Making your Word document accessible

cokefourDigital Products Lead
This article has been written to give the reader a starting point from which to make accessible Word documents. It is aimed at people who have used Word long enough to have developed bad habits such as manually creating headers instead of using the built in styles or specifying them.

What is Accessibility?

I found the following definition on Wikipedia which seems to fit the bill:

Accessibility is a general term used to describe the degree to which a product, device, service, or environment is available to as many people as possible.

In the case of your Word document the idea is to make it available to as many people as possible. This article will address the needs of people with visual impairments or complete blindness. People with visual impairments rely on the use of software and hardware to navigate through your document so what we need are markers and structure to aid the devices they use such as screen reading software.


Yes it's that simple; just by making sure you format your document correctly you are well on your way to creating an accessible document. When I say "formatting" I do not simply mean selecting some text, making it bold and increasing the size to 16 points. I mean selecting the text and using Word's inbuilt styles like Heading 1, Heading 2, etc. which you will find on the home ribbon toolbar in Word 2007 onwards or in the taskpane if, like me, you still have use Office 2003 because your IT department say so.

When you use the inbuilt styles provided, Word recognises the format you have given the heading and applies a bookmark or tag to it. The clue is in the word 'bookmark.' That means you can quickly find the heading as if you had a physical bookmark showing you where the chapter starts. This bookmark is now saved in your document and you can then use it for all sorts of useful stuff like creating a table of contents automatically instead of attempting to remember what page a heading was on and how you spelt it. Word automatically does it for you based on your preference.

How does this make the document accessible? When I train colleagues on this subject I always start by asking them "how would you find the beginning of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet if I handed you The Complete Works of Shakespeare with no table of contents and no chapter headings?". Not so accessible is it? That's how a screen reader used by visually impaired users will see your document and that's how Google will see your pages if you published them online with no structure. As a result a screen reader such as JAWS will be able to scan your document for headings and feed the information back to the user allowing them to choose what to read first and give them an idea of the content of your document without having to read through the entire document.


You can't underestimate the importance of this, just think about the Shakespeare example and how confusing it would be to find Othello Act 2 Scene 1 bang in the middle of Julius Ceasar.

My favourite way of creating a document in Word is to think about the structure and then type in all my headings and subheadings, then I create my table of contents and finally I start to write, keeping my content within the headings I have created.

This is a really handy tool for creating content for web pages as the table of contents becomes your site map and the headings form your pages all in the correct hierachy.
Using your headings, subheadings and bulleted lists all go a long way to making that document more accessible.

Links and Images

Not much to say on this except that it is important you remember to make your hyperlink titles descriptive; a simple 'click here' doesn't do it. Someone looking at the link wants to know what might happen if they do so how about 'click here to get our daily offer'. In addition you should also use the tool-tip option when adding a link in Word. The tooltip should be a short description of the link which can be read by screen readers and sighted users before the link is clicked.

When using images, Word allows you to embed other information to make the image accessible such as a title and description which can be read by a screen reader. Be sure to fill in these fields which you can access by right-clicking on the image, choosing format image and then Alt text.


Tables can be notoriously difficult to make accessible because they are read by scanning a column and row header and matching them to the information where they intersect. Easy enough to do by sight but not so easy if you rely on other software to interpret the document for you. If you want to make your document accessible and you can convey information using other means than tables, then I would advise that you do so. More often than not this would be almost impossible so when using tables remember to

always add a caption

add a summary descriptive enough for anyone to understand what information the table is presenting
use Word to specify column and/or row headers by selecting the table, going to the table tools in the ribbon and selecting the checkbox for header row


Information you embed in the image, table captions and summaries as well as hyperlink information and bookmarks will follow your content along with the structure and hyperlinks when you export it to PDF. This means with minimal effort you've just created an accessible PDF which nowadays is a minor miracle.

This article is simply meant to get you thinking about the best practice when it comes to making accessible documents but in subsequent articles I'll walk you through the actual steps and introduce you to my mate Pilcrow.
cokefourDigital Products Lead

Comments (1)

Distinguished Expert 2020

Good points. I'd just like to point out that since you are advocating the use of the built-in heading styles, using the Outline view (and its associated tools) is probably an easier way to create and manage the structure of a document than creating a table of contents.

In outline view, you can drag and drop headings to move them (with their subheadings and any associated body copy) and demote or promote levels at any time.

The default table of contents also uses the built-in Heading styles, so it can always reflect the outline view structure.

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