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Document Accessibility Guide

Instructions on how to use Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat, and Microsoft PowerPoint to make files Accessible according to the Americans Disability Act.

The Basics

Many documents are created in Microsoft Word which has multiple tools and options to make your file accessible. It is often best to make your file Accessible as you create your file, but you can always go back to an old file and make it accessible now. When thinking about accessible files we need to ensure that both the structure and the content of the file are accessible. Each of the sections below give an overview of either document structure of a common content element that needs to be made accessible and provides a document with step by step instructions. Below are a few quick things to know as you get started. If you have any questions, please contact Amy Dyess at 

You want to make sure you are using the latest version of Microsoft Word. These examples were made using Microsoft 365. If you are a California State University San Marcos student or employee you can download Microsoft Office from Instructional & Information Technology Services (IITS)


Microsoft Accessibility Checker
Most Microsoft Office products have a tool called the "Accessibility Checker" that checks your file against a set criteria to determine if the file is Accessible or not. This is a good tool, but do not only rely exclusively on it to make files accessible as it does not catch everything. To use the Accessibility Checker, go to the "Review" tab on the ribbon and click the "Accessibility Checker" button. You can learn about the accessibility checker from the Microsoft accessibility checker page.

Document Structure

Using Word Heading styles creates hierarchical structure and easier navigation throughout your file. Word Headings allow both the end user and the creator to easily navigate directly to various points throughout the document. Word Headings should create a hierarchical structure with the most important element, such as the title, marked as Heading 1. Each document should only have one Heading 1. Secondary elements such as Chapters or main sections of a file should be marked as Heading 2, and subsections within those main sections should be marked Heading 3.


Making images accessible is all about describing what matters in the image in a meaningful way. Creators should define an image using alternate text. Alternate text should only be a sentence or two long, and should describe what is important about the image. As a creator, you are the best person to define what you are communicating by inserting an image in your file. The same image could be described with the alternate text "Four golden retrievers playing in a park" or "Four service dogs completing training." Think carefully about what you are trying to convey in an image rather than trying to describe every element. 

Alternate text does not visually appear on the page, but is placed in a particular field that is accessed by assistive technology. If you have a complex image that cannot be described in a sentence or two, type out the full description under the image. You can then put "Full description below image" in the alternate text field. This is especially important if you need to take a screenshot or insert an image that includes text. As a rule, if there is more than two sentences of text, which could be placed in the alternate text field, you should transcribe the text from the image under the picture in a full description. Otherwise you are not making your file fully accessible. 

Manually double check each image's alternate text field, as file names and junk data sometimes get placed in this field fooling the Accessibility Checker tool.


Tables are used to organize information in meaningful categories. You should never insert an image of a table as this prevents assistive technology from accessing the data in the table. Keep these tips in mind when creating tables in your documents. 

  • Keep tables simple. Each row should have the same number of columns
  • Make sure each table has a defined Header Row
  • Describe the data or table using the Alternate Text section
  • Place your cursor in the top left cell of the table and hit tab. This shows how a screen reader will process the table. Make sure that no cells are skipped.

Microsoft Word Tricks and Tips

Learning to utilize Microsoft Word will allow you to format documents so they visually look how you intended while remaining accessible. Below is a document explaining a few Word tools and their usefulness is creating accessible documents.

Other Elements

Word is a great tool that allows wide versatility in creating documents here are some other things to keep in mind to create accessible documents!

  • Be wary of using "Smart Art" this tool layers text and images in a way that confuses assistive technology. Best practice is to use a table for the text/data. 
  • Remember color contrast! Many users have difficulty distinguishing between colors or may have color blindness. Do not rely only on color to make a point such as color coding paragraphs or steps in instructions and giving no other organizational clues. If you get creative with text or background color use the Colour Contrast Checker to make sure your text is legible. 
  • Double check that your images have meaningful alternate text. File names or other random text may can be placed in the "alternate text" field which prevents the Accessibility Checker from identifying an error. Manually check all of your images to ensure there is meaningful alternate text.
  • Avoid using Text Boxes whenever possible, especially if you intend to save your Word file in a different format. Text Boxes interface with assistive technology more like images than text, meaning the text within the box cannot be read by screen readers. Text Boxes may also be converted to an image when saving a Word file as a PDF.