Microsoft Accessibility

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. It is the responsibility of the course instructor to deliver course content in a way that is accessible by students using assistive technology.

When creating content for your course, whether online or face-to-face, it is important that you ensure all of your students have equal access to the material presented. We’ve referred to this concept before as universal design. Making documents accessible is very simple, because Microsoft provides tools for creating accessible content in Word, Excel, and in PowerPoint.

General Tips

Although there are specific do’s and do-not’s for each tool, there are some general tips that will help across the board. Make sure your colors are accessible to users who have low vision, dim monitors, or are colorblind. Many tools to check colors exist on the web. Make sure that your documents are well structured, and that you create alternate text for images and create captions or transcripts for your videos. Try to go into lessons with a plan, so that transcripts, outlines, and alternate text come easily to you – if you’ve planned ahead well, and thought critically about your course, you can not only create better content for all users, but you can ensure that all users can access your content equally.

Microsoft has provided a helpful article on creating accessible Word documents, covering alternate text, formatting, and structure. Although Microsoft does have built-in accessibility checkers, they are only available in the 2010 and 2013 versions, and not available for Mac. Finally, users can contact Microsoft’s Disability Answer Desk.

Remember that different screen readers read in different ways. Apple VoiceOver works differently than Freedom Scientific’s JAWS, which works differently from NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access). It is good practice to try and get input from any screen reader users you’re working with, in order to best ascertain their needs.


Any hyperlinks should provide information on the link destination, not just a URL or “click here.” Examples can be found in any link in this article (except the citation, which follows Chicago format.). The screen reader will announce that the text is a link, and by describing the website you’re linking to, the user can be better informed on whether or not they want to click it. Hyperlinks should not open in new tabs. This guide by Gian Wild is designed for web developers, but has a lot of useful rules for all users regarding accessible hyperlinks.


Microsoft products come embedded with Styles menus.

the Style menu in Word 2010

Using the styles is simple and serves multiple functions: it ensures that when the text is exported as a PDF, dropped into a Canvas course, or posted on a web page, the formatting is preserved. Furthermore, users with screen readers, keyboard interfaces or certain cognitive disabilities have a much easier time with content laid out in chunks and formatted well.

The Styles menu provides options for Emphasis and Strong typefaces, which are preferable to italic and bold for communicating significant information. Bold and italic are visual styles, and strong and emphasis are attribute tags – this means that a screen reader will not announce text as bold, but it will announce text with the strong attribute. Using the Styles headings instead of formatting text yourself lets the users know that “General Tips” is a heading, not just some isolated text, and informs the user of its level of importance (below a Heading 2, but above a Heading 4). Similarly, using bulleted and numbered lists through the Styles menu lets a user with a screen reader know that they’re looking at a list – if you create a numbered or bulleted list yourself, the screen reader will not preface bullet points with the word “bullet,” so it is unclear to the user that they are hearing a list. Style sets are useful for documents like syllabi, resumes, or CVs, since the formatting will be preserved no matter who opens the document, and in what program.

If you don’t like the Styles Microsoft provides, you can always format your own by creating a new style set.

Make sure to use one column instead of two wherever possible. Some screen readers will read left to right, ignoring columns and confusing users.


The main concern with PDFs and accessibility is the original file format of the PDF. Some PDFs, like scanned textbook pages, are treated as images, and are therefore inaccessible to students using screen readers. The screen reader program cannot identify that there is text in the image. Software called OCR, or optical character recognition, can be used to help screen readers decipher images. PDFs and screen readers can be unreliable, so consider building any information you would want in a PDF into Canvas itself, as it is more likely to be accessible.

PDFs created from Word documents are more accessible, because the screen reader knows there are letters there. Additionally, it is sometimes possible to save Word documents as “tagged” PDFs, which are PDFs that preserve the structure you set up in Word (headers, etc.) There is a Microsoft guide for accessible PDFs, but it is only possible in Word 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016.

To save a file as a tagged PDF, click Save As, then choose PDF under the Save as type box. Next, click Options, and the following menu box will appear.

Options menu for creating tagged PDFs in Word.

It is not recommended to create PDFs in Microsoft Publisher. Alternative text, reading order, and structure do not work well in Publisher.

If you have a document like a clean scan of a textbook page (with no smudges, blurs, or other copy-of-a-copy marks) that was saved as an image file before a PDF, it is possible and very simple to convert it to an accessible PDF via Adobe Acrobat Pro. Acrobat Pro includes OCR technology, so simply opening the document in that particular program should make it accessible.

For more information on important accessibility within all programs, you can investigate the following links:


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.

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