Creating Accessible Online Resources – Part 2: Microsoft Word

For a fuller explanation of the examples in this document, please download the .docx version and Alex Da Costa’s very handy reference guide. This blog is meant, really, to just skim the high points and provide the technical how-tos. It may also be worth looking at the linguistic conventions used in this guidance.


Accessibility Checker

Current versions of Microsoft Office (2016/2019) have a built-in tool called the ‘Accessibility Checker’ and this tool will get you a good portion of the way to meeting accessibility specifications. To use the Accessibility checker on a PC go to the File ribbon and choose ‘Info’ on the left hand side. The right-hand side of the screen will change and you should see a button in the middle called ‘Check for Issues’. If you click that, you’ll see Accessibility Checker. On a Mac, go to the Tools menu and choose Check Accessibility from there.

Screenshot showing where to find the accessibility checker on the Windows version of Microsoft Word. This is also the same place you'd find it in Excel or Powerpoint.

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Language Tagging

To set the language, (or to at least check it’s using the correct version of English), look down at the lower left-hand side of your application window, you should see a few things: page x of x, xx words and then something like ‘English (United States)’ or ‘English (United Kingdom)’. If it says anything other than the language you’re writing in,  you should click the part of the bar that shows the language and choose the correct one from the list that comes up. If you don’t see a language at the bottom of your Window at all, then you only have one default language set. It’s worth double-checking to see what language this is by going to Tools ® Language on a Mac or the File ribbon ® Options ® Language on a PC. If you also set English (United Kingdom) as the default, in theory any new documents you create should have this already set (it is a ‘per document’ setting, though, so if you receive a document from someone else, do check the language on that, too, if you intend to put it online.).

Screen shot showing the status bar at the bottom of the Microsoft Word screen. The language is set to English (United Kingdom)

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Using Styles

After making sure that your language is set correctly the next most important part of creating an electronic resource is using a style sheet to make sure everything in your document is consistent and standardised. This means setting up appropriate default fonts and using things like titles, headings, and lists consistently.

The old adage ‘Keep it simple’ is rarely more apropos than here. The trick is to use your word processor and work with it instead of fighting it. If you let it, it will do most of the work of creating accessible documents for you.


  • Use Verdana for a sans-serif font and Garamodn or Palatino for a serif font.
  • Fonts should be size 12
  • Use bold and not italics or underlining to emphasise text.
  • Never use colour-only for emphasis

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  • Do not simply change font size/weight to indicate a heading in your document.
  • Headings allow users to use keyboard shortcuts to navigate your document.
  • Headings can be modified.
  • Use the ‘Title’ style for the title of your document
  • Use Heading 1 for main points and, in order of precedence, Heading 2, Heading 3, and Heading 4 for subtitles.

To use built-in headings, type the text you want for your heading and select it. Then go to the ‘Home’ ribbon and select the style you wish to use from the horizontal list on the right-hand side of the ribbon. You can also choose styles from the ‘Styles Pane’. To access the Styles Pane on a Mac, click the ‘Styles Pane’ button at the end of the horizontal list of styles on the Home ribbon (see image below, left). To see the styles pane on a PC, click the ‘Styles’ pop out button at the bottom right of the horizontal list of styles in the Home ribbon. (see image below, right).

Screen shot showing the Styles pop-out button on Word for Windows.

Using the Styles Pane gives you the ability choose which styles to see in the list. You can even limit it to only the styles you are currently using in your document. This is handy if you want to edit a style and not have to scroll through the whole list.

Screen shot showing style pane options in Microsoft Word for Windows.

By default, Headings 1-3 are added to the document’s navigation hierarchy. If you don’t like the default heading styles, you can change them. Do this by right-clicking on the style in the ‘Home’ ribbon and choosing, first, ‘Select all: [X] instances’ and then right-clicking again and choosing ‘Modify’. (You can also navigate to the style in the Styles Pane and use the drop-down menu to the right-hand side of the style name). Choose your preferred settings there.

For example, in the fuller document, I have chosen to put headings in a dark red colour. For Heading 1, the font is Verdana size 16 in bold. I’ve set spacing before the heading to 16 points and after to 0 by using Format → Paragraph from the lower left-hand side of the Modify Style dialogue box.

Screenshot showing the Format drop down menu in the style editor in Microsoft Word.

Using headings consistently can make navigating a long document easier for everyone. If you click on the ‘View’ ribbon and choose ‘Navigation Pane’ in a document for which you have used headings, you can check through your navigation very easily to make sure it works as you expect.

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Paragraphs (and Columns)

  • Do not justify text
  • Use whitespace between paragraphs to break up large blocks of text
  • Use styles to format text spacing and layout (including spacing between paragaphs)
  • Don’t indent first lines, but if you do, do it consistently and use styles
  • Be consistent

To change the default ‘Normal’ style, go to the Home ribbon, right click on the ‘Normal’ style from the horizontal list, and choose ‘Modify’. In the bottom left corner of the ‘Modify Style’ window is a drop down menu called ‘Format’. Select that and choose ‘Paragraph’ from the menu (as in the image above). In the format Paragraph window, set your first-line indent to a reasonable size (default is one inch or 1.27 cm) and make sure to set a reasonable spacing between paragraphs.

In the full document, I used 10 point spacing before and 6 point spacing afterwards on the ‘Normal’ style. For headers, I set the spacing before Heading 1 to 18 pt and after to 0, and before Heading 2, 3 and 4 to 12 pt and after to 0. For me, this satisfies the need to be efficient with space versus producing a balanced looking design.

Screenshot showing example Paragraph formatting settings in Microsoft Word.

If your document has columns, you should use your word processor’s built-in column styles to format them. Again, this helps screen readers process the document correctly. To access column settings, select the text that you want to put into columns and choose the Columns button from the Layout ribbon. You can choose from several built in styles or create your own using the ‘More Columns’ option.

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  • Always use the ‘List’ feature in your Word processor so that it can be appropriately tagged.
  • List styles can be changed.

By default, there are three sorts of lists in Microsoft Word: a bulleted (unordered) list, a numbered (ordered) list and a hybrid called ‘Multi-Level List’ which allows you to mix and match various list styles to suit your needs. Much like with Headings, select the text that you want to turn into a list and choose the approriate list button.

Screenshot showing the locations of the Bulleted, Numbered and Multi-Level list buttons on the Home ribbon.

You can change the indent level of the list by using the decrease indent and increase indent buttons on the ‘Home’ ribbon (just to the right of the Multi-Level List icon in the image above) and you can modify the style of your list (number type, bullet type) in the ‘Define New Number Format’/’Define New Bullet’ part of the list button. To access this, just click on the little downward pointing arrow to the right-hand side of the appropriate list button and choose ‘Define new number format’ or ‘Define new bullet’. For what it’s worth, if I have a list with more than 9 items or one that will have irregularly spaced numbering, I almost always set the Number Position to Right as in the image below so that my text after each item designation remains lined up.

Screenshot showing the 'Number Format' dialogue box from Microsoft Word.

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  • Hyperlinks (links) and URLs are different, even if they look the same. Simplistically,
    • A hyperlink is the text you click on
    • A URL is the web site the hyperlink takes you to
  • Always use appropriate text for hyperlinks: do not use ‘click here’ or ‘follow this link’
  • Use a link shortening service where approriate

If your links look like a URL:…0.0..0.355.355.3-1……0….1..gws-wiz.5pdCK7TWvWU

a screen reader will read out all of that. Instead, you should set up your links so that the text people see is relevant to what the URL is for:

Google search for Hard Rock Playlists on Youtube from the last month

If you believe that people will be more likely to print out your document and want to type the links out for themselves, then use a link shortening service like TinyURL or This will give them a short link to type in that takes the place of the very long link above:

The easiest way to insert a hyperlink is to go to the Insert ribbon and choose ‘Link’ (Hyperlink on a PC) from the middle of the ribbon. It should then present you with the Insert Hyperlink dialogue box. The text that you’d like to make clickable is in the top field and you’d paste or type the URL into the second field. You can also create links to parts of the same document or to an email address using this method.

Screen shot of the 'Insert Hyperlink' dialogue box in Microsoft Word for Windows.

To edit a hyperlink, you can right click on the link and choose Hyperlink → Edit Hyperlink from the contextual menu. It brings up the same dialogue box as you see for inserting a new link.

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Tables, Images and Text Boxes

  • Always use tables to show correlating data, not for page layout
  • Do not use text boxes
  • Always set alt text for tables and images
  • Insert images in line with text, do not wrap text around images.
  • Mark non-key images as decorative (no need to use alt text on a decorative image)
  • Where needed, transcribe image text


Accessible tables are created by doing three things. First, give your table a title and alternate text. Second, set your column headers to repeat on every page. Third, make sure your related data travels from top-to-bottom, left-to-right if you’re writing in English. Use the approriate directions if writing in a language which is read right-to-left.

To add a title and alternate text and set column headers to repeat, click on the first row of the table and go to the newly-created (Table) Design and Layout tabs on your ribbon (On a Mac, the tab is called Table Design. On a PC, it’s just called ‘Design’). These will be highlighted to show they’re contextual and related to the element you’ve just clicked on.

Select the ‘Layout’ ribbon and click the ‘Properties’ button, third from the left. This takes you to the table properties window. The two tabs we’re interested in here are ‘Row’ and ‘Alt Text’. Click on the row tab. Now, remember when I said to click into the first row of your table? If you haven’t done that, ‘Repeat as Header row at the top of each page’ will be greyed out, as in the image below. You can use the ‘Next Row’/’Previous Row’ buttons to get to the correct row without having to leave the Table Properties window. Once you reach the first row, the ‘Repeat Headers’ box will become active and you can select the box.

Screen shot showing the row formatting dialogue box in Microsoft Word.

Then move to the ‘Alt Text’ tab and quickly enter a brief title and description of the table. This is important because it allows a user using a screen reader to decide whether or not they’re interested in the data that the table is displaying.

Screen shot showing Alt text for an example table. It states that the table shows Term Dates for the academic year October 2018 to June 2019.

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Creating alternate text for an image is relatively straightforward, but it does differ between Mac and Windows versions of Word. On a Mac or PC, insert your image as usual. On a PC: Insert ribbon -> Pictures and on a Mac: Insert ribbon -> Pictures -> Picture from File

Once you’ve inserted your image, to add alternate text on a Mac, just right-click and choose ‘Edit Alt Text…’ from the menu that pops up. On a PC, right-click the image and choose ‘Format Picture’ and then select the ‘Layout & Properties’ icon in the sidebar that comes up. There should be a section with a little arrow next to it called ‘Alt Text’. You can insert your alt text here.

Once you’ve inserted your image, to add alternate text on a Mac, just right-click and choose ‘Edit Alt Text…’ from the menu that pops up. On a PC, right-click the image and choose ‘Format Picture’ and then select the ‘Layout & Properties’ icon in the sidebar that comes up. There should be a section with a little arrow next to it called ‘Alt Text’. You can insert your alt text here.

Screenshot showing where to find the 'Layout and Properties' tab of the 'Format Picture' dialogue on a Windows PC.

If your image is strictly decorative or you don’t want a screen reader to notice it for some other reason, you should set ‘Mark as decorative’ in the alt text dialogue.

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Text Boxes

Do not use text boxes. They have the same problem that text wrapping around an image has: screen readers tend to either ignore them or read them out of order. If you’re interested in knowing more about document layers and z-axis positioning, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to explain, but for our purposes here, it’s easier to think of it like the document being a physical piece of paper and images-with-text-wrapping and text boxes being items you sit on top of that piece of paper.

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