Creating accessible Excel documents

Follow the instructions on this page to create accessible Excel documents suitable for publishing on our website

Before you start

First consider if there is not another way to display the information to the user. Would a web page or form work better than a download? If you are unsure email the Digital team dcm@sussex.ac.uk.

Unlike Word there are no specific requirements to set up Excel for accessible spreadsheets. Both Windows and Mac versions work similarly.

  • Data navigation

    Visually impaired users may struggle to navigate, or make sense of, spreadsheets if they have not been appropriately set out and labelled. Data should be set out in tables with column headings set so as to enable ease of navigation.

    • Use clear, descriptive column headings, utilising column headers to make the table easy to navigate.
    • Input your data.
    • Highlight the data, click on the Insert tab and click Table in the Ribbon.
    • A box will pop up. Tick the box My table has headers. This will set the top row of the table to be your table headers. A screen reader will let the user know this as the table is navigated.
    • Try to simplify your tables. Try to avoid split or merged columns. These can really disrupt the flow of the table.
    • Make sure that you add alt-text to your table. This will be read out by screen-reader users giving the table data some context. This can be achieved by following these steps:

      • Right cick on the table requiring alt-text.
      • From the pop up menu select Table.
      • Select the Edit Alt-Text option.
      • Write your descriptive alt-text in the box to the right of the screen.
      • If you want your table to be ignored by screen readers then you can tick the Mark as decorative box.
  • Labelling tabs

    Ensure that every sheet tab has a suitably descriptive and unique label. This will enable users to effectively navigate the spreadsheet data.

  • Image alt-text

    Alt-text allows screen reader users to infer content from any visual representations on your Powerpoint. This can include pictures, artwork, graphics, shapes, groups, charts, embedded objects and videos. Try to avoid using text in images as this will not be readable by screen readers. If you do use text in images then make sure that this is then also included in the alt-text.

    • Right cick on the image requiring alt-text.
    • Select the Edit Alt-Text option.
    • Write the descriptive alt-text in the box to the right of the screen.
    • If you want the image to be ignored by screen readers then you can tick the Mark as decorative box.

    When positoning images in your document there is only one setting that will allow the images to be detected by screen readers. Fortunately this is the default setting when you import an image.

    This setting is In Line with Text. Please do not change this when importing images. It may make your document look nicer to you but it will render the image invisible to screen readers. This is an issue that currently resides with the developers of the software to fix.

  • Accessible graphs and charts

    Graphs and charts can also be tricky for some users to navigate.

    • Use clear, descriptive data labels, and give your graph or chart a clear descriptive title.
    • Use accessible colours with adequate colour contrast (see below).
    • Try to simplify your graph or chart. Try to avoid split or merged columns or trying to include too much data in one chart.
    • As with images and tables, make sure that you include alt-text. This can be achieved by following these steps:

      • Right cick on the graph or chart requiring alt-text.
      • Select the Edit Alt-Text option.
      • Write your descriptive alt-text in the box to the right of the screen.
      • If you want your graph or chart to be ignored by screen readers then you can tick the Mark as decorative box.
      • A more detailed description will need to be added either as a properly formatted text element, with logical headinsg and lists, or an accessible table.
      • This additonal information wopuld be best placed below the figure on the page but can also be placed in appendices. If you choose the apendices option then please provide a properly formatted hyperlink to this below the image.
  • Links

    Links are important for accessibility. The link anchor text should be descriptive, telling the user what to expect. Linked text should clearly tell the user what the function of the hyperlink is.

    Ensure all linked text is unique to the page and avoid using text such as "click here".

    Consider a case where you have three "click here" links on a page and a voice command user instructs the browser to click the "click here" link. Which should the browser use? 

    See our best practice for web editors for examples of this.

    Hyperlinks must be visually unique and consistent, therefore we request that you keep linked text in documents the standard blue, underlined style.

    To create hyperlinked text follow these steps:

    • Type the text that you would like to be linked.
    • Highlight and right click the text.
    • Choose Hyperlink (Link on some versons of software) from the menu.
    • Add the URL to the address box.
    • Alternatively to link to an email address: Choose the email tab and enter the email address.
    • Select OK.
  • Colour contrast

    It is a requirement of WCAG 2.1 that all colours used must meet a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1. If they do not meet this then you must change the colours you are using.

    Please see our brand colour palette for more details on brand colours that meet this requirement

    You can check your colours using either a standalone app such as Colour Contrast Checker or by using an online tool such as WebAim. We have a complete guide to checking documents for accessibility with a more comprehensive explanation of these tools.

  • End of document notice

    At the end of every document it is helpful for users to write a short sentence to state that the user has reached the end of the document. This benefits screen-reader users and others.

  • Check the finished Excel spreadsheet

    Excel has inbuilt accessibility checks that can identify any issues and offer suggested corrections.

    • Click on the Review tab.
    • Click the Check accessibility button.
    • The results will appear to the right of the screen.
Excel accessibility checklist
Criteria Check
Data is readable and navigable Data must be displayed in a table. The table must have tagged headings and alt-text?
Clearly labelled tabs Sheet tabs must be clearly labelled with unique identifying names
Alt-text for images All images have alt-text, or have been removed from the flow of the document
Accessible graphs and charts Colors used must be accessible. Check with colour contrast checker and a colour blindness checker. Do not rely on colour to convey meaning. Include alt-text
Hyperlinks All links are descriptive so as to be understandable to a screen reader user
Spell-check Check the document with a spell checker