Microsoft Word has two very useful accessibility features:
- Speak allows users to hear the document
- Accessibility Checker runs various tests on your document and tells you what to look at or to fix
Both of these can be added to your Quick Access toolbar (which usually appears at the very top of your screen). Standard buttons for the toolbar are Save, Redo, and Repeat, but you can add any command you use frequently.
Adding Speak and Accessibility Checker to the Quick Access toolbar
- From any screen in Word, select File > Options > Quick Access Toolbar
The Quick Access Toolbar screen appears.
- From the “Choose commands from” drop-down menu, select All Commands.
- From the alphabetic list immediately beneath that menu, select Accessibility Checker and click the Add button.
The Accessibility Checker icon moves to the list on the right.
- From the same list, select Speak and click the Add button.
The Speak icon moves to the list on the right.
- Make sure “For all documents” is selected and click OK.
Your document reappears, and the two new icons appear in the Quick Access toolbar.
A shortcut to modify this menu is to click the little drop-down menu icon on the far right of the existing icons of the Quick Access toolbar.
To use Speak in a Word document, select the text you want to hear or use Ctrl+A to select all the text in the document. This is useful because it will give you some idea of how a person living with a visual impairment interacts with your document using screen-reader technology.
Try it now
Open a Word document you are working on, select all (ctrl+A) and click the Speak icon in your Quick Access toolbar. Listen for things like how it reads tables, floating images and text boxes, hypertext links. Close your eyes and imagine that this is the only way you have to understand the document you have written.
What do you need to change? Are large tables intelligible? What about tables with a lot of information in them (possibly separated by hard returns), or those with several layers of titles indicated by coloured bars and merged cells? What about the semantic information you used colours to convey (red is late, green is done, yellow is in progress, for example). What do watermarks do?
Note: If you are used to screen-reader technology, you will find this a very poor imitation. There is no pitch variant for capitals, punctuation is neither taken into account nor voiced, and links are not announced. However, the text is read aloud which is, in many cases, better than nothing.
Using Accessibility Checker
Now, using the same document, click Accessibility Checker.
The Accessibility Checker window appears at the right-hand side of the screen.
It will highlight things that cause problems for screen-readers:
- Missing Alt text (screen-readers read the alternative text, since a visually impaired reader cannot see the images, charts or graphs you put into your document for your sighted readers)
- Tables and images with no title
- Tables with no header row specified, or those with blank, merged or split cells
- Missing or unclear hypertext descriptions
- Extra blank characters
- Not enough headers (they are extremely useful when navigating using assistive technology)
Correcting the errors is a matter of working through them one at a time. Doing so highlights the changes in your creation process that you can make so that all people can read your documents.
It does not pick up everything, of course.
- If you used colours or other visual flags to convey meaning (red=late), this will be invisible to your visually-impaired audience. Watermarks can make the whole document inaccessible.
- Use Title Style Capitalisation (Every Word, like Winnie-the-Pooh) or use Sentence-style capitalisation (first word only), but AVOID ALL-CAPS. If you use ALL CAPS as a header style, people with dyslexia or cognitive impairments affecting reading will find it extremely difficult to read. Keep headers short.
- If your Alt text is present but of poor quality, it will be meaningless. For example, try to summarise in words what the chart or graph shows, provide enough information to your reader so that they can “get” why you put in the picture, etc.
- If you did not use high-contrast colours, your document may not be usable by those who use screen magnification software instead of a screen reader.
- If your paragraphs are too long, or use passive voice and recursive structures, people will become confused. This is true of your sighted readers, as well. Follow clear writing rules.
Exporting your document to PDF
Now that you have made an accessible Word document, you might want to export it to a PDF.
Depending on how you export it, you could undo all the hard work that you put into your document and have an inaccessible PDF at the end of it all.
While it is tempting to select File > Options and press the big, friendly Create PDF/XPF Document button, don’t do it! Sadly, you need to take a more circuitous route to publish in an accessible format.
How to export to an accessible PDF
When following these instructions, do not press Enter .
- Select File>Save As and select a location for your new PDF.
The Save As window appears.
- From the Save As Type drop-down (ctrl+T), select PDF.
Hint: If you type the letter P it will select the first item in the list that starts with P, in this case PDF.
- Click the Options button.
The Options window appears.
- Make sure that the Document structure tags for accessibility box is checked and click the OK button.
This is what keeps your changes and makes the PDF accessible. Hint: the letter M toggles this box checked/unchecked. The Options window reappears.
- Click Save.
I hope that in a future update, Microsoft will implement accessibility by default. Until then, there are hoops to jump through.
My next post will show you how to adjust the text itself to increase its legibility for people with low vision.