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Understanding — and Using!— Accessibility Features in MS Word

Clear communication goes beyond just the words we use but also how we present that information. Many of us picked up the tools we needed in word processing a little bit here and there along the way. And that may have meant missing out on important knowledge about accessibility — why accessibility is so critical and how to make it a regular part of our practices.


This list isn’t exhaustive, but here are some key areas to incorporate into your documents to make them work for the most people possible and that you can get started on right away!



Alt Text

Make sure that everyone has access to all of the information on the page — and that includes the information shared in images. This can be done with alt text, or alternative text, which is an underlying description of an image. Alt text:

  • Ensures that those using screen readers can glean the same information from an image as anyone else

  • Provides a description of the image that someone with low wi-fi bandwidth can still see if their images aren’t loading properly

Alt text depends on the context, so the same image could have different alt text in different contexts. Here's an example from the American Library Association of one image with three different potential alt text descriptions. Learn more info about alt text from WebAIM.


Color

It’s important that color is not the exclusive way to convey information. Here is an example: "click the purple button to continue" versus "click the purple Next button to continue." What's the difference? The second example describes the button with text in addition to color, which is critical for people who may be using a screen reader, for example.


Color contrast is important, too. Color contrast refers to the perceived difference between colors. For example, light gray text on a white background would be hard for most people to read. Not sure if there is enough contrast? You can enter a color’s HEX code (a 6 digit code made up of numbers and/or letters) and see if there is adequate contrast on WebAIM’s contrast checker.



Built-In Headings and Lists

Have you wondered about the Format Styles in the Word toolbar? These are actually really important! Maybe you’ve just relied on changing the fonts and sizes of headings individually. Well, you’ll never not use them again! These features:

  • Make your document accessible for screen readers, allowing readers to understand how the document is organized and move throughout the document as needed (skipping from one heading to another, for example)

  • Help you, the writer, be consistent with your headings (no need to second guess if that heading should be 13 pt or 14 pt)



Accessibility Checker

In Word, you can head over to the Review tab and you should find the Accessibility Checker. This is a tool that you can keep running throughout your work on a document, and it will indicate a variety of issues that could be present and assist you with solutions. Make it the norm to run the Accessibility Checker while working on any document!



In Summary

Here are a few more resources to check out:

All of these resources are a place to get started. As always with clear communication, it’s always key to check with your readers to make sure documents work for them. Let's make accessibility the norm!


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