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Instructions for improving the accessibility of Word documents.

First published:
4 June 2020
Last updated:

Improve accessibility using header styles

Clear headings can help to make Word documents easier to navigate and meet accessibility standards.

Many people use screen readers to make a list of headings so they can skim the document to find what they want. This only works if the author has enabled heading styles, as screen readers and text-to-speech tools can recognise them.

To add a heading style to text in Word:

  1. select the text you want to promote
  2. choose the Home tab in the ribbon
  3. in the Styles box, pick the heading style you want, such as the Heading 1 button

Word applies a font and colour change to help make it clear that this is a title - the Heading 1 of the article. The next heading type is a Heading 2 (sub-heading) and so on…

Word keeps heading styles for documents saved in other formats, such as HTML or PDF. This way everyone can still get the benefits of your headings.

Headings need to be short, specific and clear to someone new to the topic.

Add alt text to images and objects

Screen readers read alt text. This provides an audio description of images, charts and other objects for people who have low vision or who are visually impaired.

You can add alt text to objects, such as pictures, clip art, charts, tables, shapes, SmartArt, embedded objects and audio or video files.

To add alt text to an object:

  1. right-click on the object and choose Format Picture
  2. go to the Layout & Properties panel and click on the Alt Text drop-down
  3. fill in both the Title and Description boxes

When writing alt text:

  • convey the important content or function of the object
  • be succinct. A few words are all you need, though sometimes a short sentence or 2 might be appropriate
  • do not include phrases like “image of” or “link to”

If the image is decorative and there is nothing important to say about it the screen reading software can ignore it.

In the Description field, type in 2 double quotes (“”), with no space between them. Now the screen reader will ignore the image or object.

If your audience needs more information than you can fit in the alt text box, add descriptive content to the document itself. This can go next to or below the object in question.

Create accessible links

Changing a hyperlink's display text to ordinary language can make it easier to understand for users who rely on screen-readers.

Here is a typical URL in the text of a document:


For a sighted user, this might seem fine, but if you rely on a screen reader or text-to-speech program, it might read the URL out one letter at a time.

To create a more accessible hyperlink:

  1. select the whole URL you want to work with and Paste it into your Word document
  2. right-click on the selection and choose Hyperlink or Edit Hyperlink
  3. place your cursor in the Text to display box
  4. type in the description text you want the user to see

Avoid phrases like "Click here" or "Learn more" when adding display text. These can be vague and not very useful out of context for a screen reader user. Instead use something meaningful that gives the user an idea of the content or says where the hyperlink goes.

Create accessible tables

Tables organise information visually and help you show relationships between items.

Tables should only be used to present data, this data should usually be numeric. Do not use tables to present information that could be displayed as a list. Examples of how to convert tables containing only text to more accessible and usable non-table alternatives.

Tables should be simple:

  • present only a small number of data values
  • a maximum of 4 columns
  • avoid splitting single cells or merging multiple cells

Complex tables can be less accessible and less effectively communicate the important information. If it looks like too much, think about splitting your data between tables. 

Setting up tables correctly allows screen readers to read them aloud and in the right order to users with low vision and visual impairments.

To check the accessibility of your tables, try navigating all the way through using only the Tab key. If you can navigate through the table this way - cell by cell and row by row - a screen reader should have no trouble with it.

Next, consider the use of a designated header row for your table. Choosing a Header row means that Word and any active assistive technologies can communicate about the table.

To choose a row as a header:

  1. select the row you want to change
  2. right-click and choose Table Properties
  3. select the Row tab and check ’Repeat as header row’
  4. be sure ‘Allow row to break across pages’ is unchecked

While you have the Table Properties window open, it is a good time to check your table’s alt text:

Select the Alt Text tab and make sure the Title and Description are clear, concise and meaningful.

Adding column names makes it easier to understand the information that the table contains. Some screen readers can be set up to read column names at any time, which can help when working with a large table.

To add column names:

  1. place your cursor in the first box on the top row of your new table
  2. type the name for this column
  3. use the Tab key to move the cursor to the next column across
  4. add more column names as needed

Include a document title

A document title helps assistive technology tell the user what they are reading.

To insert a title:

  • select File
  • select Info
  • enter a title in the Title field located under the heading Properties

Create accessible file names

Make it easier to find documents by giving them meaningful filenames and document properties. This is especially important for meeting the new EU Directive on Accessibility.

A good filename provides clues to a document’s content and age.

Here is an example of an accessible, descriptive filename:


Compare that to a vague filename like:

‘Untitled Doc 1’

This is not accessible as blank spaces cause problems for screen reading software. Also there is no context given.

To rename a file:

  1. select the file in iShare
  2. right-click and choose Rename
  3. type a new name for your document using the guidelines above

When you have your document open in Word, you can add a Title and Author Name to the document properties, which makes the file easier for others to find.

Exporting to PDF

Before creating a PDF consider publishing as a web page and check whether a PDF can be published.

PDF documents work differently to Office documents and have their own accessibility requirements. Passing Office’s accessibility checker does not guarantee an accessible PDF document.

You may need specialist advice if your Word document includes complex elements such as:

  • shapes
  • smart art
  • complex tables

To export to PDF:

  1. open File menu 
  2. select Save As
  3. select Browse
  4. select PDF from the Save as type drop-down menu
  5. select Options...
  6. go to the Include non-printing information section
  7. ensure Create bookmarks using Headings is selected
  8. ensure Document properties is selected
  9. ensure Document structure tags for accessibility is selected
  10. select OK and save document

After exporting to PDF follow the advice in how to create accessible PDF documents.

Check accessibility

Use Microsoft’s built in accessibility checker to help ensure your content is easy for people of all abilities to read and navigate.