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Best Practices in Making a Word 2013 Accessible Document

Create Accessible Word Documents


A good heading structure is probably the most important accessibility consideration in most Word documents. Headings will allow screen reader users to navigate through the page easily and will make the page more usable for everyone. Many people do not use true styles in Word. For example, when creating a heading, they simply change the font, enlarge the font size, make it bold, etc. If this is done, the document has no real structure that can be discerned by a screen reader. In Word, the correct way to provide structure is to use Word styles. This section will outline how to add and edit headings in all common versions of Word. You can also add 1st, 2nd, or 3rd level headings using Ctrl + Alt + 1, 2, or 3 (Cmd + Option on a Mac).

Word 2007 - 2013

Word 2007 and later does a good job of encouraging the use of proper styles. About half of the default toolbar is devoted to styles. To change a block of text, select the text and click on the appropriate style.

Screenshot of styles toolbar in Word 2007.

Alternative text for images

Images can be given appropriate alternative text in Word. This alt text will be read by a screen reader in a Word file and should remain intact when exporting to HTML or PDF.


  • Embedded charts should be given a text description within the context of the document itself. The data that is used to create the chart will be accessible in the original file (it is basically a simple spreadsheet), but will not be included in a PDF or HTML version.
  • "Word art" is actually converted to an image in Office 2003-2007 and must be given alt text. It remains text in Office 2010.
  • There is no way to add alt text to images in Word 2004 or 2008 for Mac.

Word 2013

Word 2013 moved the alt text field back to an intuitive place, but made things even more confusing by creating two fields for alt text. To add alt text to an image, Select the Format Picture... option.

Screenshot showing image context menu with Format Picture selected.

With the Format Picture menu open, select the option for Alt Text in the sidebar. Two fields will appear, one labeled Title and one labeled Description. For best results, add appropriate alt text to the Description field, not the Title field. Information in the Title field will not be saved as alt text when the file is saved as HTML.

Screenshot showing alternative text added to the image Description field.

If you want to be extra safe, you can duplicate the alt text in both the Title and Description fields.

Data tables and accessibility issues

There is no way to assign table headers or <th> elements to a table created in Word. You can indicate that a row should Repeat as header on the top of each page; in the Table Properties menu. When saved as PDF, the cells in the first row are detected as table headers, though the headers are not maintained if the file is saved as HTML. Instead, the cells will all be contained in a <thead> element. The <thead>, <tfoot>, and <tbody> are used to divide the tables into the three main parts of a data table. While the inclusion of the <thead> element poses no problems, it does not replace the need for the <th> elements for all table headers. There is no way to add row headers (headers across the side of a table) in Word.


Hyperlinks are usually created in Word by pasting the full url into a page (e.g., and hitting space, Enter, or some other key. This automatically creates a link. It's simple, but the URL may not make sense to the reader. To change the hyperlink text, select a link, right click and select Edit Hyperlink, or select Ctrl + K (Cmd + K on a Mac). Change the URL in the Text to display field to something more descriptive.


If you are creating a Word document that may be both printed and read electronically, you may want to include the URL and a description in the link text - "WebAIM article on Creating accessible documents in Word ("

Other principles

In addition to the principles addressed above, most web accessibility principles can also be applied to files created in Word. The following is a list of a few other important accessibility principles:

  • Use true numbered and bulleted lists.
  • Ensure that font size is sufficient, usually around 12 points or more.
  • Provide sufficient contrast.
  • Don't use color as the only way to convey content.
  • Use true columns, not tables or columns created by hand with the Tab key.
  • Provide a table of contents, especially for long documents. If you have a good heading structure, creating a table of contents is easy.
  • Use simple language.

Word 2013 Accessibility Checker

Word 2010 includes a new accessibility checker that allows you to check for accessibility problems. This is an excellent resource and one of the best accessibility features to come along in a long time. The accessibility checker makes it much easier to identify and repair accessibility issues. This is an excellent resource.

To run the accessibility checker, select File > Info > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility.

Screenshot of the Check Accessibility menu

This will start the accessibility checker.

Screenshot of the Check Accessibility report

The checker presents accessibility errors (e.g., images with no alt text), warnings (e.g., unclear link text) and tips (e.g., skipping from a first level heading to a third level heading). Feedback about the importance of each item, as well as tips on how to repair it, are included. Selecting an item in the report will select the corresponding item in the document.

Docx Format

The "docx" format is the default file format for documents created in Word 2007 and newer. The format has some advantages (such as smaller file size), but is not as widely supported as the old "doc" format. Although there is a free download that allows users to open the newer format in older versions of Word, some content will be lost in the conversion process. If the Word file is going to end up on the web, or if your going to send it to someone and are not doing anything that relies on the newer docx format, consider saving files as Word 97-2003 Document (*.doc) in Office 2007 and 2010.

Convert Word to PDF

Many Word documents end up as PDF files. It is a convenient way to preserve formatting and accessibility information, assuming the file is converted correctly. Read more on converting a Word document to accessible PDF in our Acrobat/PDF article.

If you have questions or would like assistance, please Contact the AIM Center at (562) 985-1663.

Information on this page provided with permission by WebAIM

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