 and then back to Heading 2, or choose poor headings for your document, the user scanning the document may become easily confused.

Tabled Information

The use of tables in documents is a common practice and for the display of data and certain information, tables are a vital component. The chief concern about tabled information is order in which the content will be read by the screen reader. Care must be taken to ensure that when the content is read by a screen reader, it is communicated in a way that makes sense.

Screen readers read the information on the screen in the standard left-to-right and top-to-bottom fashion and thus will read the content cell by cell until it reaches the end of the table. The default setting for most tables is that the top row of information provides a descriptive "heading" for the information contained in the column below. By default, tables created in MS-Word will automatically convert content in the top row to be the heading. Care must therefore also be taken that the information is lined up in the correct column.

While tabled information will always present challenges to persons using screen readers, they can be particularly problematic if the data within in presented in an order that is illogical or confusing. Once again, care must be taken to review the tabled data to determine it makes sense to a person using a screen reader.

Tables in word processor documents should only be used to present data and not used for layout purposes. If your document requires special layout (e.g., information with sidebars and text boxes) you should use a different application (i.e., desktop publishing software like Adobe InDesign or MS Publisher) to prepare these documents. We will discuss these applications, and how to make them accessible in a separate article.

General Presentational Issues

Last but not least, the preparation of word processed documents should take into consideration the needs of people who have low vision. These individuals may have one of a variety of disabilities which can make viewing information on a computer screen or on paper difficult.

First, font size and style should be taken into consideration if you document is going to be printed for the general public. Generally speaking, font sizes below a 12-point are more difficult to read; thus, smaller font size should be avoided. If you can reasonably go up to a 14-point font, by all means do so. For documents that are going to be shared digitally, the font size is less important as long as the font sizes on the document can be enlarged.

The use of background images in either electronic or print documents should always be avoided. Equally you should take care to ensure that your documents provide sufficient contrast between the text and the background.

The use of color text can often be problematic for persons with color blindness and should be avoided. These colorful features have become somewhat popular in some e-mail applications (often referred to as "stationery"). It’s generally a good idea to refrain from using these features altogether.

From a usability perspective, it is a good idea to view your document in monochrome by printing it out on a black and white printer. If you have used colored features in your document (e.g., colored charts and graphs) these may be distorted and illegible when printed in black and white.

MS Office Accessibility Checker

In the latest version of their popular office suite - MS-Office 2010, Microsoft has made accessibility a priority with the inclusion of a new feature called the Accessibility Checker (MSO-AC). Built into three of the core applications: Word 2010, Excel 2010, and PowerPoint 2010, the MSO-AC helps users create more accessible content "by identifying areas that might be challenging for users with disabilities to view or use, and providing a task pane to review those areas, users can fix potential problems with their content." Here is a quick review of how it works. More information is available in this article and includes links to on-line resources.


  1. Image 2: MS Accessibility CheckerTo use MSO-AC, click on the File tab [or Alt-F], tab to, or click on Prepare for Sharing and then tab to or click on to Check Accessibility. The MSO-AC dialog panel will appear along the right side of your screen and show you "Warnings, Errors or Inspection Results." The MSO-AC works dynamically (see number 3 below) and will continue to run as you create or edit your document. To find the location of the error in your document, click or tab to the Warning statement and your screen will refresh showing the error location highlighted.

    In the lower panel of the MSO-AC, there is Additional Information which explains the reason for the Warning/Error and step-by-step instructions on how to fix it.

    In developing this tool, Microsoft apparently differentiated between accessibility issues that are minor and those considered critical. For example, including extra characters (Warning: Repeated Blank Characters) is considered minor - issuing a "Warning," whereas the absence of ALT text for an inserted image is considered critical - issuing an "Error"

  2. When creating new documents using the default version settings (not documents saved in pre-2007 versions of MSO), the MSO-AC seems to run smoothly as advertised. Documents created in older versions of Office, or saved in the pre-2007 format, may or may not work as expected. For example, testing some 2003 version Excel spreadsheets yielded an error statement: "Unable to run the Accessibility Checker - Cannot check the current file type for accessibility issues." Attempts at saving the file in the current (2010) version had no effect on this. However, if the data is copied and pasted into a new Excel 2010 spreadsheet, the MSO-AC worked fine.

    When using Word and PowerPoint, the MSO-AC worked essentially the same way (error when trying to check documents made by older versions), but sometimes simply saving the document in the new 2010 version allowed MSO-AC to work. Note to Microsoft: I found this to work inconsistently.

  3. Image 2: Image showing the Accessibility Checker in useOne of the best features of the MSO-AC is that once activated in the application it will run dynamically and continue to alert you to accessibility issues via the Accessibility Checker task pane (see image on this page) as you continue to create or edit your document. In other words, in PowerPoint, as you add features to a slide such as an image or chart, the MSO-AC immediately notes that the new object is lacking an ALT text description and provides directions and rationale on how to fix the accessibility error. And if you accidently - or purposely - remove an accessibility feature, MSO-AC will note this and provide a description of the issue, how to fix it and why it needs to be fixed. This dynamic feature allows the author to add the accessibility on the fly, as the document is being created. This feature alone has the potential of making the process of adding accessibility features faster and easier. The feature should be very helpful in enterprise settings, ultimately reducing the cost of training and accessibility auditing.

  4. When adding ALT description text in MS-Office 2010, the procedure has been finally (thankfully) standardized across all applications. Right clicking with your mouse (Note: there are a series steps to accomplish this task using keystroke alternatives) brings up the Format Picture dialog box. Choose the "ALT Text" option at the bottom of the list and add the alternative text. Unfortunately, Microsoft has chosen to add an input box for adding a "Title" and/or a "Description" to this option. Even though the MSO-AC will "approve" an inserted image that has only a Title and not a Description, if you convert this document into another format (PDF or HTML) the Title will not pass as a valid description for accessibility purposes. In other words, for conversion purposes, the Description is more important than the Title. At this point, it is recommended that users add BOTH a Title and Description to their inserted image and make the content of the Title and Description the same.


As I mentioned in the beginning, most of the accessibility features described in the article are attainable in any word processors. Well, that's not exactly true. Until recently, the MS-Office version for the Mac operating system could not make accessible documents. That issue was resolved recently with the release of Service Pack 1 for MS-Office for the Mac 2011 (see details on my blog). However, since MS-Office for the Mac does not work with the resident Mac screenreader VoiceOver, it is not getting my seal of approval. Also, it is apparent that despite the fact that you can now add alternative descriptions to images and objects in MS Office for the Mac 2011, if you convert/save the file into another format (e.g., PDF), the accessibility formatting is lost.

I also have to give a failure grade to Apple's own office suite program called iWork. The latest version contains a basic word processor called Pages and although Pages will work with VoiceOver there is no way to add alternative descriptions to images and objects with this product.

If you need a word processor for your Mac, save your money and download the latest version of open source solution LibreOffice. LibreOffice (v 3.3.0 for the Mac) does have the capacity to add Alternative Descriptions to image and works completely with VoiceOver. That said, when converting your LibreOffice documents to other formats, you will need to test them to make sure all of the accessibility features have been carried over.

Where to go for help...

Maine CITE provides additional resources that can help you with your goal of creating accessible documents. Visit the Accessible Documents resource

About the writer

John Brandt is a web designer and consultant who works with the Maine CITE Program in the area of accessibility and universal design. He may be reached at

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