Creating Accessible Documents in MS Word

In order for Word documents to be fully accessible, authors must follow the core principles. Below are the basic steps for implementing these core accessibility principles.


Using good heading structure helps people without eyesight to understand how the document is organized. Screen reader and Braille users can also jump between headings, which makes navigation much more efficient than if there are no headings.

Making text larger and bold does not make it a heading. In order to convert text to a heading in MS Word, you must use the built-in Heading styles like “Heading 1” and “Heading 2”, available under Styles in the Home tab of the Ribbon in Office versions 2010 and higher.

Remember to use “Heading 1” style for the main heading, and “Heading 2” for sub-headings,“Heading 3”, “Heading 4”, etc. for additional headings.


Lists should be created using Word’s built-in tools for ordered (numbered) and unordered (bulleted) lists. Without using these tools, a list is not really a list, which makes the content more difficult for screen reader users to fully understand.


In most versions of Word, you can enter alternate text by right clicking an image and selecting Format Picture. Within the Format Picture dialog, select Alt Text.

To enter alt text in Office 2007, right click an image and select Size and Positioning. Then select Alt Text.

Photo captured by Terrill Thompson

In Office 2011 (Mac), select Tools > Language from the application menu to define the default language. To define a different language for part of the document, select each foreign language individually, then select Tools > Language to define the language for each.

In Office 2010, the same option is located in the Ribbon. Within the Review tab, select the Language button, then select “Set Proofing Language”.

NOTE: Currently language settings only effect accessibility of the Word document itself. They do not survive when exported to PDF. If PDF is the final format in which you intend to distribute your document, you will need to define language in the PDF directly using Adobe Acrobat Pro.


Word has limitations when it comes to making tables accessible. For a simple table with one row of column headers and no nested rows or columns, Word is up to the task. However, more complex tables can only be made accessible within HTML or Adobe PDF (accessible table markup can be added to the PDF using Adobe Acrobat Pro).

Often complex tables can be simplified by breaking them into multiple simple tables with a heading above each.

For simple tables, the only step necessary for accessibility is to identify which row contains the column headers. To do this in Word, select that row (Table > Select > Row), then right click the row and select “Table Properties”. This brings up the Table Properties dialog. In this dialog, click the Row tab, and check the checkbox that says “Repeat as header row at the top of each page”.


Starting with an accessible Word document, a goal when exporting to PDF is do so in a way that preserves the accessibility features of the Word document, including heading structure, alternate text for images, and markup that explicitly identifies lists, tables, document language, and other content that is important for accessibility.

The steps required depends on which version of Microsoft Word you’re using.

Word 2013 and Word 2010 (Windows)

  1. Go to File > “Save As…” and select PDF from the choices provided. By default this produces a PDF that preserves the document’s accessibility features.
  2. When saving, select Options and be sure that “Document structure tags for accessibility” is checked. This is checked by default, but could become unchecked under certain circumstances.
  3. If you select “Minimize Size” to reduce the size of your PDF, be sure to repeat the preceding step, as this option might uncheck the “Document structure tags for accessibility” checkbox.

Word 2007 and Word 2003 (Windows)

Prior to Office 2010, exporting to an accessible PDF requires a plug-in. The Adobe PDFMaker Plugin ships with Adobe Acrobat Pro, and the plugin is installed into Office and appears as an Adobe toolbar and menu item. With this plug-in installed, use the Adobe toolbar or the Adobe menu item to Save As PDF. By default this produces a PDF that preserves the document’s accessibility features.

Word for Mac

As of Word 2011, it is unfortunately not yet possible to export to accessible PDF from a Mac. You can create an accessible Word document in Word 2011, but if you ultimately need to export the document to PDF that final step must be taken in Windows.

That’s all for now.

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