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Digital Accessibility-Microsoft Word

Word is one of the pieces of software that we use most frequently, both for creating and consuming content. We also use it for communication as we generate and exchange pieces of work. It is therefore one of the most important pieces of software to get 'right' in terms of digital accessibility. You want people to be able to digest your work as easily as possible. Fortunately, it is not difficult to make documents accessible in Word. This guide shows you how. 

[Download this information as an accessible Word document] 

1. Document colours 

  • Do not use white as a background colour (sorry it is here, but the web software won't allow me to change it!). To change the background colour in a Word document, go to Design and at the right end of the ribbon is a pull-down colour-picker. Choose cream or a pastel colour to make the Word document more readable. Users can also select their own preferred backgrounds in the same way. 
  • Use good contrasts. This means avoiding colours where people may have colour-blindness issues (blue/yellow or red/green) and using dark colours on a light background and light colours on a dark background 
  • Try the WebAIM Color Contrast Check to experiment with colours. Click on the block of colour for the foreground and the background and then look for four 'passes' - this will tell you that you have made a good choice. 
  • Do not rely on colour alone to convey a message. For example, do not ask someone to 'Look at the examples in red'. It is estimated that 1 in 8 people may have colour impairment, so it is better to find other ways to communicate. 

2. Document filename and properties
(Video on accessible file names - 2mins

File names: 
Think carefully about filenames you use, and possibly consider a departmental standard convention for filenames. 
Not good: doc, answers, Lab, Gambia - these are all very 'generic' and could be easily confused by students 
Accessible: SPX1002_week1_additional lecture notes, DFU1330_section3_assignment brief, SPX1001_week1_ppt_intro to science

It is important to think about: 

  • where students will save the file - they should be encouraged from week 1 to have a structured filing system 
  • how they can sort their files - ideally they should be able to sort by name and the files appear in the correct order

In Microsoft Office files, when you go to File, you will see Properties on the right-hand side. You can add a title (it is a good idea to make this the same as the filename). Then you can add this as a footer on the document. Go to the footer> Insert > QuickParts>Document Property>Title - and the name of the file will be added to your footer. This means that if it is printed at any stage, someone can still find the original digital document. Adding the author can be done in a similar way and can also be useful in case anyone has any questions about the content. 

3. Headers 
A 'header' is the space at the top of the document. Sometimes people do not use this space at all, but it can be very useful in giving a user a clear title or details of the module they are working on. 

4. Font style and size
The style of font and size that you use can make a big difference to how legible a document can be. Most importantly, users should be able to change it for themselves, but using recommended fonts may mean they do not need to make any changes. 

  • Use a 'sans-serif' font, such as Calibri, Arial, Helvetica or Comic Sans  
  • Use a minimum size of 12 for type-written documents (larger for display purposes) 

5. Styles, headings and navigation 

Styles are really important, not just because they make a page look better, and not just because they help you to navigate longer documents and create an automatically-updated index, but also because anyone who uses a screen-reader can then browse a document. Imagine a page with no formatting, and that is what a visually-impaired user may see without the use of styles. 

Watch this video on using styles. Although it does not mention accessibility, it is a very clear guide and using the advice in this video will make sure that you make an accessible document. 

6. Images, charts and diagrams 

(Video on using ALT text for images, charts and diagrams

We have all heard the phrase that a picture tells a thousand words, but some people cannot see the picture and would not understand what it is illustrating. The same applies to charts and diagrams, so it is really important that we enhance pictures, charts and diagrams with text. This can be done in two ways: 

6a) Adding ALT Text - this is text that is read out for anyone using a screenreader. It does not need to be detailed: 

  • An image: eg Map of Africa, highlighting location of Uganda in central area
  • A chart: Growth of female employment in Westernized countries over the last centure
  • A diagram: Mayer's theory of multimedia showing different inputs and the way information is processed in the brain 

6b) Adding some description after the image, chart or diagram, explaining what it shows - this is text that can be much more detailed and descriptive. Even when a user can see these visual cues, it is a great enhancement for many users. Learning to understand charts and diagrams is a skill in itself and having some explanation of them in words can help a user to understand what they are seeing. 

7. Tables 

Tables are often a great way to present data or information, but they can be completely inaccessible, unless they are presented properly. 

Video on using tables - this highlights the need for ALT text to explain what the table is for, and how you can designate the top row as a header row. This will help the user to understand the contents of the table. 

Video showing how a screen-reader reads a table - this is an example taken from the Internet, but the principle is the same. Once you see what it sounds like for a user, you will think twice about merging cells and writing 'Weeks 1-3'. 

8. Spell check and proof-reading 

This is common sense really. You want to convey yourself, your department and your University as a professional institution and you want your students to produce accurate, well-presented work themselves. So, it is essential that you set the example in the work that you produce. The Review tab in Word has a Spell-checker on the left-hand side. Work should not be published or shared without having a spell-check. But even with a spell check, there are still errors that can slip through the net. Read this article on words that may be correct on spell check but which completely change the meaning of your article. The only way to avoid this is by proof-reading. 

Proof-reading: Your best option here is a really picky-colleague. You know -the one who has the mug that says 'I am silently correcting your grammar'. They are your greatest asset in producing a good-quality piece of work. But, what happens if they are too busy or away and you need to publish? The University has a piece of software called 'Read&Write' which will read your work out loud to you. It is often easier to hear rather than see our mistakes. Watch this proofreading video, by Sean Douglas, who explains how he makes proof-reading with Read&Write even easier to use. 

9. Accessibility check 

You probably don't know this exists, but it is probably the most important button to press before publishing a Word document. If you have followed all the steps above, it shouldn't find anything as an accessibility issue. But, if you have forgotten anything, it will highlight it before you launch your document to your students. This accessibility check video shows you how to run an accessibility check in Word and if there are any issues, they will show in a column on the right of the screen, with information about how to solve them. This is your 'safety-belt' for knowing that you have created a 'born-accessible' file. 

Download an accessible Word document. You can download this file to use as a template. You may want to make changes to it - and it still depends on the content that you add to it to make it fully accessible. This template has a cream background, a default font size of 12 and page-numbering built in.