When a sighted person looks at a document, they subconsciously take in a lot of visual and structural information, such as:
- Headings and subheadings
- Lists (bulleted and numbered)
In order to make a Word document accessible, these visual items need to be created correctly, so that a screen reader can access them and read out structural information.
Choosing a design
Word has many built-in heading styles and their formatting depends on the design that is selected. You may want to choose a different design before working on headings. The following video will show you how to select a different design, along with colours and fonts.
Styling and modifying headings
The first step in making headings accessible is to style them correctly by marking them as headings from the Styles menu. The following video will explain how to do that.
Once you have styled your headings correctly, you may want to modify and format them. The following video covers this.
Before moving on from headings, it might be helpful to hear how a screen reader reads a document with and without properly styled headings. The following video will do this.
Screen readers read out both bulleted and numbered lists. Depending on how the user navigates a list, the screen reader may read the items alone, preceded by the number or bullet, or it may also announce the number of items in the list.
It is essential to use the bullets and numbering in the Paragraph section of the Home ribbon to mark lists. If you use a hyphen, this may not be read correctly.
The information will be clearer if standard black, round bullet points are used and numbers as digits. Please avoid using fancy bullet points or Roman numerals. Although these are read by a screen reader, they are annouced for each item, using the name of the symbol, e.g. black diamond minus white X or eye eye eye (for iii). This can be confusing but also quite irritating.
Tables should only be used to display data. Never use tables for layout. Layout will be covered in a later section.
Tables should be as uniform as possible. Try to avoid merging cells, as this can cause confusion for some people. Make sure that each column or row has a header cell and that these are marked as such. Use the table design menu to select the best type of table for your data.
There are various ways of giving a table a title, which is visible on the page. However, screen reader users have the ability to list all of the tables in a document by name and for this to work, the table has to be given a title in the table properties, alt text tab. The following video shows you how to do this.
Column and row headers
Tables have different header requirements. Some have column or row headers only, others have both. It is important for header rows and columns to be marked correctly. This enables a screen reader to announce the contents of the cell but also the headers that apply to it. When a user cannot see content, this helps to orient them within the data.
In Word, there are often different methods of creating the same visual result. It is quite possible to have two documents which look identical but one will be completely accessible and the other not at all accessible. Much of this comes down to layout choices.
Paragraph and line spacing
Try to avoid using ENTER to create empty lines in your document. Instead, open the paragraph settings and think about line spacing and how much space you want after each paragraph.
Ideally, line spacing of 1.5 with 18pt after each paragraph, will make your document easier to read. Line spacing of less than 1.2 is hard for some people to read.
Columns are the most accessible way to avoid wrapping images so that they are not inline and can be moved around the page. Images that are not inline cannot be read.
Columns can be used for small sections of text, not just whole pages. You can adjust the width of each column and the space between columns. This can improve the look of your document, as well as its accessibility.
Borders and shading
Text boxes look great in a document. They can draw the eye to important pieces of information. However, text boxes are not read by screen readers unless you copy and paste the entire content into the alt text field (which isn’t ideal).
Instead of using text boxes, use borders and shading. Type your text on the page, so that it is there for a screen reader to access. Then open the borders and shading menu and choose your colours.
You can change the text alignment and the spacing to the left and right of the text to create visual effects whilst keeping the accessibility.
Normal and large text
Normal text is defined as 16pt or smaller. If it is bold text, then normal is 12pt or smaller.
Large text is 18pt or bigger, and 14pt or bigger for bold text.
In Word, colours are often selected from a palette by clicking on a colour that looks right. If you open the more colours option and the custom tab, this will display the RGB (red, green and blue) colour codes for your chosen colour. Below these, is a hex colour code. This hexadecimal code is needed for checking colour contrast.
The WebAIM colour contrast checker is a very simple tool for checking contrast. It gives pass/fail results for normal text, large text and graphics at both AA and AAA level. You need your contrast to pass at AA level.
Well chosen images can make a document more visually appealing, as well as helping to tell a story or explain a concept.
For an image (or any other non-text item) to be accessed by assistive software, it must be inline.
The only reason to consider wrapping an object would be if it is completely decorative. That means there is no purpose to it at all, beyond looking pretty. An example of this might be a coloured banner behind a document title.
Images must be given alt text. Alt text is a brief, clear description of the content of an image. It is not the same as a caption or title.
When describing an image, think about what type of image it is, the content or main focus of the image, and why you chose it.
If an image is truly decorative, you can check the decorative box and a screen reader will ignore it.
Meaningful text on page
When a screen reader reads a URL, it is often long, repetitive and meaningless. Unless it is a short URL, don’t type it out on the page. Instead, give it meaningful text and put the URL into the hyperlink box. This will ensure that it reads out in a meaningful way.
Hyperlinks are usually visible in a different colour from the main text. When a link has been visited, the colour changes again. You must check that the hyperlink colour and the visited link colour both have sufficient contrast from the page background.
Think carefully about your use of language. Research suggest that the average person in the UK has a reading age of 9. So keep your language simple and to the point. Avoid using difficult terms, abbreviations and jargon where possible, or if you do, explain what they mean.
The Plain English Campaign website has many guides and resources to help you get rid of jargon and unnecessary long words.
Language of document
Your document will most likely be in English. Check that Word is set up in English (UK) to ensure that a screen reader knows which language to use.
If you change language or have sections which are in a different language, select that part and change the language. Then a screen reader will pronounce the words correctly for that language.