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Creating Accessible Word Documents: Part 1

It’s Thursday, two weeks and a day after my last post, which means it’s past time for me to post again.  I promised a post about creating accessible Word documents, and such a post you shall have.  Actually, you’ll have a two-part series, as the post would be way too long if everything was all together in one.  The second part will arrive next week – a bonus post! 


But first: the weather!  It has been rather gloomy, cold, and somewhat rainy lately.  Now it’s beatify, sunny, and warm, albeit very windy.  This warm sunny day is a nice change of pace, so hopefully those in the central Oklahoma area have been able to enjoy it. 

Back On Topic 

Okay, getting back on track now.  For your reference, this is the wisdom I have acquired in my research on how to develop an accessible Word document.  This post is more “How-To” via bullet point, than “why-informative”.  The information might be a little dry, but it’s really helpful information.   

Note: I focus on the Office 365 version of Word because that’s the version I have.  You might have to use slightly different steps for getting there, but most, if not all, options should still be available.  Keep in mind that some things might change based on your version of Word or any updates between now and when you read this.  For more information about Office 2016 or 2019, you can visit the Microsoft’s Tutorial on Creating Accessible Word Documents. 

If you have any corrections or updates, be sure to send them my way.  I’ll keep a running list and update them periodically. 

General Notes 

  • It is best to do all work in a client version of Word (i.e. the one downloaded to your computer).  The online version is quite limited compared to the downloaded versions
  • Start accessibility early – it’s easier and faster than remediating
  • Keep it simple
  • Mostly ignore the toolbar, and use the styles pane instead
  • The Help button is your friend.  Use it freely and often as needed
  • Write clearly and concisely.  Use simple language
  • Use a font size that is easy to read (12pt. or larger is ideal)
  • Use more than color to convey meaning
  • Do not use images to convey text 

Best Practices Links 

Accessibility Checker 

Get to know your Accessibility Checker.  It is your best friend. 

Using Accessibility Checker (Office 365, Online) 

  • Find the “Review” tab and click it
  • Click the “Check Accessibility” option, and a panel will open
  • Click on any issues noted in the “Inspection Results” box 


Always set a language for the document.  If you are using multiple languages in a document, set one primary language, and change the editing language when you begin using the other language.  You can change as often as needed in a document, so always be sure to change to the correct language. 

Set the Language (Office 365) 

  • Select “Review”
  • Select “Language”
  • Confirm English is default editing/proofing language
  • If editing in another language as well, you can add that language

Set the Language (Online) 

  • Select “Review”
  • Select drop-down menu for “Spelling & Grammar”
  • Select “Set Proofing Language”
  • You’ll have to update this one manually each time.  Sorry (a genuine sorry – not a snarky one)

Document Properties 

This is metadata, and it lives forever.  Even when the document is converted to other or newer formats. 

Title, Subject, and Author (Office 365) 

  • Select “File”
  • Select “Properties” (on Right Hand side of page)
  • Select “Advanced Properties”
  • Select “Summary” (if not already there)
  • Update “Title,” “Subject,” and “Author” fields, click “OK”
    • Title is the most important
    • Author defaults to the user, but it is good to make sure the author in the document properties matches the author listed in the document itself (i.e. DHS Child Support Services, or whatever it needs to be for that document)

Title, Subject, and Author (Online) 

Does not appear possible as of March 13, 2019  

Use the Styles 

Automatically open the styles pane every time you use Word.  This should be a habit, because the Styles Pane is your best friend in Word.   

Styles Pane (Office 365) 

  • In the main toolbar, find the Styles section and click the little expander button
  • There you go!

Styles Pane (Online) 

  • In the main toolbar, find the Styles section.  Use the dropdown if needed 
  • If you want to see a box, select “Apply Styles” 
  • This box will disappear once your selection is made 


  • Use only one “Heading 1” per document.  This is usually your document title
  • Use short titles for headings (20 words or fewer)
  • Headings function to create your document outline for you, and should make a logical order for the document
  • Avoid using too many headings, and don’t go beyond heading level 6. If you have to get that far, make sure everything still makes sense
  • If you want to change the visual style of your headings, use the styles pane to make those updates


This could probably be nested under the Styles heading, but it’s a lot to take in all at once. So, Fonts gets its own space

  • Use the styles from the styles page to determine which fonts are used for what.  You can modify the styles of document elements (headings, paragraphs, etc.) to visually appear how you want
  • Potential fonts include Times New Roman, Verdana, Arial Unicode MS, Tahoma, Helvetica, and Calibri
  • Use a unicode font.  Many non-unicode fonts are not accessible, because the character codes are not recognized by screen readers
    • From Wikipedia: Unicode is a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation, and handling of text expressed in most of the world’s writing systems 
    • From Unicode Consortium: The Unicode Standard provides a unique number for every character, no matter what platform, device, application or language
      • It is easy to get bogged down in the Unicode page.  Don’t worry about this too much.  The link is just so you know where the info came from
  • Serif vs. non-serif fonts
    • Serifs are the little feet and/or hats on the ends of letters
    • There is some conflicting research out there on using a serif versus a non-serif font.  Historical guidance has said to avoid serif fonts because they are harder for some people to read.  However, more recent reports have indicated that there is no real difference in reading rates and user preference between serif and non-serif fonts.  I’ll let you decide what is best for your document 
  • When possible, avoid using decorative or narrow fonts
    • Squigglies get hard to read. And yes, “squigglies” is a word. Just don’t ask me to prove it…


Make the contrast readable. 

  • View the document in greyscale.  If you cannot read it, then there is not enough contrast
  • Ideally, the Accessibility Checker should catch contrast issues, but it is not advanced enough to catch it every single time
  • Make the contrast ratio a minimum of 7:1. If you are an 18 point or larger font size, you can use a ratio of 4.5:1.

Coming Up 

Come back next week, on Wednesday, March 20th, and you’ll get the rest of the Word topics.  Included will be: 

  • Lists
  • Alt Text
  • Hyperlinks
  • Tables
  • Things to avoid

The following week, a post about making accessible PDFs will arrive on Wednesday, March 27th.   

In the meantime, feel free to let me know if there are any questions by contacting me via the form on this page.