Vector image of a Word document.

Designing accessible document with Microsoft Word

A guide for how to create accessible Microsoft Word documents for low vision and print disabilities, and how to make documents easier to read with assistive technology.

Designing accessible documents with Microsoft Word has become easier over the years with the addition of several new features that make creating and reading documents easier for people with print disabilities. As someone with low vision who uses Microsoft Word in some capacity every day, I’ve come to appreciate several built-in accessibility features and discovered how I could use other Microsoft Word features to help me read documents effectively with low vision. Here are my favorite tips for designing accessible documents with Microsoft Word, along with links to other resources.

Enable default font sizes/styles for document creation

The default font style and size for Microsoft Word is currently Calibri, size 11. While Calibri is a print disability friendly font (more on that later), I cannot read size 11 font so I changed the default font size for Microsoft Word to a larger font size that I can read. I can always shrink it down to a different font size later, but there are times where I prefer to be able to see text as I am writing it. Note that changing the default font size does not automatically change the font size of any document I open.

To change the default font size/style in Microsoft Word:

  1. Open a new document in Microsoft Word
  2. Press the Ctrl-D keyboard shortcut, or open the font options menu on the home ribbon
  3. Set the font type and text size of your choice in the drop-down menus
  4. Click “set as default” and check the box that says “All documents based on the normal template”

Related links

Give documents structure with headings and lists

It’s disorienting to get lost in a sea of identical-looking text or to try to navigate a list with a keyboard that wasn’t properly formatted, as it can be hard to figure out where one section ends and another begins. Structuring documents with bullets, numbering, multilevel lists, and headings can solve a lot of these frustrations, as users will be able to easily navigate between sections and figure out where information is located. This is also helpful when using Outline View to navigate between various points of a document.

How to create lists in Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word allows users to insert an asterisk followed by a space or the number 1 to quickly create an unordered/bulleted or ordered/number list, and the enter/tab key shortcut to create a multi-leveled list or outline. These features can also be manually enabled in the Paragraph section of the Home ribbon. For audiences with print disabilities, I recommend sticking with the default bullet options and not choosing anything visually complicated or hard to identify.

How to add headings in Microsoft Word

Wondering where to use certain headings styles? Here are my recommendations for applying text styles for screen reader navigation:

Related links

Choose a print disability-friendly font, or give users the option to change the font

An accessible font or good font for print disabilities is one that can easily be read by people with conditions such as low vision, dyslexia, or other disabilities that affect reading. Script fonts where all of the letters connect together or italic fonts are generally considered poor choices for readers with print disabilities. Some readers may prefer the look of sans-serif fonts such as Arial over serif fonts like Times New Roman, but this can vary from person to person so I recommend giving users the option to change the font of a document whenever possible so that they can adjust it for their own needs.

What about bold text?

Bold text can be a helpful display accommodation for readers with low vision, though bold font should not be used as a substitute for headings or other document formatting.

Related links

Add additional line spacing for readability

While some academic documents have specific line spacing requirements, adding additional line spacing can help tremendously with line tracking and helping readers to stay focused on text. I like the look of multiple line spacing at 1.8, which closely mimics the default spacing on this post, and makes it easier for me to read through documents or make edits as needed.

Avoid tables and columns

While structuring documents into columns and tables will be readable for screen reader users reading a document in Microsoft Word, these formats can be difficult for people using magnification aids or large print since the more narrow text field can distort the text size. I prefer documents that do not use column layouts or tables and that use headings to structure text instead. Microsoft’s Office Accessibility website also cautions against using tables and columns for readability, though they do have a guide for formatting accessible tables that I have linked below.

Related links

Add alt text to images, and check how text wraps around images

Alt text provides a description of what is in an image, including a transcript of text or a simple description of the visual elements of an image. Alt text can be added to an image in any of the following ways:

Another item to consider when designing accessible documents with Microsoft Word is how text wraps around an image, as this can break up the flow of text and make it difficult to enlarge images. I recommend having full size images that use top and bottom text wrapping to avoid any spacing or indentation issues.

Related links

Use Immersive Reader for reading documents with a simplified display

One of my all-time favorite accessibility tools from Microsoft is the Immersive Reader, which provides a simplified reading display for reading documents without changing the original display settings of a document. I have an entire post on Immersive Reader linked below, but some of the highlights of Immersive Reader include:

Immersive Reader can be found in the View tab and is available in several other Microsoft applications, including Microsoft Office Lens, Microsoft Edge, Microsoft OneNote, and more.

Related links

Before publishing or saving, use the accessibility checker

The Accessibility Checker, which can be found on the Review ribbon, allows authors to double-check if their document contains important accessibility items such as alt text for images, labels for links, and other text formatting issues that can make it difficult to navigate documents with assistive technology. After running the Accessibility Checker, users can make corrections as needed by selecting the affected area of the document or following the provided instructions within the Accessibility Checker.

Other tips for designing accessible documents with Microsoft Word

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated September 2023; original post published September 2017.

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