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How to Make Your Word Document More Accessible to Everyone



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When creating a Microsoft Word document, you should always make accessibility and inclusivity a top priority. Here are some general rules and best practices to follow to make your document more accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

Add alternative (alt) text to images

As the name implies, a screen reader reads aloud the text on a screen. As advanced as screen readers are, they cannot understand the context of an image without the help of alternative text. When you add alt text to an object in Word, you allow screen readers to collect and read the description, which helps people with visual impairments.

RELATED: Add alternative text to an object in Microsoft Word

Knowing which objects should contain alt text is important. If an image is strictly decorative (such as page borders), it is safe to exclude alt text and you can mark the image as decorative in Word. When you do that, screen readers let the user know that the object in question is for aesthetic purposes only. You can also skip adding alt text to tables, as screen readers can capture the content within those tables without any additional help.

YOU should add alt text to any visual that adds additional context to your document. This almost always includes all:

  • Pictures
  • photos
  • Pictures
  • diagrams
  • Graphs
  • icons
  • form

Writing effective alt text can also take a little practice. You want to make sure you accurately describe the image in one or two sentences (although a few carefully selected words can do the trick, too).

Here are some general tips for writing good alt text:

  • Do not use phrases such as “an image of”
    ; or “a graphic representation.”
  • Do not include textual content that appears as alt text around the image.
  • Write the alt text the same way you would any other descriptive sentence.
  • If you include flowchart alt text, involve the entire process from start to finish. This can be longer than alt text for other images, but it is necessary.

Microsoft tries to make it easier for you by giving you the option to automatically add alt text to images, but you shouldn’t rely on this feature. That’s like asking someone else to write your content for you, and you can’t guarantee that the description is accurate. Own your content.

To add alt text to objects in Word, click the image to select it, then click the “Alternative Text” option in the “Accessibility” group of the “Image Format” tab.

The “Alternate Text” pane appears to the right of the Word document. Here you can write your own alt text, let Word generate a description for you, or mark the image as decorative.

Pictures are not the only media used in Microsoft Word documents; videos can also play an important role.

Add subtitles to videos

Videos can be a great resource, but you need to make sure that the information in the video is accessible to everyone. This means adding subtitles for those who have difficulty hearing and prefer to read the text on the screen.

Unfortunately, Microsoft Word does not have a built-in function to add subtitles to videos. This means that if you made the video yourself, you should do things the old-fashioned way. You can use a text editor (such as Notepad) to create the subtitles and then save that file with the VTT extension.

If you link to or embed a YouTube video, it will (most likely) already have subtitles thanks to Google’s speech recognition that automatically generates this text. This will save you some time, but these captions are not always correct. Try to watch the video for yourself using the subtitles to see what your audience will see. If the subtitles are not correct, consider linking to another source.

Use meaningful hyperlink text

Users can skip from link to link with a screen reader, so it is important that the hyperlink text is not ambiguous. In other words, if the text only says ‘click here’, ‘see more’ or something similar, the user will not understand the meaning behind the link when the screen reader reads it out of context.

RELATED: Insert, delete and manage hyperlinks in Microsoft Word

If you can do this naturally, it is best to use the destination title in the text so that the user knows exactly what the link is.

Adding links to images is also not uncommon. However, this makes it difficult for screen readers. If you need to add a link to an image, make sure that the image’s alt text describes the link’s purpose and location, not the image itself. For this reason, however, you should try to avoid links in images where possible.

While the usability and accessibility of links can take some time, the benefit it brings to your audience is well worth the investment.

Use accessible text sizes and colors

When you insert a link in text, Microsoft Word adds an underline by default. While you can remove the underline from the hyperlink, there is good reason to leave it there.

Using indicators other than color makes it easier for color blind or partially sighted people to understand the information you are trying to convey, be it knowing what text contains a link, or using check marks and crosses instead of green and red around indicate that something is correct or incorrect.

In addition, you must ensure that the contrast between your text and the background of the document is sufficient. Using a light color (eg Light Gray) on a white background will make your text difficult to read.

Here’s an example of poor text / background contrast:

Light gray text on a white background, indicating poor readability of the text

And good text / background contrast:

Black text on a white background, with good contrast

There are online color contrast control apps available that will give you excellent information about whether the contrast in your document is sufficient or not. You can also just use Microsoft Word’s built-in accessibility checker tool.

Build a logical document structure

Building a logical document structure simply means using headings and using them correctly. A common mistake people make when arranging the different sections of their content is to simply resize the text and make it bold. This brings up several issues, such as making it more difficult for screen readers to read and understand the structure of your content, not to mention your document will not display properly in tabular form.

Word has a fairly large library of heading styles you can choose from in the “Styles” group of the “Home” tab. If none of them match the style of your document, you can change the default heading styles.

But using headlines isn’t enough – you have to use them properly. That means that the headings must be nested in a logical order. For example, here’s what a good share price structure looks like:

  • Header 1
  • Section 2
  • Section 3
  • Section 3
  • Section 2
  • Section 3

And here’s an example of a bad price structure:

  • Section 3
  • Header 1
  • Section 3
  • Section 2
  • Header 1

Plus, you’ll want to use built-in formatting tools if needed. For example, if you want to create a list, you can use the numbered / bulleted lists feature found in the “Paragraph” group of the “Home” tab. This is preferable to typing a hyphen, adding a space, and entering the text.

Use table headers and simple structures

Sometimes it just isn’t possible to create simple tables, but if so, you should. Screen readers read tables (so you don’t need to add alt text to them) and track location by counting the cells in the table. When you nest a table in a table or use split cells, it becomes incredibly difficult for the screen reader to keep track of.

RELATED: Tables and other formatting controls

Screen readers also rely on table header information to identify columns and rows. You can add a header to your table. Click anywhere in the table, then in the “Table Style Options” group of the “Table Design” tab, click the box next to “Header Row” to select it.

View your document with the accessibility checker

The Microsoft Word Accessibility Checker scans your document and suggests ways to make your content more accessible. This includes things like scanning images to make sure they contain alt text and making sure tables use a simple structure.

However, there are some limitations. The Accessibility Checker cannot check videos for subtitles, nor can it understand whether you are using color to convey information. Even after using this tool, you should visually scan your document once before sending it.

To use the accessibility checker, click the “Review” tab, then click the icon above “Check Accessibility” in the “Accessibility” group.

The results of the inspection appear in the “Accessibility” pane on the right side of the document. Here you can view the returned errors and warnings.

After you have run the accessibility check and no issues have been encountered, give your document one final visual scan and it is ready to be sent.


Microsoft didn’t stop at Office: the company also offers several accessibility features for its Windows 10 operating system, making the operating system accessible to everyone.




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