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Creating Accessible Content

This guide will show how to create accessible documents in various formats.

MS Word

Microsoft Word is currently the most widely used word processor on the market. Because it is so common, the .doc format has become the de facto format for text documents. MS Word is often used to create PDF and HTML files for websites. Despite some gains in recent years, creating accessible web content with Word is NOT a straightforward process.

The following best practices are provided to help you maximize the accessibility of your Word documents. On this page you will find general principles for increasing accessibility in all versions of Word.


A uniform heading structure is often the most important accessibility consideration in Word documents. When encountering a lengthy Word document, sighted users often scroll the page quickly and look for big, bold text (headings) to get an idea of its structure and content. Screen reader and other assistive technology users also can navigate Word documents by heading structure assuming Word's Heading styles are used.

Structure Through Hierarchy

Pages should be structured in a hierarchical manner:

  • A Heading 1 is usually a page title or a main content heading. It is the most important heading, and there is generally just one.
  • A Heading 2 is usually a major section heading.
  • A Heading 3 is usually a sub-section of the Heading 2.
  • A Heading 4 is usually a sub-section of the Heading 3, and so on, ending with Heading 6.

Technically, lower-degree headings should be contained within headings of the next highest degree. One should not skip heading levels, such as using a Heading 4 directly below a Heading 2.

Navigation Through Structure

Word documents with a proper heading structure provide screen reader and other assistive technology users with the structure to navigate by:

  • Viewing a list of all the headings on the page.
  • Choosing top-level headings (Heading 1), next-level headings (Heading 2), third-level headings (Heading 3), and so on.
  • Reading or jumping by headings.

Proper use of headings also makes it very easy to auto-generate a linked table of contents for a large document.

“Headings” Created with Font Styles

Unfortunately, it is a common practice to create a "heading" by changing the text directly in a Word document. A user will highlight the text and apply a different font type, a larger font size, bold formatting, etc. While these changes made with Font styling will provide visual structure for some of your users, the document structure needed for navigation by assistive technology users is missing. For this reason, use the Heading tool provided by Word.

Creating and Editing Headings

The simplest way to add headings is with heading styles. Using heading styles means you can also quickly build a table of contents, reorganize your document, and reformat its design without having to manually change each heading's text.

  1. Select the text you want to use as a heading.

  2. On the Home tab, move the pointer over different headings in the Styles gallery. Notice as you pause over each style, your text will change so you can see how it will look in your document. Click the heading style you want to use.

If you don't see the style that you want, click the More button More down arrow to expand the gallery.

Alternative Text for Images

Alternative text is needed in Word documents to provide a non-visual means of representing the CONTENT or FUNCTION of an image. There is more than one way to provide "alt text", but all images contained in a Word document must have it.

Image types in Word documents that can be given alternative text include:

  • pictures
  • illustrations
  • images of text
  • shapes
  • charts
  • SmartArt
  • embedded objects

When alt text is added correctly to an image, screen reading software can "read" it in a Word, PDF or HTML file.

All Floating Objects Decrease Accessibility

Some types of objects (text boxes, word art, etc.) in Word are not part of the document's normal structure. They are on a separate "Drawing Layer" in Word that is unavailable to screen readers in the normal document flow. Text wrap also moves objects out of the text layer into the drawing layer.

Some screen readers like JAWS can read floating objects at their "anchor" or insertion point, but when the objects are out of the normal flow, they may not make sense out of context. It may not be apparent where in the document these objects belong, making it difficult for users to understand the meaning of the document and/or the floating objects.

Other screen readers do not read objects in the drawing layer. It only reads inline objects in the text layer.

Examples of objects that may be floating in the Drawing Layer:

  • Text boxes (Insert > Text Box)
  • "Shapes" (Insert > Shapes)
  • Smart Art (Insert > SmartArt)
  • Charts (Insert > Chart)
  • Word Art (Insert > WordArt)
  • Miscellaneous objects (Insert > Object)

Inline Objects Are More Easily Accessible

In most cases, the objects can be inserted inline with the text and can therefore be read in the flow of the document by screen readers; but the results will vary from one screen reader to another. You may have to change the formatting of the object yourself to remove it from the Drawing Layer and put it inline with the text.

In O365, you can place an object inline with text through the “Layout Options” menu.

  1. Select a picture.
  2. Select the Layout Options icon.
  3. Choose the layout options you want:
  • To bring your picture in front of the text and set it so it stays at a certain spot on the page, select In Front of Text (under With Text Wrapping), and then select Fix position on page.
  • To wrap text around the picture but have the picture move up or down as text is added or deleted, select Square (under With Text Wrapping), and then select Move with text.

In addition to aligning and positioning pictures on a page, you can also align pictures to each other, or to other objects on the page. Although picture-to-picture alignment is not available from the Layout Options icon or the Layout dialog box, it's a common task that you might do while working with picture positioning and alignment.

  1. Hold down the Ctrl key and select each object that you want to align.
  2. Go to Picture Format or Picture Tools Format > Align, and then choose an option, such as Center, Top, or Bottom.

Putting the objects inline with the text may not achieve the visual effect you want. You may want to use an object that isn't inline with the text. If that's the case, you'll need to describe the object in the text of the document, for the benefit of screen reader users.

Understanding Anchors

An object anchor Object anchor icon indicates where a picture or object is located in relation to the text in your document. Anchors do not appear for inline pictures; inline objects are tied to the place within the text where they were inserted and are treated like any text character—"in line with text."

All other wrapping options (Square, Tight, Through, Top and Bottom, Behind Text, In Front of Text) are anchored to a particular place in the document; the anchor indicates the paragraph with which the object is associated. Select a picture, and then select the Layout Options icon to find out how your picture is inserted.

Notes: If you select a picture and it's not inline with text, but you don't see an object anchor, you can ensure that anchors are shown in two ways:

  • Show formatting marks    On the Home tab, in the Paragraph group, select Show/Hide ¶.
  • Always show anchors    Select File > Options > Display, and then select Object anchors.

Because anchors are simply a visual indication of a picture's relative position on a page, they cannot be removed. However, by trying different text wrapping options, you should find all the flexibility you need in positioning a picture, regardless of its anchor.

For or more information and examples of text wrapping, see Wrap text around pictures in Word.

If you want to ensure that an image stays put even if the text around it is deleted, you can lock its anchor:

  1. Select the picture.
  2. Select the Layout Options icon.
  3. Select See more, and then select Lock anchor.

Note: Because anchors are not used for pictures placed In Line with Text, anchor locking and all other positioning options are unavailable for inline images.

Adding Alternative Text

There are multiple ways to provide alt text in Word documents:

  • Use the Description field in the Alt Text field, OR
  • Provide information about the content or function of the image in the surrounding text.

When the equivalent text cannot be provided succinctly in text near the image, you may link to another section of the document (e.g., an appendix) or to an accessible web page.

To Add Alt Text in O365

Do one of the following:

  • Right-click the object and select Edit Alt Text.
  • Select the object. Select Format > Alt Text.

Then in the Alt Text pane, type 1-2 sentences in the text box to describe the object and its context to someone who cannot see it.

Best Practices for Alternative Text

Alternative text should be:

  • Accurate and equivalent—present the same content or function as the image.
  • Succinct—no more than a few words are necessary; rarely a short sentence or two may be appropriate.
  • NOT be redundant—do not provide information that is in the surrounding text.
  • NOT use descriptive phrases—screen reading software identifies images, so do not use phrases such as "image of..." or "graphic of...".

Marking Images as Decorative

If your visuals are purely decorative and add visual interest but aren't informative, you can mark them as such without needing to write any alt text. Examples of objects that should be marked as decorative are stylistic borders. People using screen readers will hear that these objects are decorative so they know they aren’t missing any important information. You can mark your visuals as decorative in Excel, PowerPoint, and Word.

  1. To open the Alt Text pane, do one of the following:

    • Right-click an image, and then select Edit Alt Text.

    • Select an image, select Format > Alt Text.

  2. Select the Decorative check box. The text entry field becomes grayed out.


Data Tables

The purpose of data tables is to present information in a grid or matrix and to have columns or rows that show the meaning of the information in the grid. Sighted users scan a table to make associations between data in the table and their appropriate row and/or column headers. Screen reader users make these same associations with tables in web pages and PDF files. Unfortunately, support for table headers is limited in Word. You can add properties to Word documents so that column headers (headers in the first row of the table) are identified by a screen reader and read and then exported to PDF. Unfortunately, row headers (headers in the first column of the table) do not have the same level of support.

To add a header row to a table

  1. Choose Insert > Table to insert a table.

  2. Choose the number of boxes you want across to create columns, and then choose the number of boxes you want down to create rows for your table.

    Note: When you add a table to your document, two new tabs to appear in the ribbon: Design and Layout. These are the Table Tools.

  3. On the Design tab, choose the Table Styles Options group, and then choose Header row. Other options include Banded Rows or Total Row.

Your table now has a header row. This means that, behind the scenes, Word and any assistive technologies can communicate intelligently about the table.

Add column headings

  1. Place your cursor in the first cell on the top row of your new table.

  2. Type the name for this column and then press Tab to move from one column to the next. Add additional column names as needed.

Your table now has column names, which 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.


Hyperlinks in Word documents allow users to visit web pages, navigate to Word Headings and Bookmarks, and open email links.

Creating Links in Word

Hyperlinks are usually created in Word by pasting the complete URL of a web page into a document and hitting Space, Enter, or some other key. Word automatically creates a link and uses the URL as the display text. Because the URL text may not make sense to a user, you should edit Word's default link text.

Follow these principles to create accessible links:

  • Use descriptive link text that does not rely on context from the surrounding text.
  • Keep the amount of text in the link to a minimum.
  • Use underlined text with a color that stands out from the surrounding text.

Screen reader users may skim a document by navigating from link to link. Avoid ambiguous link text that is difficult to understand out of context (e.g., "click here").

Create a more meaningful hyperlink

  1. Copy the link you want to work with into a Word document and turn it into a hyperlink.

    Note: Someone using a screen reader to access this link will hear one character read aloud at a time, which is difficult to understand.

  2. Select the whole URL, including the "http" at the beginning and the domain at the end.

  3. Right-click to open the context menu, then find and select Edit Hyperlink.

  4. In the dialog box, look for a text box labeled Text to display. Type in the description text you want.

  5. Click OK.

Lists & Columns

Lists and columns add important hierarchical structure to a document. Sometimes users create "lists" and "columns" manually by hitting the Tab to indent content. While this provides visual structure for sighted users, it does not provide the document structure needed for assistive technology users.

List Types

There are two types of lists used in Word: ordered and unordered. Ordered (numbered) lists are used to present a group of items (words, phrases, sentences) that follow a sequence:

  1. Preheat grill with "high" heat setting.
  2. Cook hamburgers on "medium" heat setting.
  3. Flip hamburgers when juices are visible on the top of the patty.
  4. Remove hamburgers when the inside temperature is 160.

Unordered (bullet) lists are used for a group of items without a sequence:

  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Pickles
  • Onions

To Create a List in O365

  1. Type * (asterisk) to start a bulleted list or 1. to start a numbered list, and then press Spacebar or the Tab key.

  2. Type some text.

  3. Press Enter to add the next list item.

    Word for the web automatically inserts the next bullet or number.

  4. If your list is like an outline, with sub-topics, do this: Type the main item, press Enter, and then press the Tab key before typing the sub-topic. The sub-topic will be indented under the main item, formatted with a subordinate number or bullet symbol. When you're finished typing sub-topics press Shift + Tab to go back to typing main items in the list.

  5. To finish the list, press Enter twice, or press Backspace to delete the last bullet or number in the list.

Accessibility Checker

Word provides an Accessibility Checker for identifying and repairing accessibility issues. The checker's Inspection Results classifies accessibility issues into three categories:

  • Errors: content that makes a document very difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to access.
    • Example: an image with no alt text.
  • Warnings: content that in most—but not all—cases make the document difficult for people with disabilities to access.
    • Example: a link with text that is not descriptive of its function.
  • Tips: content that people with disabilities can access, but that might be better organized or presented.
    • Example: skipping from a first-level heading to a third-level heading.

Clicking an item in the results highlights the corresponding item in the document and displays the Additional Information section:

  • Why Fix: explains why the issue impacts accessibility.
  • How to Fix: suggestions for repairing the issue.

Use the Accessibility Checker

  1. On the ribbon, select the Review tab. If you're using Outlook, note that you'll only see the Review tab when writing or replying to messages.

  2. Select Check Accessibility.

  3. Review your results. You'll see a list of errors, warnings, and tips with how-to-fix recommendations for each. 

Fix recommendations with ease

To easily address accessibility errors and warnings, select an issue to open the Recommended Actions list. You can apply a one-click fix by selecting an action, or select the arrow button next to an action for more options.

Don't see Accessibility Checker?

If you don't see the Check Accessibility button on the Review tab, you might have an older version of the app. Follow these steps to open the Accessibility Checker.

  1. Select File > Info.

  2. Select the Check for Issues button.

  3. In the Check for Issues drop-down menu, select Check for Issues.

  4. The Accessibility Checker task pane appears next to your content and shows the inspection results.

  5. To see information on why and how to fix an issue, under Inspection Results, select an issue. Results appear under Additional Information, and you’re directed to the inaccessible content in your file.

Converting to HTML

Document structure and alternative text that has been added correctly will be retained when saving a Word document as an HTML file.

The Single File Web Page will save document properties and more Word information, but the file will be much larger. The Web Page option saves pictures in a separate folder and creates a page that looks almost exactly like the original document. Microsoft recommends using the Web Page, Filtered option. A filtered webpage keeps only the content, style instructions, and some other information, for a small file size without a lot of extra code. 

If you need to save a Word document as a webpage, your best bet is to use the Web Page, Filtered option.

When you save your document as a filtered webpage, Word keeps only the content, style instructions, and some other information. The file is small, without a lot of extra code.

  1. Click File > Save As and choose the location where you want to save your document.

  2. Name your file.

  3. In the Save as type list, choose Web Page, Filtered.

  4. Click Change Title and type the title you want to display in a web browser’s title bar.

  5. Click Save.

To see the webpage’s HTML code, browse to the file in Windows Explorer, right-click the file, point to Open with, and click Internet Explorer. Then right-click the page in Internet Explorer and click View Source.

Converting to PDF

Many Word documents end up as PDF files. It is a convenient way to preserve formatting and accessibility information, assuming the file is converted correctly. 

Make sure that you have the right version of Acrobat for your version of Word. Some accessibility information may still need to be added in Acrobat Professional.

To convert your document to a PDF you can post to a website, click File > Save As. In the Save as type list, click PDF.

Other Accessibility Principles

  • Use simple language.
  • Ensure that font size is sufficiently large—generally a minimum of 11 points.
  • Provide sufficient contrast between text colors and background colors.
  • Do not use color as the ONLY way to convey content.
  • Be careful with the use of watermarks. They can impact readability and create low contrast.
  • Provide a table of contents for long documents.