Accessibility in Microsoft Word

At The College of Saint Rose, the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities coordinates academic support services for students with disabilities, such as extended time on tests, note taker support, and computer technology. Please seek their guidance and support in choosing texts for your course.

The following is informational only, and is intended to help faculty create more universally accessible content using the tools and technologies already provided by Information Technology Services.

Microsoft has published an exhaustive article pertaining to screen readers and Word, and many of the conventions content creators use can apply to Word just as they would to HTML or other documents. There are, of course, some techniques specific to Word, which will be addressed here.

Microsoft has also released a short video discussing accessibility and Word:

Reading Order and Whitespace

Reading order is important in Word if you are using images like SmartArt, Charts, or WordArt, or if you are using text boxes. Unlike in PowerPoint, you cannot choose the reading order of objects. Instead, it is important to set objects’ text-wrapping to be either Top and Bottom or In Line With Text, shown here in Word for Mac 2011 (To open this menu, right-click on the object).

The Wrap Text menu in Word for Mac 2011

Arrangement of whitespace is very important in Word. Like using styles, it’s important to structure your whitespace using the Paragraph menu. You can pull up this menu by right-clicking a paragraph that you have highlighted, as demonstrated below:

The Paragraph menu in Word

From the Paragraph menu, you can arrange how much whitespace you would like. You can modify whitespace for the entire document by clicking Format, then Paragraph in Office for Mac, or by looking in the Paragraph group of the Home tab on a Windows machine.

Do not use excessive tabs or section breaks. These can complicate the process of attempting to navigate a document with a screen reader.

Headers & Footers

Some screen readers will automatically read header and footer information. Others require the user to navigate to the header or footer and manually “ask” for them to be read. Others leave headers and footers out completely. To be on the safe side, it’s important to mark header and footer information somewhere else in the text, whether it be parenthetical citations, your contact information, or other information.


Many users with screen readers also use keyboard interfaces to navigate. Try this: In any table, click in a cell and use the Tab key. You’ll move throughout the table. If you encounter a merged cell, a split cell, or a table inside a table, you can no longer navigate via the Tab key. It’s important to keep your tables simple, so that users with keyboards can easily make sense of them. Like Styles, it’s important to use the Table Tools Layout menu to create a merged cell or split cell if necessary. Do this by clicking on the Tables tab, then Table Layout. In the Merge group, you can choose Merge Cells or Split Cells – shown here.

the Merge Cells menu in Word.

Another way to create ease of navigation in tables is to create header rows and column headings. It’s important to specify header rows using the Table Tools Design tab, shown here in Word for Mac 2011. Click into the row that will be the header row, and then make sure this box is checked. This way, the screen reader will announce that this information is a header.

The Table Tools Design menu in Word for Mac 2011.

Remember that if you have a lot of information to put in table format, it’s best to create an Excel spreadsheet, rather than trying to contain it in a table inside of a document in Word. Excel spreadsheets will “talk to” screen readers better than Word tables will. Another option is creating an accessible PDF or HTML version of the table.


I tested using three screen readers: NVDA, VoiceOver, and JAWS.

Further Reading:


“Creating Accessible Word Documents.” Microsoft Office Support.

Zumbo, Leona. “FAQ and practical tips for Word and PDF accessibility.” Vision Australia. 27 August 2014.—accessibility-and-assistive-technology-blog/blog/accessibility-blog/2014/08/27/faq-and-practical-tips-for-word-and-pdf-accessibility

“Microsoft Word.” WebAIM. Last updated 21 August 2015.