Creating Accessible Learning Materials – Microsoft Word

Our team has been infusing accessibility into our process for a while. In the blog series, “Formatting eLearning Documents,” former team member Wendy detailed how to effectively format documents in Microsoft Word and take full advantage of its features. I intend to add to that resource with my own article series, with a specific focus on accessibility. 

In “Creating Accessible Learning Materials,” I’ll explore a few ways accessibility practices can be implemented when creating content in Microsoft Office. Today, I’ll focus on Word and briefly cover some useful tips to improve the documents you share. 

It’s important to ensure that everyone can access your documents, whether it’s people who use a screen reader or have a hard time reading text on a page. You can choose formatting decisions to make the content accessible and improve their ability to clearly understand the information in your document. 

Alt Text

Alternative text, or “alt text,” are short descriptions embedded in an image. You can add alt text to images, shapes, SmartArt graphics, and charts. Those who are blind or have low vision use a screen reader like Windows Narrator, Apple VoiceOver, JAWS, or MS Word’s built-in narrator feature to read the alt text and provide meaningful context. If you include images in your document, alt text will let those with screen readers will know they’re there. 

When you run the Accessibility Checker tool, it will flag any images without alternative text. Decorative images can be marked as not pertinent to the information of the document. 

Headings

Headings visually organize your content and allow those with screen readers to navigate the document easily. When you select a preset heading style, metadata is added to the document that allows users to jump to different sections rather than going through the whole document. 

While the font style, size, and color may change after you select a preset heading, you can always change it to whatever you want, and it will retain its heading classification. You can also edit the heading styles to match your document’s design, including font type, size, and color. Also, when making subheadings be sure to use presets that count up as you go down the hierarchy (i.e., Title, Heading 1 is a main heading, Heading 2 is the subheading, etc.)

Sequential Lists

Ordered lists give your content a hierarchy and separation for those who need a screen reader. Everyone who reads your document will benefit from the organization of your information in a clear and concise manner. 

For the separation of ideas, use bullet points and shapes. For outlining the steps of a process, use numbers. Keep the content in your points brief, as that is the purpose of separating your information. If it’s possible to separate the content of one list item into two, then do so. 

Line Spacing

Line spacing, or “leading,” creates space between lines. According to WCAG 2.1 section 1.4.12, the space between the lines of body text should be at least 1.5 times the font size. Not having adequate space between text makes reading harder for those who have difficulties tracking the beginning and ending of lines in a paragraph. 

Now, 1.5 times the font size works most of the time, but how far you separate the lines really depends on the font type and size. Stay flexible and keep in mind how easy your document is to read. When in doubt, have someone review it for you.

Hyperlinks

When placing links in your document, include the title or a brief description of the page you link to and hyperlink the URL to the text. Do not copy and paste the URL into the document—screen readers will read a jumbled mess of letters and numbers! Not having a URL is more visually pleasing anyway.

If you reference a webpage with an article, make the title of the article the hyperlink. You can also use whatever verbiage references the webpage to serve as the hyperlink (i.e., In the CDC’s resource on physical activity in the workplace, the benefits listed include…)

Text Color

When using color in text, a high contrast between the text and background makes it easier to read. Those with low vision or colorblindness will find low contrast text almost impossible to read. According to the minimum requirements of WCAG 2.1 section 1.4.3, the visual presentation of text and images of text should have a contrast ratio of at least 5:4:1, large text should have a ratio of 3:1, and text that is part of a user interface or logo does not have a contrast ratio requirement. The contrast ratio of text is the difference in brightness between the brightest part (typically white) and the darkest part (typically black) of the text and its background. As mentioned, this also applies to text in images, so be sure important text-based information in the image is also represented in alt text or elsewhere in the document.

If you need to color code a section of your document, the Accessibility Checker will let you know if the color contrast is high enough. Also, use additional methods to organize your color-coded information in case someone has a hard time differentiating colors. This will also ensure that those using a screen reader can tell sections apart.

The Accessibility Checker

The Accessibility Checker can be found in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel under the “Review” ribbon. The Accessibility Checker scans your document and lets you know where you can improve accessibility. In some cases, it provides immediate solutions directly in the Accessibility Checker panel. For example, it will let you know when you need to address headings, color contrast, and images needing alt text. Though it’s an extremely valuable tool, the Accessibility Checker won’t catch everything (such as line spacing). Be sure to carefully look over your document even after using the tool to ensure its functional for both visual and auditory readers.

Conclusion

While these steps cover a good portion of what you should keep in mind when composing documents in Word, Microsoft provides useful resources to guide you in making your content accessible. They understand how important these programs are for the education of those with disabilities and are doing a great job providing features and guidance to make everyone’s lives easier. 

Have an amazing day, and make sure to use the Accessibility Checker!

Resources

Microsoft. (n.d.). Create accessible Office documents. Microsoft Support. Retrieved September 23, 2021. 

Microsoft. (n.d.). Make your Word documents accessible to people with disabilities. Microsoft Support. Retrieved September 23, 2021. 

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). (n.d.). Understanding Success Criterion 1.4.12: Text Spacing. Understanding success criterion 1.4.12: Text spacing. Retrieved September 23, 2021. 

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). (n.d.). Understanding Success Criterion 1.4.3: Contrast (Minimum). Understanding success criterion 1.4.3: Contrast (minimum). Retrieved September 23, 2021. 

Author: Kyle Winchell, Instructional Media Support

Kyle enjoys working with various forms of media to help teach, tell stories, and bring experiences to those who may not have had the chance otherwise. Off time is usually spent learning new facts or skills, hanging out online with friends, or spending time with family.

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