Making Documents Accessible

Much information is available about website accessibility. However, documents in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and PDF can also be inaccessible to blind users, as well as some users with cognitive and physical disabilities. This article summarizes the accessibility process for several versions of the Microsoft products, and discusses multiple ways to address PDF accessibility.

 

What is Document Accessibility?

A document is accessible if users with disabilities can read and understand all essential information that it contains, whether or not they use assistive technology. In particular:

  • A document is accessible to a blind user if they can:
    • Understand the document’s overall structure
    • Access and understand all text
    • Access a description of all graphics
    • Understand and navigate elements such as tables
    • For Word and PDF documents: understand the purpose of, logically navigate, and interact with any form fields
  • A document is accessible to a user with cognitive disabilities if they can:
    • Understand the document’s overall structure
    • Read and interpret the document’s contents
  • A document is accessible to a sighted non-mouse user if they can:
    • For Word and PDF documents: understand the purpose of, logically navigate, and interact with any form fields

Common Accessibility Issues with Microsoft Word

People who are familiar with website accessibility will note that several of these issues are parallel to website accessibility guidelines:

  • Graphics do not have text equivalents. Screen reader technology cannot interpret information about graphics, and may either read nothing or read the name of the embedded file, which is very seldom useful. Text equivalents provide a meaningful description of the graphic that can be read by screen readers.
  • Headings are not used properly. Many blind people depend on headings arranged in a hierarchical (outline-style) order to provide information about the organization of the document. Skipped heading levels (e.g., providing a Header 2 and Header 4 but no Header 3s) or heading markup used for text formatting rather than indicating document structure can prove confusing. 
  • Column headers for tables are not indicated. Tables in Word documents require column headers so that screen reader users can get a context for the cell they are currently reviewing. Unfortunately, unlike with websites, there is no way to provide row headers in Word.
  • URLs are long and confusing. For users with and without disabilities, it’s preferable to use link text that explains the link’s purpose (e.g, “Center for Accessible Technology home page”) than to use the URL as the link text.
  • Reading level is not optimized. Many documents use more complex language than is necessary to present information. This is likely to be problematic for people with cognitive disabilities, as well as beginning readers, ESL students, and potentially any document readers.
  • Form fields don’t make sense. Like fields within web pages, in Word form fields need to be associated with labels that describe their purpose.

Adding Text Equivalents to Graphics

Text appropriateness will vary among documents, so that text for a picture of the First Lady in a document provided by the While House might say, “Photo of Michelle Obama,” while the text for the same picture in a fashion-related document might say, “Photo of Michelle Obama wearing a black sheath and large pearls.” More complex graphics, such as bar charts, will need more detailed descriptions. Graphics that include text should include a transcript of this text in the equivalent. Graphics that are used purely for decoration, such as lines, should not have text equivalents.

Adding Text Equivalents in Word for Windows 2000 and 2003

  • Right-click on the image, then select Format Picture....
  • A dialog box will appear. Select the Web tab.
  • Type in appropriate alternative text.

Adding Text Equivalents in Word for Windows 2007

  • Right-click on the picture and select Size....
  • A dialog box will appear. Select the Alt Text  tab.
  • Type in appropriate alternative text. Note that the file name that is entered by default will usually need to be replaced to be meaningful

Adding Text Equivalents in Word for Windows 2010

  • Right-click on the picture and select the Format Picture... option.
  • With the Format Picture menu open, select the option for Alt Text in the sidebar.
  • You will see both a Title and Description field. Type appropriate alternative text into the Description field. Leave the Title field blank OR duplicate the information from the Description field.

Adding Text Equivalents in Word for Macintosh

There is no built-in way to do this. The work-around is to type an appropriate description underneath the graphic.

Using Headings to Create a Hierarchy

The document title should be marked as Heading 1. Major topic headings should be Heading 2, subtopics headings should be Heading 3, sub-subtopics should be Heading 4, and so on. Do not skip heading levels—e.g., if Heading 4 is used, it needs to be under a Heading 3.

Using Headings in Word 2000 and 2003

Select text, then use the drop-down styles list in the Toolbar and select the appropriate heading level.

Using Headings in Word 2007 and 2010

Select the text, then select the appropriate heading level from the Styles section of the Home ribbon.

Using Headings in Word for Mac

Select the text, then select Styles from the Formatting palette.

Adding Table Column Headers in Word

This is done by using the function that repeats header rows across page breaks.

For all versions of Word for Windows:

  • Right-click on the first row of the table.
  • From the context menu select Table Properties.
  • Click on the Row tab.
  • Click on the “Repeat as Header Row…” checkbox.

For Word for Macintosh:

  • Open the Table menu
  • Choose “Heading Rows Repeat”

Making Long Links Understandable in Word

If a document already uses a hyperlink as its link text, this can easily be changed by doing the following:

  • Select the link
  • Bring up the Edit Hyperlink dialog (Windows: Control-K; Mac: Command-K)
  • Edit the Text to Display field so that it contains meaningful descriptive text.

Creating Accessible Form Fields

The label describing a form field and the form field itself may not be proximate. Therefore, extra steps need to be done to explicitly associate them.

Creating Accessible Form Fields in Word 2000 and 2003

  • Go to the Toolbar option on the View menu and select the Forms toolbar, which will pop up.
  • Use the toolbar to insert a field, then right-click on the field.
  • Click on Properties. A Text Form Field Options dialog will appear.
  • Click on the Add Help Text button. Click on the “Type Your Own” radio button.
  • Type in a brief, clear description of the form’s purpose, e.g., “Enter your first name”

Creating Accessible Form Fields in Word 2007/2010

  • Click the Microsoft Office Button , and then click Word Options.
  • Click on the “Popular” link at the left.
  • Select the Show Developer tab in the Ribbon check box, and then click OK.
  • On the Developer tab, in the Controls group, click Design Mode, and then click where you want to insert a control.
  • On the Developer tab, in the Controls group, click Legacy Tools.         You will see Legacy Forms options, which look like the 2000/2003 Forms toolbar.
  • Proceed as for Word 2000/2003.

Creating Accessible Form Fields in Word for Macintosh

  • Go to the Toolbar option on the View menu and select the Forms toolbar, which will pop up.
  • Use the toolbar to insert a field, then double-click on the field. A Text Form Field Options dialog will appear.
  • Click on the Add Help Text button. Click on the “Type Your Own” radio button.
  • Type in a brief, clear description of the form’s purpose, e.g., “Enter your first name”

Flesch Reading Level score

The Flesch reading score is a commonly used method to calculate document readability. It is based on both sentence length and average syllables per word.

Higher scores are better; 60 is a good target score for documents intended for a general audience. To calculate the Flesch score of a document:

  • Save a copy of the document in .TXT format
  • Download the Windows or Macintosh version of the Flesh (sic) Document Accessibility Calculator from http://flesh.sourceforge.net/
  • Open Flesh, click the Choose button, and select the .TXT file
  • Click the “Process” button. The score will appear.

If your score is considerably lower than 60, try doing the following:

  • Shorten long sentences or rewrite as multiple sentences.
  • Use words with fewer syllables where appropriate. (“Mary possessed a diminutive juvenile ovine” is not as effective as “Mary had a little lamb.”)

Word 2010 Accessibility Checker

Several of the problems listed above can be identified using the new Accessibility Checker feature. To bring this up, select File > Info > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility.

Common Accessibility Issues with Microsoft Excel

  • Charts do not have text equivalents. Unfortunately, Excel does not seem to have a way to add text equivalents to charts. One solution would be to provide an accompanying text document that describes any charts.
  • Other graphics do not have text equivalents.The directions for adding text equivalents to other graphics are the same as for Word. There is no way to add text equivalents in Excel for Macintosh.
  • Columns/rows headers are placed oddly or do not have clear, meaningful titles. This is similar to the issue with tables in Word. However, it is much easier to resolve:
    • Keep header information in Column A and Row 1.
    • Keep header titles brief but clearly descriptive. Avoid abbreviations.

Common Accessibility Issues with PowerPoint

  • Layouts other than the standard slide templates are used. Screen readers and other assistive technologies may be programmed to correctly recognize and interpret the structure of standard templates, and may not work correctly when the developer modifies the template.
  • Themes are poorly designed from an accessibility standpoint. Some PowerPoint themes use similar colors for text and background, or have “busy” backgrounds that will make text hard to read or be distracting. These should be avoided or modified.
  • Graphics do not have text equivalents. This is the same as the text equivalent issue for Word and Excel, and has the same solutions.
  • Text is small and/or crowded. Slide developers often tend to crowd a great deal of information into a single slide. This is a problem for everyone, but especially for people with cognitive disabilities.
  • Other issues similar to Word (long URLs, text reading level, etc.) with similar fixes. The Flesh software mentioned in the Word discussion may not work well with the short amount of text on most slides, but visual examination should reveal where words could be replaced and sentences could be shortened.

Using Standard PowerPoint Layouts

Using AutoLayouts greatly increases compatibility with assistive technology. To convert a slide to a standard layout in Windows, right-click anywhere outside a text box and choose “Slide Layout…” A list of options will appear. For Macintosh, select “Slide Layout…” from the “Format” menu and then choose an option.

Keeping Text Legible in PowerPoint

Using basic principles of good PowerPoint design will also improve accessibility:

  • Spread information over multiple slides instead of cramming it into a single slide
  • Avoid using fancy fonts
  • Use slide transitions judiciously, if at all

PDF Accessibility

The key to PDF accessibility is “tagging” files with hidden structural information that can be interpreted by screen readers used by blind individuals. These tags are similar in principle, if not in detail, to those used for HTML accessibility markup.

The creation of an accessible PDF file is dependent on how the source document is created. If an existing hard-copy document is scanned, it will be inaccessible if a graphic mode is used; it should be scanned into a Word file using Optical Character Recognition. If the PDF is generated from Word or PowerPoint, it is more likely to be accessible if the original file has the fixes listed in the sections on Word and PowerPoint.

General Guidelines for Creating Word Files for Export to PDF

Follow the guidelines for creating accessible Word files. The file must also be exported correctly; if a file is created by printing to PDF, it will not be correctly tagged.

Exporting Tagged PDF Files from  Word 2000 and 2003

  • Adobe Acrobat must be installed. This installation process will automatically add an Office-to-PDF utility to Microsoft Office, as well as an Adobe PDF menu in the Word menu bar
  • From the Adobe PDF menu, choose Change Conversion Settings and ensure Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF are selected.
  • Export the file by choosing Convert to Adobe PDF from the Adobe PDF menu.

Exporting Tagged PDF Files from Word 2007 and 2010: Method 1

  • Download and install the free Microsoft Save as a PDF add-in. (This step does not need to be done for Word 2010; the add-in is already included.)
  • Click on the Office Button, hover over Save As, and select PDF from the right-hand list
  • From the dialog box, select Options and ensure that the “Document structure tags for accessibility” option is selected.
  • Save the file

Exporting Tagged PDF Files from  Word 2007 and 2010: Method 2

Note that with Word 2010, this will only work for Acrobat X and the 32-bit version of Word.

  • Install Acrobat as described for 2000/2003
  • Go to the Acrobat ribbon and select Create PDF
  • In the dialog box, make sure Fully Functional PDF is selected.
  • In the dialog box, click on the Adobe PDF Conversion Options button and make sure that “Create Accessible (Tagged) PDF File” is selected
  • Save the file

Creating Accessible Documents from Untagged Word Files: Method 1

For users of Acrobat Pro or Acrobat Pro Extended for Windows, the Adobe PDF Access Repair Workflow document provides detailed instructions on how to implement accessibility. Elizabeth Pyatt provides a guide for doing this with the Macintosh version of Acrobat. However, personal experience has shown the Acrobat features to be difficult and imprecise to work with.

Creating Accessible Documents from Untagged Word Files: Method 2

The PDF Accessibility Wizard (PAW) is a Word for Windows 2007 and 2010 add-on that can take existing Word files, tag them, and export them to PDF. This is a much easier and more accurate tool than what Acrobat provides.

Verifying Accessibility

There are two primary strategies for verifying that PDF files are tagged properly, both of which are valuable and should be used whenever possible. One is to use the Accessibility Checker in Acrobat Pro. The other is to have a screen reader user (or two, or three…) review the file and report any problems. This will be most effective if the user teams with a sighted individual who can report on any information that the screen reader skips entirely.

Legacy PDFs

It can be very time-consuming to convert an existing PDF file into an accessible version. The best solution is usually to create a redundant version in Word and make this available in parallel. Indeed, since users with low vision or cognitive disabilities can’t convert PDFs to meet their font and color contrast preferences, a redundant Word file for any PDF is ideal. 

Have a question?

Ask an Expert