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Microsoft Word is one of the most commonly-used applications for creating syllabi and handouts in academia, yet often not used to its full potential. The text within Word documents can be read by assistive technologies such as screen readers and Braille devices. However, 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.

1. file name

Try to keep it concise (limited to 20-30 characters) and descriptive of the document. Avoid spaces and/or special characters including & , . ( ) % # $ ¢ / \ – { } [ ] < > : ; @.

Good Example: History101 Syllabus.docx
Bad Example: History101 Fall 2016 Syllabus – Prof. Smith.docx

2. font

Use San Serif fonts (e.g. Arial, Helvetica, Verdana, Franklin Gothic, etc.) for universally better readability. If the document is expected to be printed, use font-size no smaller than 12pt.

Showing the difference between san serif and serif fonts

3. Visual/color

Generally Keep it as simple as possible. Unless there is a clear purpose, refrain from use of non-white background and extensive use of imagery. Don’t rely solely on colors to emphasize the importance of text. There are two typical solutions to this issue: For images, provide an alternative text equivalent; for text, make style changes (bold, italicize, or underline) in addition to the color differentiation. If you are using non-black colors for text, make sure the contrast is high enough for legibility.

Examples of good and bad color uses as described above.

4. Image/alt-text

All images and non-text elements that convey information must have meaningful alternative-text descriptions. This is a critical step to make sure that students using a screen-reader device can also understand the content.

Screenshot of ATL text navigation on Microsoft Word 2013

For a shape, picture, chart, and SmartArt graphic in your document, you can add ALT-text by: Right-click on the object, and click Format Picture/Object, and then click the Alt Text pane (For a table, right-click the table, click Table Properties, and then click the Alt Text tab). In the Description box, enter an explanation of the content. This box should always be filled in. The Title box should only be filled in if you are entering a detailed or long explanation in the Description box.

5. Styling

Structure your document using Style elements (Heading 1, Heading 2, Normal) in a hierarchical manner, instead of manually bolding or scaling your text to create section headings. These styling elements were developed not to assist formatting but to provide information on the structural hierarchy of a document for screen-reading software. There’s a video on this Microsoft webpage that explains why heading styling is so important.

Styles in Microsoft Word

The body paragraphs in your documents should be styled as Normal. Determine how many sections and subsections there are in your document, and assign Heading levels (Heading 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) accordingly. To apply heading styles to your document, do the following: Select the text you want to make into a heading. On the Home tab, in the Styles group, select the appropriate level heading style from the Quick Styles gallery.

You can also create and customize your own heading and paragraph styles if you like to use different font sizes and typefaces.

6. Table

Use simple table structure. By not using nested tables, or merged or split cells inside of tables, you can make the data predictable and easy to navigate.

If you use a layout table (table with Table Normal style), check the reading order to be sure that it makes sense (for English: left to right, top to bottom). Verify the table reading order by tabbing through the cells to check that the information is presented in a logical order.

7. Things to avoid..
  • long URLs (use hyperlinks instead)
  • Underlines (reserve the use of underlines for hyperlinks)
  • Extended spacing using space bar or tabs (create a simple table instead)
  • Abbreviations (e.g. mon, tue, & wed; instead, spell out Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday)


Accessibility Checker

Finally, check the accessibility of your document using the Accessibility Checker (currently available only on Windows):

  1. Click on the File tab and select Info.
  2. Click the Check for Issues button and select Check Accessibility from the menu.
  3. The Accessibility Checker will open within the document and include Inspection Results and Additional Information. Click on a specific issue to see Additional Information and the steps to change the content.


*For more information about the Accessibility Checker, visit this page on Microsoft website dedicated to the feature.

If you would like us to double-check the formatting of your document, email your file to kcel@kbcc.cuny.edu.

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