Basic Accessibility and Formatting in Microsoft Word 2016

Posted 2019-08-05

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Alternative Text for Images

All meaningful images must have concise alternative text that describes them (see for some pointers).

  • Whenever possible, provide data tables for charts and graphs, and summarize their trends and major visual content in alternative text.
  • If a description is already provided in page text, simple identify the image in the alternative text.
  • When alternative text is lengthy, always start with general/basic information.
  • If an image contains text, it should be provided in the alternative text.
  • If an image is entirely decorative (i.e., does not serve an informational or meaningful purpose), alternative text should be blank.
  • Avoid verbose and unnecessary language (don't say "image of" or use phrases like "this is a"). Full sentences are not necessary.

Word Instructions

  1. Right-click on image (bring up context menu for image)
  2. Select "Format Picture..."
  3. Select the "Layout and Properties" tab (third icon under "Format Picture" in sidebar; looks like box with arrows and measurement lines)
  4. Select "Alt Text"
  5. Enter alternative text in the "Description" box (leave the "Title" box blank)

Image Layout

Images should be anchored to a location in the text whenever possible.

  • Positioning images as text elements ensures that they are read at the correct location by screen readers.
  • When an image is "in line with text" it is treated like a character or word with respect to layout (i.e., you can't drag it around the screen).
  • Use standard text positioning (e.g., left/center/right alignment) and paragraph spacing to change location.

Word Instructions

  1. Select the image
  2. Select the "Format" tab in the ribbon (under "Picture Tools " at the right side)
  3. Select "Position" in the Arrange section
  4. Select the icon for "In Line with Text"

Images of Text

Always use typed text instead of pictures of text (e.g., screenshots).

  • Logos and charts are an exception to this rule.
  • Chart titles/captions should be outside of charts (i.e., not part of the image).

Structure and Layout


All documents should be organized with meaningful, descriptive, and properly-nested headings.

  • Headings must use Heading Styles, not just be bold or large text.
  • Heading levels cannot be skipped (i.e., Heading 3 must be within a Heading 2).

Word Instructions

  1. Select the "Home" tab in the ribbon (if not already active)
  2. Put the cursor in the appropriate line of text (don't select any text)
  3. Select the appropriate "Heading" level style in the "Styles" section of the ribbon (e.g., "Heading 1", "Heading 2", "Heading 3"; may need to scroll the Styles list)


Tables must be added using Table functionality.

  • Do not draw lines or put in spaces to replicate the appearance of tables.
  • Tables should only be used for tabular information, not for layout (e.g., splitting text into columns).
  • Tables with multi-level headings (more than one row of headings or divided heading cells) should be avoided.
  • Do not put table titles or captions inside of tables.

Word Instructions

  1. Select the "Insert" tab in the ribbon
  2. Select the "Table" icon in the "Tables" section of the ribbon
  3. Choose a size using the grid provided or select "Insert Table" to customize
  4. Select the "Layout" tab in the ribbon (under "Table Tools" at the right side)
  5. Put the cursor in any cell in the first row of the table
  6. Set the Header Row to repeat using either one of the two following methods:
    • Ensure that "Repeat Header Rows" in selected/active in the Data section of the ribbon (dark grey box is present behind "Repeat Header Rows" when it is active)
    • Select "Properties" in the Table section of the ribbon, select the "Row" tab, and ensure that the "Repeat as header row at the top of each page" checkbox is checked
  7. To add a row or column
    1. Select the "Layout" tab in the ribbon (under "Table Tools" at the right side)
    2. Put the cursor in the row/column immediately before or after where you want to add a new row/column
    3. Select "Insert Above"/"Insert Below" in the Rows & Columns section of the ribbon to add a row above/below the current one or "Insert Left"/"Insert Right" to add a column to the left or right of the current one
  8. To delete a row or column
    1. Select the "Layout" tab in the ribbon (under "Table Tools" at the right side)
    2. Put the cursor in the row or column you want to remove
    3. Select the "Delete" button in the "Table Layout" section of the ribbon
    4. Select "Delete Rows" or "Delete Columns"


Columns of text must be added using Column functionality.

  • Do not putting spaces between content on the same line, add text boxes, or use tables to replicate columns.

Word Instructions

  1. Select the "Page Layout" tab in the ribbon
  2. Select "Columns" in the "Page Setup" section of the ribbon
  3. Choose a number of columns or select "More Columns..." to customize

Lists (Bullets and Numbering)

Lists must be styled using the List functionality.

  • Note: Word often detects when you try to manually type in list items, and may attempt to automatically convert them into the correct format.

Word Instructions

  1. Select the "Home" tab in the ribbon (if not already active)
  2. Select the lines of text to be formatted (does not need to be the entire line; as long as any portion of a line is selected, it will be affected)
  3. Select the Bullets or Numbering icons at the beginning of the "Paragraph" section of the Home ribbon (looks like three bullets or numbers with horizontal lines next to them)
    1. Use the small arrow next to either icon for addition options (e.g., different bullet styles or a numbered list using a, b, c instead of 1, 2, 3)

Document Properties

Document Title

All documents must have a descriptive title.

Word Instructions

  1. Select the "File" tab in the ribbon
  2. Select "Properties"
  3. Select "Advanced Properties"
  4. Select the "Summary" tab
  5. Enter a title in the "Title" box

Styles, Colors, and Sensory Characteristics

Text Color

All text must have high contrast against the background (e.g., dark text on light background or light text on dark background).

  • Do not place text directly on top of multicolored backgrounds/pictures (contrast must be sufficient for every part of every letter). Use outlines or add a box behind text if it must be placed on top of an image.
  • Use the directions for Modifying Text Styles if color will be changed for a style (i.e., only use these instructions to change a single instance of text color).
  • If detailed contrast checks are needed, the Colour Contrast Analyser can be used (

Word Instructions

  1. Select the "Home" tab in the ribbon (if not already active)
  2. Select the Font Color icon in the "Font" section of the ribbon (appears as the letter "A" with a thick line of color beneath it)
  3. Choose a color or select "More Colors..." to customize

Modifying Text Styles and Heading Appearance

Headings and any font/paragraph styles used more than once should be modified via Styles, not line-by-line changes.

  • Note: Most document text uses the "Normal" style by default. Changing "Normal" will affect other styles (most styles are based on it, and inherit changes made to it).

Word Instructions

  1. Select the "Home" tab in the ribbon (if not already active)
  2. Find the style you want to modify in the "Styles" section of the ribbon (may need to scroll the Styles list; a box appears around the style in use at the current cursor location)
  3. Right-click on the style name
  4. Select "Modify..."
  5. Change basic font, style, and color directly in the window that appears
  6. To change advanced properties (e.g., paragraph spacing)
    1. Select the "Format" button at the bottom-right of the window
    2. Select the appropriate category (e.g., "Paragraph")

Use of Color & Sensory Characteristics

Content cannot be identified or differentiated solely based on color, shape, size, visual location, orientation, or sound.

  • Chart content cannot depend on perception of color to be understood (e.g., used solid, dashed, and dotted lines; bars with cross-hatching;
  • Do not refer to "the red text" or "the box to the left".
  • Sensory characteristics can be used as redundant cues (e.g., significant results have an asterisk and are also red, and the use of the asterisk is defined).

Sharing and Exporting Documents

Marking as Final

Documents should be marked as final and distributed in Word format whenever possible.

  • Avoid converting documents to PDF, which can introduce a variety of difficult-to-fix accessibility problems.
  • To undo (remove Final designation), repeat steps 2-4 below.

Word Instructions

  1. Save the document using a new filename (e.g., add "Final" to the end).
    1. Hit the F12 key on your keyboard to bring up the "Save As" dialog
  2. Select the "File" tab in the ribbon
  3. Select the "Protect Document" icon
  4. Select "Mark as Final"

Exporting to PDF

Avoid exporting Word documents to PDF whenever possible.

  • You must have Acrobat Professional installed and integrated into Word to export an accessible PDF.
  • Using the build-in "Export" function in Word will not create an accessible PDF.
  • Always make a Word document as accessible as possible before exporting to PDF.
  • Exporting to PDF reduces accessibility and can create a variety of problems that are difficult to fix.

Word Instructions

  1. Select the "ACROBAT" tab in the ribbon
  2. Select "Preferences" in the "Create Adobe PDF" section of the ribbon
    1. Change "Conversion Settings" dropdown to "Press Quality"
    2. Make sure "Enable Accessibility and Reflow with Tagged Adobe PDF" is checked
    3. Make sure "Create Bookmarks" and "Add Links" are checked
  3. Select "Create PDF" in the "Create Adobe PDF" section of the ribbon