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When you create a Microsoft Word document, you should always make accessibility and inclusiveness a top priority. Here are some general rules and best practices you should follow to make your document more accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

Add Alternative (Alt) Text to Visuals

A screen reader, as the name implies, reads aloud the text on a screen. However, as sophisticated as screen readers may be, they can’t understand the context of a graphic without the help of alt text. When you add alt text to an object in Word, you allow screen readers to collect and read aloud the description, providing aid to those with visual impairments.

RELATED: How to Add Alternative Text to an Object in Microsoft Word

Knowing which objects should include alt text is important. If a graphic is strictly decorative (like page borders), it’s safe to exclude alt text, and you can mark the graphic as decorative in Word. When you do, screen readers will let the user know that the object in question is just for aesthetic purposes. You can also skip adding alt text to tables, as screen readers are able to capture the content within those without any additional help.

You should add alt text to any visual that adds additional context to your document. This almost always includes all:

  • images
  • photographs
  • pictures
  • diagrams
  • charts
  • icons
  • shapes

Writing effective alt text can take a bit of practice as well. You want to make sure that you accurately describe the visual in a sentence or two (although a few carefully selected words can also do the trick).

Here are some general tips for writing good alt text:

  • Don’t include phrases like “an image of” or “a graphic showing.”
  • Don’t include textual content that appears around the image as alt text.
  • Write the alt text the same way you would write any other descriptive sentence.
  • When including alt text for flow charts, include the whole process from beginning to end. This may be lengthier than alt text for other graphics, but it’s necessary.

Microsoft tries to make it easier for you by giving you the option to automatically add alt text to images, but you shouldn’t rely on this feature. That’s like asking someone else to write your content for you, and you can’t guarantee that the description will be accurate. Own your content.

To add alt text to objects in Word, click the image to select it, then click the “Alt Text” option in the “Accessibility” group of the “Picture Format” tab.

Alt text option in accessibility group of the picture format tab

The “Alt Text” pane will appear to the right of the Word document. Here, you can write your own alt text, have Word generate a description for you, or mark the graphic as decorative.

Alt text options in right-hand pane in Word.

Images aren’t the only media that’s used in Microsoft Word documents—videos can play an important role, too.

Include Closed Captions in Videos

Videos can be a great resource, but you need to make sure that the information in the video is accessible to everyone. This means adding closed captions for those who may have difficulty hearing and prefer reading the on-screen text.

Unfortunately, Microsoft Word doesn’t have a built-in feature for adding closed captions to videos. This means that if you created the video yourself, you need to do things the old-fashioned way. You can use a text editor (such as Notepad) to create the closed captions, then save that file with the VTT extension.

If you’re linking to or embedding a YouTube video, then it will (most likely) already have closed captions thanks to Google’s Speech Recognition that generates this text automatically. This will save you a little time, but these captions aren’t always accurate. Try watching the video yourself using the closed captions to see what your audience will be seeing. If the closed captions aren’t accurate, consider linking to another source.

Use Meaningful Hyperlink Text

Users can skip from link to link with a screen reader, so it’s important that the hyperlinked text isn’t ambiguous. In other words, if the text only says “click here,” “see more,” or something similar, the user won’t understand the meaning behind the link when the screen reader reads it back to them out of context.

RELATED: How to Insert, Delete, and Manage Hyperlinks in Microsoft Word

If you’re able to do so naturally, it’s best to use the destination’s title in the text so that the user knows exactly what the link is.

Adding links to images is not uncommon, either. However, this makes things difficult for screen readers. If you must add a link to an image, make sure that the image’s alt text describes the purpose and location of the link—not the image itself. For this reason, though, you should try to avoid using links in images whenever possible.

While the usability and accessibility of links may take a bit of time, the benefit that it brings to your audience is well worth the investment.

Use Accessible Text Formats and Colors

When you insert a link in text, Microsoft Word adds an underline by default. While you can remove the underline from the hyperlink, there’s a pretty good reason to leave it there.

When you use indicators other than color, you make it easier for colorblind or visually impaired individuals to understand the information you’re trying to convey—whether it be knowing which text contains a link, or using checkmarks and X’s instead of green and red to indicate that something is correct or incorrect.

Additionally, you’ll want to make sure that the contrast between your text and the document’s background is sufficient. If you use a light color (e.g. light gray) on a white background, it will make your text difficult to read.

Here’s an example of poor text/background contrast:

Light gray text on a white background, showing the poor readability of the text

And good text/background contrast:

Black text on a white background, showing good contrast

There are color-contrast checker apps available online that do a great job of letting you know if the contrast in your document is sufficient or not. Alternatively, you can just use Microsoft Word’s built-in Accessibility Checker tool.

Build a Logical Document Structure

Building a logical document structure simply means using headings, and using them properly. One common mistake that people make when trying to organize the different sections of their content is to simply resize the text and make it bold. This presents several issues, such as making it more difficult for screen readers to read and understand the structure of your content, not to mention that your document won’t be properly tabulated.

Word has a decently sized library of heading styles to choose from in the “Styles” group of the “Home” tab. If none of them match the style of your document, then you can change the default heading styles.

But using headings isn’t enough—you need to use them in the right way. That means nesting the headings in a logical order. For example, here’s how good heading structure looks:

  • Heading 1
  • Heading 2
  • Heading 3
  • Heading 3
  • Heading 2
  • Heading 3

And here’s an example of poor heading structure:

  • Heading 3
  • Heading 1
  • Heading 3
  • Heading 2
  • Heading 1

Additionally, you’ll want to use built-in formatting tools when appropriate. For example, if you want to make a list, then you can use the numbered/bulleted list feature found in the “Paragraph” group of the “Home” tab. This is preferred over typing a hyphen, adding a space, and then entering the text.

Use Table Headers and Simple Structures

Sometimes it’s just not possible to create simple tables, but when it is, you should. Screen readers read through tables (which is why you don’t need to add alt text to them) and keep up with the location by counting the table’s cells. When you nest a table within a table or use split cells, it makes it incredibly difficult for the screen reader to keep track.

RELATED: Tables and Other Formatting Controls

Screen readers also rely on table header information in order to identify columns and rows. You can add a header to your table. Click anywhere in the table and then, in the “Table Style Options” group of the “Table Design” tab, click the box next to “Header Row” to select it.

Table style options in the table design tab

Review Your Document with the Accessibility Checker

Microsoft Word’s Accessibility Checker scans your document and returns suggestions for making your content more accessible. This includes things like scanning images to make sure that they contain alt text and making sure that tables are using a simple structure.

However, there are some limitations. The Accessibility Checker can’t check videos for closed captions, nor can it understand if you’re using color to convey information. Even after you use this tool, be sure to visually scan your document once before sending it out.

To use the Accessibility Checker, click the “Review” tab, then click the icon above “Check Accessibility” in the “Accessibility” group.

Accessibility Checker tool found in the review tab

The results of the inspection will appear in the “Accessibility” pane to the right of the document. Here, you can review the errors and warnings returned.

Accessibility Checker inspection results showing warnings and tips

After you run the Accessibility Checker and it doesn’t return any issues, give your document one last visual scan, and then it’s ready to be sent out.

Microsoft didn’t stop with Office—the company also provides different accessibility features for its Windows 10 operating system, making the operating system accessible to everyone.

Profile Photo for Marshall Gunnell Marshall Gunnell
Marshall is a writer with experience in the data storage industry. He worked at Synology, and most recently as CMO and technical staff writer at StorageReview. He's currently an API/Software Technical Writer based in Tokyo, Japan, runs VGKAMI and ITEnterpriser, and spends what little free time he has learning Japanese.
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