Best practices for Creating Accessible Microsoft Office Documents

The information provided in this document is intended to help you create documents that will be accessible to someone using assistive technology software such as a screen reader or screen magnifier. These guidelines will also help you produce better documents for all users and will contribute to the success of document conversion to HTML or PDF files.

Much of the information provided will apply to any type of document that you create. If you are posting materials on the Web then standards compliant HTML is the most accessible format.  Another important point to remember is to always keep your source documents. Once you have created a PDF from an Office document such as MS Word, don't delete the original. It is far easier to make edits and correct accessibility issues in a Word document, for example, than it is in the PDF.

You can improve accessibility with the Accessibility Checker. Before sending your email message or sharing your document or spreadsheet, run the Accessibility Checker to make sure your content is easy for people of all abilities to read and edit.

In Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, the accessibility checker is in the Review tab. Select Check Accessibility. Any errors or warnings will be in the panel on the right. Select a dropdown next to Errors and then click on the dropdown arrow on the error issue to get walked through how to fix the problems.

Excel tool bar


In Outlook, Click on the three dots on the top right of the email. Choose, Check for Accessibility option.

three dots on the top right of the email

The Accessibility Checker will have a pop up window explaining any problems it finds. For example, the image in this email is missing an alt tag.

Accessibility Checker pop-up

Clicking on the issue will prompt a pop up window to add the alt text.

Add alternate text pop-up

Microsoft Word Tips


Upgrade to the most recent version of Microsoft Word. If you have MS Word 2016 or later, you should have a "Check Accessibility" option under the "Review" tab. Use this tool to identify and correct common accessibility issues identified by MS Word. You'll still have a couple of things to check and possibly correct once you've saved your Word document as a PDF but this can significantly reduce the amount of work you'll need to do once you get there. 

Microsoft Word headingsUse document headings for structure, not style. One of the most common accessibility mistakes is to use Headings for style purposes (e.g. to make text look bigger and bolder or a particular color). If you would like your text to look a certain way, use the text formatting tools such as font size, bold, italic, etc. directly. Or you can create custom styles using the Styles pane. Just don't use Headings such as Heading 1, 2, 3, etc. for cosmetic purposes.

Screen reader technology uses Headings to convey the structure and organization of a document to its users. Headings, such as Heading 1, Heading 2, etc. create document structure in the same way that a table of contents is organized. Word (as well as Google Docs) can auto-generate a table of contents for your document based on its headings. It will assume Heading 1 blocks are like "chapters" and will nest Heading 2 blocks as sub-sections of any Heading 1 preceding it (and so on for Heading 3, etc.). The bottom line is that Headings need to be nested properly to be accessible. 

Think of Headings the Same Way You Think of an Outline:

  • Heading 1: the first tier of bullets in an outline such as this.
  • Heading 2 is any second-level bullet. In an outline, you can't skip to a third level bullet without a second-level before it. Likewise, you should never skip a heading level in your documents. Doing so will create an accessibility issue.
  • Heading 3 can only exist after level 2 and so on.
  • Heading 2: You can come back from level 3 to level 2
  • Heading 2: ...and have as many same level headings next to each other. Note that you could also come back to level 1 from level 3, just not the other way around. 
  •  Returning to a Heading 1 signifies a whole new "chapter" or section of your content. 

You probably won't need more than one Heading 1 for a basic text document but hopefully, you now understand the concept and why it's so important to nest your headings correctly in a document. 

Use tables for data only, not for layout. Another common mistake that makes accessibility a challenge in PDFs is when a table has been used to visually lay out content in a particular way. Tables should only be used for their intended purpose – to display content within a grid of columns and rows identified by column headers. Every column must have a header labeling the content of that column.

Add alternate text to images. Images are required to have alternate text, text that describes an image that gets read back to users using assistive technology such as a screen reader. Microsoft Word's Accessibility Checker will guide you in how to add alternate text to your images.

Adding Alternate text in MS Word

Possibly the strongest argument for updating to the most recent version of Microsoft Word is its updated "Save as..." functionality. This uses an online service that helps to ensure that the accessibility fixes that you made carry over to the exported PDF file you're generating. 

Saving image as pdf

Microsoft PowerPoint


PowerPoint provides many pre-defined slide layouts. It is best to use these layouts for slide creation so that the slide content is accessible to someone using assistive technology or if you plan to convert the presentation to HTML or a PDF document.

One method for ensuring that the presentation has the right structure is start with a blank presentation and build slides using the Outline view. With this approach each slide will use the correct slide layout and will include a slide title. This is especially important for proper text flow.

Avoid using Text Boxes on slides as they appear as graphic elements to assistive technology software and the content within them may not be accessible. Text Boxes also appear as graphic elements when the presentation is converted to HTML or PDF using specialized conversion tools.

When images are placed in a presentation you need to include a description of the image so that someone using assistive technology can understand what the image is. This descriptive text known as "alt text" is retained if the document is converted to HTML or PDF. Also adding a caption below the image will help all users understand the purpose of the image.

Tables may be used in PowerPoint slides but their use should be limited to the presentation of data as opposed to slide layout. Data tables can be inserted using the slide layout that contains a table or by selecting Table from the Insert menu.

Charts and graphs are often used on a presentation slide. Just like tables, charts or graphs should be added using the appropriate slide layout or by selecting Chart from the Insert menu.

If you include audio in the presentation then you must include an area at the bottom of each slide for text captions. The captions must be synchronized with the audio.

Making your PowerPoint accessible, a checklist from Microsoft

Adding Closed captioning in PowerPoint, step by step from Microsoft.

Microsoft Excel

  • Accessible Excel step by step from Microsoft.
  • Provide descriptive text for images.
  • Place charts and graphs on separate worksheets.
  • Do not use blank cells for formatting purposes. It’s better to densely pack the data in the workbook and then use Excel’s native formatting techniques. Avoid the use of white space with lots of blank cells or blank rows and columns.
  • Use row and column headers extensively and avoid ambiguity within these headers. Make them clear and self-explanatory.
  • Use descriptive text to explain what is in the spreadsheet or workbook. This can be embedded into the worksheet and you can create a region called “information” or “instructions” that people can move to easily and read. Telling someone that there are two or three regions in the worksheet and the region names will make it easier for a person to navigate to them. Describing what the row headers and column headers for a particular region represent will go a long way towards making the worksheet easier to use.
  • Name regions and use the Go-To command CTRL+G (or F5) to make it easier to move from place to place within spreadsheets. (Highlight the block of cells, press ALT+I to open the Insert menu, N for Name, and D for Define.)

Adobe Acrobat Professional Tips

Note: If you jumped straight here but skipped the Microsoft Word Tips section above, please go back and review that section. Unless you have very few minor edits to an existing 508-compliant PDF, you always want to start from scratch in a new Word document and "Save as" PDF – you'll be thankful that you did. 

Obtain, or upgrade to, the most recent version of Adobe Acrobat Pro. The built-in accessibility checker and some of its automated tasks, which can aid you in making your PDF 508 compliant, have significantly improved in more recent versions and should save you considerable time and frustration compared with older versions.

The quickest way to take care of the most common accessibility issues in your PDF is by using the Make Accessible Action Wizard. This will scan the document and prompt you for things like the document title, alternate text for images (if any are found to be missing), and more.

 Adobe Action Wizard screenshot

If you don't see the Action Wizard tool button right away, simply open your Tools view, scroll down until you find the section labeled Customize and there you'll find the Action Wizard tool button. You should take the time to expand your right pane and drag this button over there so that you'll have it available to you for every document you work on in Acrobat. 

The final step of the Wizard will run Acrobat's built-in accessibility checker, which will provide you with a visual report of what passes and what might fail. The Action Wizard will have taken care of most, if not all, of these issues in a basic text document. But you still may encounter errors and should follow Adobe's documentation for fixes to those errors once they have been flagged. For more detail on how to do this, continue reading the following section. 

Verify that your PDF files meet accessibility standards for people with disabilities. To do this, open your PDF and open the Accessibility view using the Accessibility tool button. If you already ran the Action Wizard outlined above, you can skip to Inspecting the Results further down.

If you don't see the Accessibility tool button right away, simply open your Tools view, scroll down until you find the section labeled Protect & Standardize and there you'll find the Accessibility tool button. You should take the time to expand your right pane and drag this button over there so that you'll have it available to you for every document you work on in Acrobat. 

Quick Check Accessibility Issues

  1. Open Accessibility view
  2. Click "Full Check"
  3. Click "Start Checking" 
  4. View the results

Adobe Accessibility tool

You will then be presented with the Accessibility Options dialog box. You should leave it set to the default options. At the time of writing, this setting will check 31 of 32 categories for possible accessibility issues.

Click Start Checking.

Acrobat will scan the document for accessibility issues and then display results for all categories in the left pane of the application window. 

Adobe Accessibility checker screenshot

Inspecting the Results

In the left pane of the application window, view the Accessibility Checker results. It will display the number of issues in each main category in parentheses. Expand each category to view any issues found in that category. Items that pass will be indicated by a green checkmark and items that fail will be marked with a white x in a red circle. Right-click on a failed issue for more options such as "Explain" or, in some cases, "Fix."

It is important to note that you will always have a minimum of 2 issues in your document, even if it technically passes all accessibility checks. This is because there are a couple of things that cannot be checked automatically and require a manual check. These items are "Logical Reading Order" and "Color Contrast" and both are under the Document category. Both will be indicated by a white question mark in a blue circle and will always be there.

screenshot of issues found by the accessibility checker

Fix Your PDF Accessibility Issues

The number and difficulty level of issues you may encounter can vary greatly. However, if we're simply talking about text-only documents and you've followed all of the tips in this primer thus far, you're probably going to have minimal work to do. This guide will not attempt to address the numerous, and at times highly-technical, fixes for most PDF issues. Instead, we will cover a couple of common and simple quick fixes for a typical basic document.

Adobe Acrobat Pro has extensive documentation covering each of the issues you may encounter and this information can be easily found by right-clicking on any issue and selecting "Explain" from the context menu. This will open a new tab in a browser and should scroll to the specific issue in the Acrobat User Guide. At the time of writing, that user guide can be found at, and the relevant information is located in the section titled Accessibility, Tags, And Reflow. 

Fix the Title

Not only does the title tell your users what this document is about but it also becomes the text for the link that a Google search finds. Often a converted Microsoft Word document inserts the title with the .docx extension and whatever other random file-naming conventions we have come up with. So even if this one passes, it's a good idea to go in there and clean it up. 

To check and update your PDF title, open up the main application's File menu, and select Properties. In the Properties dialog, the default view is Description and right there at the top is the Title. Check that it reads just as a title should, removing any dates, file extensions, underscores, or any other unnecessary characters.

Tip: Even though you're posting this document to your PCC web page, Google and other search engines will still find it outside of this context so it's good to include "PCC" or "PACCD" in the title somewhere, in addition to the title of your document. 

Once you've updated the Title (and optionally Author, Subject, and Keywords) click OK. Now go back to the Accessibility Checker results and right-click the "Title - Failed" error and select Fix. The check-mark should turn green. Now don't forget to save the PDF (Control+S on Windows, Command+S on Mac) so that fix gets saved if someone else checks your PDF for accessibility issues later. 

Fix Alternate Text

If you didn't add alternate text via Microsoft Word from the tips in Part 1 of this primer, you'll still have an opportunity to do it here. Expand the Alternate Text category and right-click on the "Figures alternate text - Failed" issue. Select Fix from the context menu and you will be presented with a dialog that allows you to add alternate text for every figure (image) that is missing it. Just add brief descriptive text in the text box provided and then either advance to the next image using the arrow button or click "Save and Exit." If you used the Decorative Image checkbox during the previous step, you may have a new set of errors after exiting this dialog. We recommend always including alternate text for each issue to avoid this quirk. Again, once you've corrected all issues here and you've got the green checkmark, save the PDF (Control+S on Windows, Command+S on Mac).