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Make your Digital Media Projects Accessible

A quick note about this guide

This guide was written to support Microsoft Word 2021 and later. Some of the functionality will be difference for older versions of Word.

Accessibility note for screen reader users: this guide bolds actionable items in Microsoft Word. Screen reader settings should be adjusted to ensure bold emphasis is read. 

1. Use the Accessibility Checker and Navigation Pane while your work

Keeping the accessibility checker running will notify you of errors as your work. This will save you the time and effort of having to remediate your entire document for accessibility in the final stages of document creation. The Navigation Pane is great way to see your headings as you work. This helps to ensure headings are well written and structured appropriately.

How to run the Accessibility Check and keep it running while you work:

  1. Select the Review tab
  2. Click the Check Accessibility dropdown and select Check Accessibility
  3. Select the Keep accessibility checker running while I work checkbox

How to set up the Navigation Pane to ensure your headings are properly structured:

  1. Select the View tab
  2. Select the Navigation Pane checkbox

2. Add a descriptive filename and document title

Make sure you save your Word document using a descriptive filename. This is the first thing a screen reader will read out when accessing a file and should give the user a good idea about the document’s content.

To save a Word document:

  1. Select the File tab
  2. Click Save As
  3. Select a save destination and add a descriptive filename

Document titles are essential for PDF accessibility, but adding good metadata helps a variety of users.

To edit document level metadata such as author, title, and subject:

  • For Windows:
    1. Select the File tab
    2. Click on Info
    3. Edit appropriate text box under Properties
  • For Mac:
    1. Select the File tab
    2. Click on Properties
    3. Click on the Summary tab
    4. Edit appropriate text boxes

3. Ensure headings are structured properly and descriptive

Headings provide essential document structure for all users. Accessible headings need to be formatted using Styles, written effectively, and structured correctly.

Using Styles to create headings ensures that users of assistive technology can identify them programmatically (i.e., without the need for visual cues). This allows more users to effectively navigate Word documents.

To create or modify a heading using Styles:

  • Click on the appropriate heading number in Styles and begin typing in your document, or
  • Highlight the appropriate text and click on the heading number in Styles
  • Note: existing heading levels can also be adjusted in the Navigation Pane

Styles formatting options from Microsoft Word

How to set heading structure:

  • Use only heading levels 1-6 in Word documents
  • Heading 1 is the title of the document
  • Heading 2 is a section header
  • Heading 3 is a subsection
  • Never skip heading levels, for example:
    • A Heading 2 should never be followed by a Heading 4; however,
    • When beginning a new section, a Heading 4 can be followed by Heading 2

How to write effective headings:

  • Make headings descriptive so that users know what the section is about
  • Headings should be unique to avoid ambiguity

4. Use accessible fonts to ensure legibility

Smart font choice is often an overlooked aspect of document creation; however, careful consideration of fonts creates a much more accessible document.

Considerations for choosing an accessible font:

  • Some characteristics of legible fonts:
    • Good spacing with distinguishable characters
    • Sans serif fonts are generally easier for readers to decode
  • Proper font size (i.e., minimum 11-point font)
  • Use the Normal text option in Styles for all body text to keep formatting consistent
  • Use italics, bold, and underlining only when necessary
  • Check colour contrast with a checker (e.g., Colour Contrast Analyser)
  • Don’t use colour alone to convey information

5. Properly format paragraphs, lists, and white space

Using Word’s built-in formatting options for paragraphs and lists creates more accessible documents. Additionally, it does a much better job of preserving accessible formatting if you export to PDF.

Some general tips for formatting:

  • Always avoid using Text Boxes and Tables for formatting
  • Always use the List formatting options to create lists:
    • Use bulleted lists for when order does not matter
    • Use numbered lists when there is a sequence

Avoid using hard returns to create white space in your document. Hard returns are sometimes read by screen readers and can create inaccessible content when exported to other formats.

How to check Paragraph marks and hidden formatting in your document:

  1. Click on the Home tab
  2. In Paragraph options, select Show/hide Paragraph Marks (¶)

To adjust line spacing for the entire document:

  1. Click on the Design tab and select the Paragraph Spacing dropdown
  2. Select a Built-in spacing option or Custom Paragraph Spacing…

To adjust white space before or after specific paragraphs or headings:

  1. Click within paragraph or heading
  2. Select Layout tab and then use the Spacing options

To create a page break:

  1. Put your cursor where you want your page to end
  2. Select Insert tab and select Page Break

6. Ensure tables are used appropriately and correctly formatted

Structural markup is essential to accessible tables. This provides users of assistive technology the context needed to locate where they are in a table. Word provides limited options for providing structural markup as compared to other formats such as HTML and PDF.

Rules for using tables in Word:

  • Tables should be used for data only
  • Avoid using tables to provide document structure
  • All tables need row and/or column headers identified
  • All cells should have content (i.e., no blank cells)
  • All cells should be associated with one column and one row
    • No merged columns or split cells
  • Ensure proper colour contrast

How to create a table:

  1. Click Insert tab
  2. Select Table dropdown
  3. Select Insert Table…

How to format table headers:

  1. Click on a table within the document
  2. Click Table Design tab
  3. Select the appropriate Table Style Options:
    1. Select Header Row to set column headers
    2. Select First Column to set the row headers

Table Style Options with Header Row and First Column selected

7. Make sure charts and graphs are optimized for accessibility

Charts and graphs are great ways to summarize data in a visual format. However, there are some ways to optimize your chart or graph for accessibility.

Optimize chart and graph white space and legibility:

  1. Click on a chart or graph within the document
  2. Click the Format tab
  3. Use Current Selection dropdown to choose an element of your chart or graph to edit 
  4. Select Format Selection to make adjustments

Note: you can also select elements within your chart or graph (e.g., legend or data points) and use the Font formatting options to increase legibility.

Adjust colours that have poor contrast:

  1. Click on a chart or graph within the document
    • Note: you can also select specific elements to edit within the chart or graph
  2. Click on the Chart Design tab
  3. From the Chart Styles options select the Change Colours dropdown

Ensure colour is not the sole means of representing information by:

  • Adding data labels or patterns in the chart
  • Providing chart data in table format in line after the chart or linked within the document

8. Use descriptive link text and format links correctly

Links within documents should always be formatted and written properly to be useful for users of assistive technology.

To make your link text accessible make sure it is:

  • Descriptive:
    • Can the link destination be understood if the link text is taken out of context?
  • Concise
  • Unique
    • Avoid duplication of link text, especially for links heading to different destinations
  • Visually distinctive
    • Links should be formatted to stand out from normal text
    • Link contrast should be checked

There are three different link options for Word documents:

  1. Existing File or Web Page
  2. Place in This Document
    • Allows you to link to a heading or a bookmark
  3. E-mail Address

How to add a link:

  1. Highlight link text
  2. Right-click and select Link (or Hyperlink on Mac)
  3. Choose Link to destination

Adding links to documents that are intended to be printed:

  1. Create a descriptive hyperlink like you would in any document
  2. Put the unlinked URL in parentheses after the descriptive hyperlink

9. Provide alternative text for images and ensure images are in line with text

When placing an image in a Word document you must ensure that it is formatted in line with text. This ensures that screen readers recognize the image as a part of the document.

To ensure an image is in line with text:

  1. Right-click on the image
  2. Select Wrap Text
  3. Select In Line with Text

All images that provide a function or have important content will need alternative text. If the image does not provide either of these it can be marked as decorative, so screen readers know to skip it.

To add alternative text:

  1. Right-click on the image
  2. Select Edit Alt Text
  3. Provide alternative text or Mark as decorative

Simple rules for alternative text:

  • Should provide an equivalent experience to seeing the image
    • What would you write if the image was not there?
  • Should be succinct
    • 1-2 sentences
    • For complex images use surrounding text
  • Not be redundant (e.g., no phrases such as “image of…”)

10. Run the Accessibility Checker and some manual accessibility checks

Always run the Accessibility Checker prior to finishing your document and make sure all errors, warnings, and tips are resolved.

To run the Accessibility Checker:

  1. Click the Review tab
  2. Click the Check Accessibility dropdown
  3. Select Check Accessibility

Accessibility Checker results are categorized into four areas:

  • Error – content that makes the document difficult or impossible to read and understand for people with disabilities.
  • Warning – content that in most (but not all cases) makes the document difficult to understand for people with disabilities.
  • Tip – content that people with disabilities can understand but that could be presented in a different way to improve user’s experience.
  • Intelligent Services – content automatically made accessible by AI, and that you should review for accuracy and context.

The Accessibility Checker cannot ensure a fully accessible document. To ensure accessibility, you will need to run some manual checks:

  • Check the heading structure is correct
  • Check document for spelling and grammar errors manually
    • This is in addition to running the Spelling and Grammar check
    • Note: the Spelling and Grammar check allows you to check the Readability Scores
  • Check document text and visuals for colour contrast with a colour contrast checker (e.g., Colour Contrast Analyser)
  • Check all alternative text is well written

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