Teaching Essentials

Accessible Word Documents

HTML is the most accessible medium. It is preferable to use LEARN’s HTML templates to create content. But it’s not always practical to use HTML. Sometimes a Word document is required, maybe due to the length of the document or for copyright reasons (e.g an article or paper). Word documents can be made more accessible by following a few steps.


  • Use sans serif fonts. They are are easier to read. Arial is preferred by most people.
  • Avoid using serifs such as Times New Roman. They are more difficult to read than sans serif fonts in print and on monitors.
  • Use font size 14 points as the normal body size.
  • Use left aligned text without justification. It is easiest to read.
  • Black text on a white background is preferred and easier to read.
  • Other colours can be used as long as they have strong contrast.

Blank Characters

Delete any blank characters or spaces you may have introduced into the document using a hard return (Enter key). Screen reader software will read out “space” for each blank character.

Blank characters displayed in a Word document.
Fig.1 – Blank characters displayed in a Word document using the Accessibility Checker.

Meaningful structure

Structure provides students with a way to navigate and interact with content in Word documents. Use heading styles, lists, and emphasized text to create meaningful structure.

Heading Styles

Using Heading Styles correctly creates meaningful structure to Word documents. Pages should be structured in a hierarchical manner. Heading level typically represents the level of importance.

The top level, Heading 1, is the highest level on each page and represents the most important heading. Heading 1 is usually only used for the page title. Heading 6 is the lowest level, and the least important.


  • Limit using only one Heading 1. Use Heading 1 for the page title only.
  • Heading 2 is a subheading of Heading 1
  • Heading 3 is a subheading of Heading 2
  • Heading 4 is a subheading of Heading 3
  • Do not skip heading levels. Doing so will confuse students using assistive technologies such as screen readers.

In the example below, Headings 1 to 3 have been used to create a hierarchical structure in a Word document (and shown in parenthesis). The Headings can also be used to navigate the document using the Navigation pane.

Hierarchical structure in a Word document created using Headings.
Fig.2 – Hierarchical structure in a Word document created using Headings.


Lists are used to order into easy to read and easy to reference chunks of text. Lists are also used to define a progression or a sequence. Use bulleted and numbered lists to create chunks of text.

Unordered lists or bulleted lists

Unorderd lists or bulleted lists are the most common of type of list.

Use unorderd lists:

  • When there is no order of sequence or importance to a list of items
  • To break up blocks of written content for easier understanding

Ordered lists or numbered lists

Use orderd lists:

  • For a progression or a sequence, such as instructions with numbered steps (e.g. 1, 2, 3, … )
  • When there is an importance of a list of items (e.g. 1 is more important than 2)

Emphasized text

Text is emphasized using bold to stand out from the body text for important terms and phrases.

  • Do not over use bold text. It can be difficult to read and is not picked up by screen reading software.
  • Do not use bold to replace headings
  • Limit the use of italics for specific uses, such as non-English words (e.g. alma mater)
  • Avoid italics and underlining as this can make the text appear to run together causing crowding and making text difficult to read. Use bold instead.

Who benefits from meaningful structure?

  • Proper heading structure is especially important for learners with disabilities who use assistive technologies like screen readers that rely on headings to provide page structure and a means to navigate the page.
  • People who navigate information using keyboard only (no mouse) and assistive technology (e.g. a screen reader and refreshable Braille display). This includes people who are blind, have low vision, motor and dexterity limitations and cognitive limitations.
  • People with reading and learning disabilities, such as dyslexia
  • People who have difficulty comprehending and interpreting written language
  • Deaf people whose first language is American Sign Language (ASL) and there is no written form of ASL

Accessible images

If you include images in your documents, add alternative (or alt text) to the images that describes their content or their context.

Add alt text in Word

  1. Do one of the following:
    • Right-click the object and select Edit Alt Text
    • Select the object. Select Format > Alt Text. …
  2. In the Alt Text pane, type 1-2 sentences in the text box to describe the object and its context to someone who cannot see it.
Adding text to the ALt Text box
Fig.3 – Adding text to the Alt Text box.


Add alternative text to a picture in Word


  • Use tables for tabular data only
  • Use tables rather than an image of a table. The data cannot be read by a screen reader.
  • Do not use complex tables. Use simple tables without merged or split cells.
  • Use header rows with tables to identify data in columns.
  • If the table spans multiple pages, repeat header info on the new page using table properties
  • Check Header Row under the Design tab to add a header row to a table
Fig.4 – Check Header Row under the Design tab.

Colour contrast

Use high colour contrast elements including text, images, graphs, and tables.

High colour contrast in text and a graph in a Word document
Fig. 5 – Use high colour contrast in text and charts

Link description

Using the Accessibility Checker

Use the built in Accessibility Checker to check your documents for any accessibility issues that need to be resolved.

Most common accessibility issues:

  • Incorrect use of Heading styles
  • Use of blank characters or space
  • Image without alt text
  • Tables without header rows
  • Ambiguous link descriptions
Fig.6 – The Accessibility Checker displaying common errors.

If you’re unsure how to resolve any accessibility issues, a solution is to copy the content from Word into a LEARN HTML page.