Creating accessible Word documents

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

Before you start

First consider if there is 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.

It is advised that you create accessible Word documents using a Microsoft Windows computer. It is possible to create them using an Apple computer, however the functionality is limited to the legacy tools.

There are a numer of steps to take to set up Word to make accessible documents.

  • On the File tab, go to Options > Customise Ribbon.
  • Under Customise Ribbon, under the Main Tabs list, select the checkbox for Developer.
  • Click OK.

You will now have the tools required to make accessible Word documents.

  • Logical reading order

    To preserve the tab order (using the tab key to navigate the document) and improve ease of use for screen readers make sure that you use a logical heading order and the formatting tools provided by Microsoft.

    • Start with your document title tagged as Heading 1 (h1) then descend through Heading 2 (h2), Heading 3 (h3) and so on
    • Organise your document to have short paragraphs of information following each heading. No more than two or three paragraphs per heading
  • Using styles

    Styles are used to provide screen readers with information about what elements they are looking at e.g: header, paragraph.

    • To add styles to your text there are two methods

      1. Highlight the text, choose a style from the Styles section (found under the Home tab on the Ribbon). Select Sidebar and from the options select Navigation.
      2. Highlight the text, right click with your mouse and select the Styles box from the pop-up window. This will give you a selection of styles to choose from.
    • Before starting a new document it is worth clearing all styles, just in case there have been some applied to the main body of the document. This can be achieved by:
      • Open the Styles Pane by clicking on the Styles Pane button on the Ribbon.
      • Highlight any text in your document and click Clear Formatting in the Styles Pane. 
    • To check the order and headings you can look at the document's structure. This is found in the Ribbon under the View tab in the Styles section.

    If you require a template with styles set-up for you there is one near the bottom of this accordion.

  • Image alt-text

    Alt-text allows screen reader users to access content from any visual representations. 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 click on your image.
    • Choose the Format Picture option.
    • Choose the Layout & Properties tab.
    • In the Alt-Text box write a few lines of descriptive text that conveys the information given in the image.

    On a Mac this is slightly different:

    • Right click on your image.
    • Choose the Edit alt-text option.
    • Write a few lines of descriptive text that conveys the information given in the image.
  • Tables

    Tables can be difficult for screen readers to navigate. The software will often not identify table headings and so these need to be specified by the creator. Adding descriptive alt-text will also help the user

      • Use clear, descriptive column headings, utilising column headers to make the table easy to navigate.
      • Under the Table Tools tab select the Header Row checkbox. 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 tabel is navigated.
      • Try to simplify your tables. Try to avoid split or merged columns. These can really disrupt the flow of the table.
      • As with images, make sure that you add alt-text to your table. This can be achieved by following these steps:

        • Right click the table.
        • Choose Table Properties.
        • Choose the Alt-text tab.
        • Write a few lines of descriptive text, in the Description box,that conveys the information given in the table.
        • Write a title for your table in the Title box.

    On a Mac this last step is slightly different:

      • Right click on your table.
      • Choose the Edit alt-text option.
      • Write a few lines of descriptive text that conveys the information given in the table.

    It is also useful for screen reader users to include a table summary. This can be a short paragraph to outline the findings of the table. Alternatively you could point the reader to a section of the text where the findings of the table are described.

  • 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.

  • Forms

    Forms can be difficult for some users to access. With Words Developer tools this can be made much easier. Our guide to making accessible forms has a detailed explanation of how to include common form items.

  • Table of contents

    A table of contents is essential on all but the shortest documents. This is to ensure easy navigation and gives the user a quick overview of the contents.

    • On the References tab, select the button Table of contents. A drop down menu will appear.
    • From the menu select Custom table of contents. A pop up window will appear.
    • At the bottom of this window will be a box labelled Show levels. Select which heading levels will be needed for the table of contents. Selecting 1 will include h1 headings, 2 will select h1 and h2 headings, and so on.
    • Select OK to create the table of contents.
  • Lists

    Lists are a common method of breaking text up into smaller, more accessible chunks. These must be used properly and not simulated using numbers, dashes, hyphens or tabs. Lists are added using the numbered, or bulleted, list buttons found in the ribbon at the top of MS Word. Lists can be styled using the techniques described on this page.

  • Links

    Hyperlinks are used to link to content on the internet, emails and also other information within a document. The link anchor text (what the reader sees in the screen) 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".

    • Write the anchor text.
    • Highlight the text and right click to bring up the menu.
    • Select Link... A pop-up window will appear.
    • In the pop-up window write/paste the link to the destination in the Address box.
    • If you are linking within the document select the This Document tab and select the relevant document element.
    • If you are linking to an email address select the Email Address tab and enter the email address.
  • End of document

    At the end of every document it is helpful for users to write a short statement to indicate to the user that they have reached the end of the document. This benefits screen-reader users and others. This could be something as simple as "End of document".

  • Locking the document

    It is a good idea to lock your documents before publishing them online. This prevents users from editing them, changing the content.

    • Choose Developer from the Ribbon tabs.
    • Click Restrict editing.
    • On the right of the screen you can choose the level of restriction. If there is a form on the document then you will need to check the box that Allow only this type of editing in the document and set the drop-down menu to Filling in forms.
    • Select Yes, start enforcing.
    • You will be asked if you would like to set a password. This is recommended to ensure that users do not simply unlock the document.
    • If you ever need to edit the document you will need to follow steps 1 and 2 and then click Stop Protection, on the right of the screen, and enter your password. This will lift the restrictions.
  • Check the document

    Microsoft Word has some in-built accessibility checking options to check your document for missing alt-tags etc.

    • Choose File from the Ribbon tabs.
    • Under Info there is an option to Check for Issues. Click this and choose Check Accessibility from the drop-down menu.
    • You will be given a list of issues and recomendations on how to repair them.
  • Exporting toPDF

    Follow these steps to create an accessible PDF

    • Choose File from the Ribbon tabs.
    • Select Export in the menu and then choose the Create Adobe PDF option.
    • Name your file and then click the Options button.
    • Make sure that you have checked the boxes for Enable Accessibility and Reflow With Tagged Adobe PDF and for Convert Word Headings To Bookmarks.
    • Select Ok and then Save.
  • Example documents
  • MS Word style template

    We have created a Word template that has styles set up to match the University of Sussex brand guidelines. To use this document follow these steps:

    • Download the Word document linked below.
    • Open the file and take some time to read through the example text. (This can be skipped if you have done this before).
    • Delete the example text.
    • Open the Styles Pane, found under the Home tab on the Ribbon.
    • Start to type your document.
    • To style sections: highlight the text and click the desired style in the Styles Pane.
Word accessibility checklist
Criteria Check
Logical reading order Check the document with inbuilt accessibility test, WAVE accessibility checker, Adobe Acrobat and at least one screen reader
Colour contrast All text elements meet at least a colour contrast ratio of 4.5:1
Alt-text for images All images have alt-text, or have been removed from the flow of the document
Text element styles These have all been appropriately labelled. E.g. Headings are labelled as headings (starting with H1 and descending)
Tables Tables are actually tables, not embedded images
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