Guidance for creating accessible Word documents

We have provided some information below on guidance for creating accessible Word documents. 

Word documents are commonly used to provide vast amounts of information to students, including documents such as module and programme handbooks. The platform of Word is an accessible one, however there are key elements to consider to ensure that the material produced is of the highest standards.

By considering the design of these documents, they can be inclusive of all methods of access. The headings below form a checklist of things to consider when creating documents using Microsoft Word. If you are unsure how to change any of the features mentioned, please click on each heading for detailed information.

5 easy steps to ensure accessible word documents

Word documents are commonly used to provide vast amounts of information to students, including documents such as module and programme handbooks. The platform of Word is an accessible one, however there are key elements to consider to ensure that the material produced is of the highest standards.

By considering the design of these documents, they can be inclusive of all methods of access. The headings below form a checklist of things to consider when creating documents using Microsoft Word. If you are unsure how to change any of the features mentioned, please click on each heading for detailed information.

1. Consider the font you use. Use a clear font type and consider size, colour and contrast

2. Make use of MS Word formatting tools to provide a clear structure. In particular, the use of heading styles and spacing options within MS Word

3. Consider when and how images are used within your documents. Also, ensure that only high quality images are used, and that alternative text and captions are provided  

4. When using hyperlinks, ensure that they have meaningful names 

5. When using charts, tables and/or graphs, ensure that alternative text and captions are added 

The importance of font

Using some simple base standards for font types allows reading material to become easier to read and more accessible to students. Things to consider, in terms of font, are size, type and colour/contrast. Below is a section on each of these key areas, with a brief description on how to change each setting.

Font type - When choosing a font type, simple, clear fonts are preferable. Fonts such as Arial or Calibri work well. Stylised fonts can be harder to read.

  • How to change font type - The font type is found under the home tab on MS Word. There will be a drop down choice of font types with samples of how they will look.
  • To change the font type before typing, simply select the relevant font from the dropdown list. When you then start to type, the font will be in your chosen font.
  • To change the font type of existing text, highlight the text to be changed and then select the relevant font from the dropdown menu. You will see the text change immediately.

Font size - A font size minimum of 12 is recommended to be as clear as possible. If students have access to well-structured word documents, they can alter this to suit their needs, however a basic standard of 12 will reduce the likelihood of this.

How to change font size - The font size is found under the home tab on MS Word. There will be a drop down choice of font size with the option of typing a numbered size into the available box. To change the font size before typing, simply select the relevant size from the dropdown list, or type the desired size number into the available box. Once you then start typing the font will be in your chosen size. To change existing text, highlight the text to be changed and then select the relevant size from the dropdown menu or type the desired size number into the available box. You will see the text change immediately.

Font colour and contrast - This is a key aspect to consider. It can be tempting to change font colours for effect, however it is important to consider the impact of this. For example, yellow text on a white background is particularly difficult to read and so a clear contrast such as black on white works well. Some students will find black on white difficult to read, however it is possible for screen colours to be tinted and this is something the disability team can show students how to do.

How to change font colour - Once you have decided which colour of font you wish to use, this can be changed under the home tab in MS Word. Along the ribbon of tools in the home tab, there is a section called font. Within this section there is an

  • icon with a capital “A” with a strip of colour underneath it.
  • To change font colour prior to typing, click the drop down colour next to “A” icon and select the colour you wish to use. Once selected simply start typing.
  • To change font colour of existing text, highlight the text to change, and then choose the desired colour in the same manner as described above.
Provide a clear structure using formatting tools

Good structure is key to the creation of any well designed teaching material. Word has simple inbuilt features which allow you to produce high quality, accessible, materials. Using these features will assist with the navigation of documents for all students.

Make use of heading styles provided within MS Word - The use of the inbuilt “heading styles” within Microsoft Word can allow you to produce highly structured documents. Students using screen reading software will benefit hugely from well-structured material to allow efficient access. Software, such as JAWS (see section on screen reading software), can navigate through a document by accessing headings. So for example, using shortcut keys, a student could quickly navigate to the section of a module handbook with the heading “assignments”. If heading styles were not used, the student would need to read the document from the beginning to find the relevant section. Clearly this would be highly inefficient and laborious.

It is important to note that the only way to introduce headings into a document, is to use the style formatting available within MS Word. Increasing text size or introducing bold and underline, will not register text as a formatted heading. Please see methods of introducing headings below.

By including headings, you can get the opportunity so see an overview of your document using the navigation pane. This can be accessed under the “view” tab and selecting “navigation” within the “show” section. Viewing your document in this way allows you to see the overall structure of the document and by clicking on sections within it, you can navigate to that area of the document.

How to use heading styles - Under the home tab there is a “Styles” section. Either you can highlight text and then click on the style of your choice, or you can click on the style and then type the text.

How to change heading styles - The default headings created in MS Word may not be as you would like. It is possible to change the settings of each style e.g. Heading 1, Heading 2 etc. To do this use the “styles” section under the home tab. Find the style you wish to edit, right click on it and select “modify”. From within this section you can edit what each “style” will look like.

Consider the spacing used within your document - Within MS Word, there are a number of formatting features which can assist you to efficiently map out your documents. Excessive use of line spacing using the return key can make reading difficult for students making use of screen reading software (click here to see section on screen reading software). There are two simple ways to check and edit documents to ensure that efficient formatting has been used.

Use page breaks to move to a new page - There is often a desire to start a new topic on a fresh page. By pressing return multiple times, this can push text onto a new page. For students using screen reading software such as JAWS (click here to move to section on assistive software used by students) these spaces are read aloud as “blank line” (or different phrases dependent on software). In short, this can add extra time and unhelpful pauses in reading material. One simple way of getting past this is to use a “page break” which is a pre-set formatting option in Word. This will move your text onto a new page, without the need for gaps or pauses in the text. To insert a “page break” the option can be found under the “insert” tab on MS Word. Along the left hand side of the ribbon, there will be a “page break” option. Click on this to move to a new page without excess formatting.

Check formatting using the "show/hide" tool - The “show/hide” tool can be found in the paragraph section of the toolbar ribbon, under the home tab. It is represented with an icon depicting a pilcrow, or paragraph marker. By clicking on this, all spacing and paragraph marking will be highlighted within the document, to allow you to check if you have used appropriate formatting. To turn this check off, click on the icon once again.

The use of images

Images can be used to brighten up teaching materials and break up large volumes of text. An image can be a powerful way of making a point, and can be an effective way for students to learn, particularly those who are visual learners. It is of course, worth taking time to consider whether the image is key to the learning material and not simply used to improve the appearance. If an image is necessary and relevant to the information being presented, there are a couple of things which should be considered in relation to accessibility.

Use a high quality image - The quality of the image is vitally important and should be considered before use. Small images, which have been stretched, can become unclear and pixelated, diluting their value. This is particularly important for students who may be using magnification software to access their material (click here to see section on magnification software).

How to add an image into a Word document - The best way to insert an image into a word document is to use the “insert picture” option. This can be done by selecting the “insert” tab on the main ribbon and then selecting “picture”. Using this wizard is the most effective way to add an image into your document.

Provide alternative text for images - For students using screen reading software, alternative text should be added to images. This alternative text will then be read aloud by the software, which can provide a meaningful description of the image. Without this alternative text, students using this software will miss out on this information.

How to add alternative text - Alternative text can be added to an image (which has already been inserted into your document) by right clicking on it and selecting “format picture”. From the list of options provided, choose the “Alt-Text” option. This will bring up a dialogue box allowing the chance to enter a title for the image and also alternative descriptions, which screen reading software will read aloud to the student.

Add a caption to images used - This will provide the user with a brief description of the image, either above or below. This can add clarity as to why the image is there.

How to add a caption - To add a caption to an image inserted into a Word document, right click on the image and select “insert caption”. From the dialogue box which will appear on screen you can insert a new caption and decide whether it appears above or below the image.

Use meaningful hyperlinks

When linking to other parts within a document or to external websites, the names of hyperlinks should be considered. Some assistive software, such as JAWS, can navigate a document by cycling through the hyperlinks within it. For example if a student is told that there is a link to a website available in the module handbook. If the text used in the hyperlink reads “click here” then this does not mean anything when read on its own. By saying something like “click here to access the exam timetable” there is clear meaning for students.

How to insert a hyperlink - To insert a hyperlink, type a meaningful piece of text such as “click here to access the exam timetable”. Then, highlight this text and right click. From the list of options, choose “hyperlink”. You will then be presented with a dialogue box that will allow you to select where you would like to navigate to. The options include an external website, an email address, another document or to another section within the current document. 

Charts, graphs and tables

Similar to images, graphs and charts can be a useful, visual way of representing data/information. Provided that the graph or chart is used properly, it can be a useful learning tool. Below are some things to consider when using any of these tools.

Add alternative text - For students using screen reading software, alternative text should be added to charts, graphs and tables. This alternative text will then be read aloud by the software, which can provide a meaningful description of the chart/graph/table.

How to add alternative text - Alternative text can be added to a chart/graph/table (which has already been inserted into your document) by right clicking on it and selecting “format picture”. From the list of options provided, choose the “Alt-Text” option. This will bring up a dialogue box allowing the chance to enter a title for the image and also alternative descriptions, which screen reading software will read aloud to the student.

Add a caption to any chart, graph or table -  This will provide the user with a brief description of the image, either above or below. This can add clarity as to why the image is there.

How to add a caption - To add a caption to an image inserted into a Word document, right click on the image and select “insert caption”. From the dialogue box which will appear on screen you can insert a new caption and decide whether it appears above or below the image.