Creating Accessible Documents (Microsoft Word)

Table of Contents

Word Document Accessibility Guidelines


  • Use the built-in styles to designate heading levels.
  • Use concise and descriptive heading language.
  • Use a logical hierarchical heading structure beginning with a Heading 1. Heading levels should be nested and no heading levels should be skipped.
  • Avoid using multiple Heading 1 designations.
  • Modify heading styles to present the desired visual presentation.
    Note: The heading designations should match the visual presentation of the heading text.

Table of Contents

  • A table of contents (TOC) is recommended for large documents. A document larger than 20 pages may report an accessibility error if it does not have a TOC or Bookmarks.
    • Choose a location for your TOC.
    • Use the built-in TOC tools.
    • Choose your format preference. Customize your TOC to select the ‘Levels’ based on nested heading levels (H1, H2, H3, etc.).
    • It is recommended to use page numbers that are right aligned and utilize Tab leaders.

Note: To successfully create a Table of Contents, the document must have an applied heading structure and or other paragraph styles.

Data Tables

Tables should only be used for data presentation. If a table must be used for layout purposes, ensure the table has no Header Row or First Column (header) designation.

Header Designation

  • Verify that the Header Row and First Column heading are used only when applicable.
  • Avoid using multiple column or row headers which are difficult or impossible for some users to perceive.
  • Set the Header Row to Repeat Across Pages.

Table Names

  • Insert a caption to serve as a title and or reference for the table.
    • Captions should include the “table” label, and number if applicable.
    • Captions should be concise and should convey the purpose or content of the table.
    • Captions should be positioned at the top of the table.

General Considerations

  • Do not merge or split cells whenever possible unless used to strategically convey information (e.g., ‘End of Data’).
  • Avoid blank cells.
  • Do not use empty columns or rows to create space for layout purposes.
  • Turn off Allow row to break across pages in table row properties.
  • Some complex tables can be split up into multiple simple tables.
  • Maintain gridlines and sufficient text to background contrast.
  • Describe table organization in Alt Text.


Note: It is strongly recommended to create accessible electronic forms in HTML format.

If using Word for form creation, it may be necessary to offer an alternative way for users to submit the form data and a system for requesting the alternative. If Word must be used to create an electronic form, use the following guidelines.

  • Provide instructions: At the top of your form include the form name, purpose, and any important instructions or guidance to ensure successful completion of the form. Also, indicate which fields are required.
  • Form Components: Use legacy form components found in the ‘Developer tab’ (see additional resources for more information).
    Note: Do not use underlines or shapes to create your form components.
  • Include a unique and descriptive form element label in plain text.
    • Form Labels should be descriptive and concise.
    • Labels should precede the form element except for checkboxes and radio buttons, for which the labels should appear after the form element.
  • Set form element properties.
    • In the properties of each form element, enter a name in the Bookmark field which represents the form element. No spaces or special characters may be used in this field. Example: FirstName.
    • Add Help Text for each form element. The help text may serve as a label for non-visual users and can also support successful completion by providing information about the format or context of the form field entry. Add the label just as it appears in plain text and provide any additional supporting information. Required fields should also be indicated here in plain language.
    • If the form element is a checkbox, enter the question and the label (e.g. Are you in a degree program? Yes [Required]).
  • Protect your form:  When distributing a Word document version of your form, you must protect the section of the form that contains the form elements. This allows screen reader users to easily navigate to the form controls and for all form elements to work properly. If possible, create section breaks before and after the form elements and apply restrictions to the form section which only allows ‘Filling in forms.’

Note: The text in the section of the document that is protected will not be editable and will not be read aloud by screen readers. Screen readers will access the Help Text for each form element.  This is why Help Text is required for each form element.

Accessible PDF Exporting

Note: Consider your file type for distribution PDF vs Word document. Also, consider that the optimum format for your content may be HTML or web-based. The Primary Language may not be retained in a document when exported to PDF.

  • Do not use print options to save to a PDF format.
  • Begin by creating an accessible Word document.
  • Your PDF export process may depend on the version of Word that you are using. Choose ‘Save as’ or ‘Save a Copy,’ and choose PDF from the formatting options. Alternatively, if Adobe Acrobat Pro is installed, you may be able to choose ‘Create and Share Adobe PDF’ and use the Adobe cloud service to create a PDF.
  • If there are additional PDF save options available, select ‘Document structure tags for accessibility,’ or ‘Best for electronic distribution and accessibility.’
  • Use the option to create bookmarks for documents (12 pages or longer is recommended), especially those without a Table Of Contents. Existing headings can be used to create Bookmarks.
  • Enter a concise, meaningful filename that is free of spaces, special characters, and unfamiliar abbreviations.
  • Editing restrictions and Read-Only permissions are not recommended and may prevent access to document content for users of Assistive Technology. However, the document can be password-protected using additional Options.
  • Contents within the ‘Header’ and ‘Footer’ sections of a Word document will not be available to some users of assistive technology. Do not provide information in these sections that is not found elsewhere within the document.
  • Document Title embedded into the body of a document will not retain Heading designation when converted to PDF.
  • Open your PDF document in Adobe Acrobat Pro. Use the Accessibility tools to perform an Accessibility Check.

Check Accessibility

  • Use the built-in Accessibility Checker.
    • Review the results.
    • Correct all issues found under Errors.
    • Inspect all Warnings.
    • Resolve any additional concerns.

Note: Additional preferences allow users to check accessibility while working.

Additional Resources

Microsoft Word Accessibility for Windows

Microsoft Word Accessibility for Mac

General Resources

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