Word document accessibility: checking and improving

We had a recent client query asking whether images used in our Word templates were compliant with government document accessibility guidelines. Document accessibility is basically ensuring that a document can be read (often with a screen reader) by people of all abilities. Having worked with a number of State government departments and agencies, we are familiar with the guidelines and incorporate best practice wherever possible in our templates.

The following is a short—and by no means definitive—guide on how to make a document more accessible and how to check a document’s accessibility.

How to improve accessibility

There are a number of ways to improve a document’s accessibility by using:

  • Document headings—organising a document’s content with different headings, i.e, a Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, etc., allows easy navigation through the document pages.
  • Image descriptions—this is alt (or alternative) text. Alt text provides a description of the image and its content. It is not the same as a caption.
  • Tables—use them to present data, incorporate heading rows and alt text.
  • Document hyperlinks—use easily understood hyperlink text instead of using full URLs, e.g., ‘Installing MS Office Theme files’ instead of ‘https://www.cordestra.com/install-ms-office-theme-files/’.

How to check a document’s accessibility

The best way to check a document for accessibility is by using the built-in MS Office Accessibility Checker, which is available to Word, PowerPoint and Excel. This is in all versions of MS Office from 2010 up.

This checks the whole document for a full range of accessibility standards—including Alt text in images—then displays a list of action items that links to each object that needs addressing. Unfortunately, most users are not even aware of this function. You have to go into Word’s backstage area to find it.

Check a document's accessibility via the Check for Issues button

Check a document’s accessibility via the Check for Issues button

  • Click the File tab.
  • Click the drop-down arrow on the Check for Issues button (to the left of Inspect Document) and select Check Accessibility.

This action launches the Accessibility Checker dialog box where you will find the Inspection Results for the document together with Additional Information.

These steps, although simple enough, can be a bridge too far for some users. So we created a shortcut button in the Ribbon serving as a reminder to check accessibility. When the button is built into a template, it will be available on all documents based on that template.

The Check Accessibility button added to the Ribbon

The Check Accessibility button added to the Ribbon

You can also activate the Accessibility Checker automatically (e.g., just before the doc closes and/or prints) via a macro. We don’t recommend this approach as not only do some government departments specifically forbid macros but macros can also cause problems between different versions of MS Office.