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Microsoft Word (Windows) Accessibility Tutorial


Microsoft Word has a number of tools the document creator can use to make the documents they create accessible. This tutorial will walk Windows users with Microsoft Word 2007 or 2010 through the use of these features. A tutorial for Mac versions of Microsoft Word is available here.

In this tutorial, following accessibility features of Microsoft Word will be covered:


Paragraph headings provide context and a way to navigate quickly for users of assistive technologies like screen readers. Such technologies ignore text size and emphasis (bold, italic, underline) unless certain paragraph styles such as Headings, are used. As an added benefit, Headings can be used to automatically generate a Table of Contents or bookmarks in a document. Additionally, styles modify the formatting of all occurrences in a document, so you can quickly change the format of all Headings of a particular level (you can still override global settings by changing the format of an individual piece of text, regardless of style assignment).

Headings should be selected based on their hierarchy in the document. Start the page with a heading that describes overall document content (Heading 1). Follow it with sub-headings (Heading 2) and sub sub-headings (Heading 3), etc.. Items of equal importance should be equal level headings, and heading levels should not be skipped (i.e., a Heading 3 can't be the first heading after Heading 1; Heading 2 can't be skipped).

By default, Heading 1 and Heading 2 can be seen and selected in the Styles section of the Home ribbon in Word. Select the text you wish to make a heading, then left-click the heading level you wish to assign to this text. Word will automatically add Heading 3 to the menu after Heading 2 is used in a document (Heading 4 will be added after Heading 3 is used, and so on through Heading 9).

Screenshot of the Heading area of the top ribbon.

To change the appearance of a Heading, right-click on its entry in the Styles menu, and then click Modify.

Screenshot of the menu shown when you right-click a heading from the style menu. Modify is highlighted near the top of the menu.

 Simple options, like font, color, emphasis, and alignment can be changed immediately in the Modify Style window, while more advanced options are available in the Format drop-down at the bottom-left corner of the window.

Screenshot of the Modify Style pop-up window. Format drop-down menu is highlighted at the bottom left.

If you have already formatted the text you want to make into a heading, and would like to preserve the appearance, right-click the heading entry in the Styles menu and click Update Heading to Match Selection.

Screenshot of right-click menu of a heading entry in the styles menu. Update Heading to Match Selection is highlighted as the first item on this list.

Alternative Text

Alternative text for images, charts, graphs, and tables is vital to ensuring that users with visual impairments have access to information included in these visuals. This descriptive text should be limited to 120 characters for simple images, while the alternative text for graphs, tables, and complex images (such as detailed maps and diagrams) should give a brief summary of the included information. Alternative text should provide sufficient information so that users who are unable to see them are still able to understand what they convey. Images used for purely decorative purposes (i.e., those that do not provide any meaningful information) should not have alternative text. If the body of the document already contains a sufficiently detailed description in close proximity to the image, the alternative text can simply identify the image so that the reader knows when it is being referred to.

While there are no hard and fast rules for determining what alternative text should say (it depends on the image, its context, the intent of the author, etc.), one simple trick is to imagine describing the image to someone over the phone. The more important an image's content is, the more descriptive the alternative text should be.

For the MSU wordmark (shown in the examples below), "Michigan State University wordmark" would be appropriate for most documents. A graphic design document describing the introduction and use of different branding marks at MSU might require a more detailed description, if the specific formatting of the text would be important to the reader.

For charts and graphs, chart type (i.e., bar, pie, line, etc.), data type or axes, overall trends or patterns, and relevant data points should be described. For example, a simple chart might have the following alternative text: "Bar chart of number of traffic fatalities in Ingham county from 2008-2010. Fatalities have increased for the last two years. There were 121 fatalities in 2008, 157 in 2009, and 160 in 2010."


Word 2007

Right-click the image you wish to add alternative text to, and select Size.

Screenshot of menu when right-clicking an image of the MSU Wordmark in Windows Word 2007. The Size button is highlighted near the end of this menu.

This will open a dialog box. Select the Alt Text tab, where you will see that the image file name is entered by default. Remove the filename and enter an appropriate description of the image.

Word 2010

Right-click the image you wish to add alt text to and select Format Picture.

Screenshot of the menu when right-clicking on the MSU Wordmark in Windows Word 2010. Format Picture is highlighted as the last option in the menu.

This will open a dialog box. Select the Alt Text tab. Do not enter alternative text in the Title box; you must use the Description box.

Screenshot of Format Picture dialog box in Word 2010. The Alt text tab is the last item on the left menu and is currently selected. Alt text is entered into the second text box on the right. Michigan State University Wordmark is in this second text box in the example.

Charts and Graphs

Most charts and graphs require longer explanations than simple images.

To add a caption:

Right click near the edge of the chart, graph or table and choose Insert Caption.

Screenshot of the right-click menu of a bar chart. Insert caption is highlighted near the end of this menu.

In the Caption dialog box, type in a short description of the chart or graph.

Screenshot of Caption dialog box. The Caption field is the first entry field.

To add alternative text:

The ability to add alternative text to a chart or graph is not turned on by default. First, we must make the feature available and then add the alternative text description to our chart.

To enable alternative text, navigate to the fly-out menu (known as the Quick Access Toolbar) at the top of the ribbon and choose More Commands.

Screenshot of an expanded drop-down menu at the top of Microsoft Word, to the right of the undo/redo buttons.

Select Customize on the left (Word 2010 users will see Quick Access Toolbar). Use the drop-down menu, Choose commands from and select Commands Not in the Ribbon.

Screenshot of Word Options dialog box. The Customize tab is highlighted in the menu options on the left. Choose commands from is the first field in the box and is expanded. Commands Not in the Ribbon is the second option of this drop down.

Select Alt Text and the Add button to add the option to your Quick Access Toolbar. Click OK to finish.

Screenshot showing Alt Text selected in the scroll menu on the left.

You will now have easy access to alternative text for charts and graphs from the Quick Access Toolbar. 

Screenshot of Alt text button. The icon looks like a text box attached to an image and is located at the top of the screen, to the right of the Redo button.

Highlight the chart or graph and click the alternative text button that you just set up in the Quick Access Toolbar. Select the Alt Text tab and insert an alternative text description. Word 2010 users must type the description in the Description box.

Screenshot of Alt Text entry field for a chart or graph. Alternate text is entered into the Description box.


Right-click on the table and choose Table Properties.

Screenshot of a tables right-click menu. Table properties is highlighted as the last item in the menu.

Under the Alt Text tab, insert your description in the Description area.

Screenshot of the Table properties dialog box. Alt text, the last tab of the window is selected. Alt text is entered into the second field of this tab, labeled Description.

Column Headings

Screen readers can identify column headings as users move through a table if they are specified in Word. This is critical to ensure that users with visual impairments can understand table content.

To specify column headings, click anywhere in the table. Then select the Design tab in the Table Tools section in the ribbon at the top of the page. Ensure that the Header Row checkbox is checked. Word will then treat the first cell in each column as a heading for the column's contents. Note that the Header Row checkbox must be separately checked for each table in the document.

Screenshot of Design ribbon of Word 2007. Header Row is located at the top left of the ribbon content.

After this option is enabled, type or retype your column headings. Press the enter key and your table will have designated column headings recognizable by a screen reader. 


Lists items must be in a Word-formatted numbered or bulleted list so that they are grouped together for users of assistive technologies. Manually typing numbers or dashes before items is not sufficient.

Highlight the text, and using the Home tab on the top ribbon, select either bulleted or numbered lists.

Screenshot of Home ribbon. Bulleted and numbered lists are located on the top-left of the Paragraph section.

Accessibility Checker

Word 2010 comes with an accessibility checker that can help find a few overlooked accessibility items in a document, but it will not locate most problems.

To run Microsoft Word’s Accessibility checker, select File, then click on the Info tab on the left hand side of the screen. Then click on the Check for Issues button and select Check Accessibility.

Screenshot of File menu. Info tab selected on the menu options on the left. Check for issues is the third icon and its drop-down menu is shown. Check Accessibility is the second item on this list.

A dialog box appears on the right after the checker runs through the document, presenting the accessibility errors. Feedback and tips appear alongside any recognized errors. Selecting an item in this report will take you to that item in your document, allowing you to fix said item. Remember that it will only find a small percentage of problems; it cannot determine what text should or should not be a heading, cannot determine whether alternative text is sufficiently descriptive, and so on.