Microsoft Word uses its own particular XML markup language, which is coded in the background of the document. Much like HTML, this markup language is used to tag content with semantic and structural meaning. Creating a document with good content markup practices helps ensure that the document also has strong legibility for a person listening to the document with a screen reader, and navigability for a listener or person who relies on a keyboard for navigation.
Markup for the document structure in Microsoft Word is managed by the user primarily through a combined use of the styles tool for marking headings and other content types, and list structures.
Figure 1. Location of list and styles tools in MS Word toolbar.
The following sections will cover how to make sure the content of your document has a meaningful structure and is accessible.
When you are writing content in a MS Word document, blocks of text are marked up as paragraphs by default, which you can also see is represented in the styles tool.
To make the body text of your content visibly accessible, be sure to style the text with the following features:
- Avoid going below a 12 pt. font size.
- Make sure text has high-contrast. For example, use black on white, not grey on white.
- Use sans-serif font families, like Arial, Helvetica, or Calibri. Sans-serif fonts are more legible on screens, while serif has better legibility in print.
If you need to add extra space between lines of text, paragraphs, or other content, use the Styles tool to adjust the spacing. Avoid using multiple paragraph breaks to create spacing as this will read as a series of “blank”s by a screen reader and may signal to a listener as the end of the document.
To markup text as a heading, do the following:
- Highlight the text
- Select the appropriate heading style from the styles tool from either the Home tab in the top menu, or from the quick menu that appears after highlighting text. See Figure 2.
Figure 2. Accessing the styles tool from the Home tab in top menu or the quick contextual menu.
Note that you can also customize the appearance of particular styles by right-clicking it and selecting the item “Modify…”. Visit the Microsoft Office support site for more information about customizing styles.
Unordered or ordered listed content must also be marked appropriately. Paragraph content with a bullet character, numeral, letter, and so on at the start of the paragraph are not adequate substitutes. Screen readers will communicate content as part of a list structure when tagged appropriately.
To create a list, select the appropriate list type from the lists tool from either the top menu ribbon, or from the quick menu that appears after right-clicking the document or a text highlight.
Figure 3. Location of the Lists tool
Images need to have ‘alt-text’, which is a short one to two sentence explanation of the content. This can be done with the following steps:
- Right-clicking an image, going to ‘Format Picture’ item.
- In the ‘Format Picture’ pane that opens, select the ‘Layout and Properties’ Menu item.
- Fill out the Alt-Text ‘Title’ and ‘Description’
Figure 4. Applying alt-text to an image.
Utilize row headers to clarify data relationships. To set row headers for a table, do the following:
- Select the table and go to the Table Design tab
- Select the Header Row option, if not already selected
- Fill out the row headers.
If the table is spans over a page break, make sure to have the header row repeat at the top of the table for the new page. To set this option, do the following:
- Highlight the header row
- Right-Click (Shift + F10) your selection, and select from the contextual menu the item Table Properties.
- In the Table Properties window select the Row tab.
- Select the option Repeat as header row at the top of each page.
Tables should have a clear identifying label, such as Table 1, as you would use the label Figure 1 for images.
Much like images summary alt-text should be provided as well. To set alt-text for a table, do the following:
- Right-Click (Shift + F10) the table, and select from the contextual menu the item Table Properties
- In the Table Properties window select the Alt Text tab.
- Fill out the Title and Description fields.
Figure 5. Setting up the Header Row for a table.
More information on creating accessible Word documents can be found on the Microsoft Office website.
Programs in the Microsoft Office suite have a built in Accessibility Checker, this should be used as a supplement to the practices above.