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How to make an accessible Word document

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Besides online services, any files shared in the services must also be accessible by 23 September 2020 (applies to most services in the universities). The law applies to all files published on or after 23 September 2018. Therefore, it would have been wise to prepare accessible files for some time already. Files based on old templates often do not meet the requirements, so, in principle, they should be corrected if they are to be shared online and have more than just archive use.

In the future, make your documents accessible from the very beginning. Word has a lot of good features for making accessible documents, including the following:

  1. setting the logical structure of the text by means of heading levels
  2. setting the language of the text and proofreading and
  3. setting alternative texts to images.

The latest version has its own accessibility check tool (Check Accessibility/Tarkista helppokäyttöisyys), which you can use to check some accessibility issues.

Use styles to give your document a clear structure

Use the predefined heading styles. By default, Word includes nine heading levels from Heading 1 to Heading 9. For example, there are six levels in HTML (used to create web pages), and 3 to 4 levels are usually enough. It is essential that you use the levels hierarchically, meaning that you should not skip any of the levels and start with level 1.

The choice of heading levels should, therefore, not be based on the default style of the headings but on a logical structure. If you do not like the default style and are not bound by any graphic guidelines, you can choose the font, font size and other styling yourself. Remember to ensure that the choices you make improve readability. If you convert your document to PDF, you can use headings to create a table of contents that makes it easier to navigate through the document.

You can watch a short English-language instruction video by Microsoft on how to use styles. (You can enable English captions in the video settings. Play the video on the Microsoft website.)

Setting the heading level

You can find Word styles in the Home/Aloitus tab of the ribbon. For large documents, such as theses or article collections, you can have several level 1 headings. (If you are providing the same content as a web version (web pages), you should divide the content into multiple pages so that each page has only one level 1 heading.)

Use a clear heading hierarchy, and do not skip any heading level. If your document has a level 3 heading, there should also be level 2 and level 1 headings above it.

Heading levels are useful for the writer, the reader, and the person seeking information

Heading levels are easy and quick to use via the styles: you only need to define the appearance of the heading styles once. When you choose the appropriate heading level for your headings, the appearance of the text changes to match the style you defined for the heading level.

Sighted readers will distinguish between the heading levels based on the layout you define in the style properties. Screen reader users, on the other hand, perceive the structure of the document based on the heading hierarchy.

Search engines typically prioritise heading text, meaning that if the search term is in a heading, it will rank higher in search results than a text with the search term only in the body text.

Descriptive heading sentences provide the information quickly and also appear better in search results

A good heading immediately lets the reader know what the text is about and what is the writer’s point of view. The Kielikello journal has an article (in Finnish) about the properties of a good heading.

Headings are important not only for understanding the document structure but also for the retrievability of the document: Google’s search engine can index many other files in addition to HTML pages, such as Office and PDF documents.

Specifying the language is necessary not only for proofreading but also for screen reader users

The language used in the document, its clarity and its spelling is important for the intelligibility of the document. Language planning is an essential part of the content producer’s work. You can make your text clearer by applying the principles of plain language. The text does not need to be actual plain language unless the target group specifically requires it, but any target group benefits from a clearer text.

When writing with Word, always use the spell and grammar checker. For the checker to work correctly, you must specify the correct document text language. The language setting is also important for the screen reader, as some screen readers choose the language based on the language set in the document.  The correct default language should be set as soon as you start to write the document.

If your file contains an entire paragraph or paragraphs in a language other than the rest of the document, you should set the correct language for that section for the checker as follows:

  1. Select the text for which you want to specify a language.
  2. On the Review tab, select Language (online version: Spelling and Grammar) and then Set proofing language.
  3. Find the correct language in the menu and select it.
  4. Select OK.

Alternative texts to images

Especially for screen reader users, all images must have an alternative text description or alt attribute. Images relevant to the understanding of the whole must always be explained in text form. You only need to explain the essential information contained in the image. A good alternative text is text that you would replace the image with if the image had to be omitted.

Alternative texts are intended for users who cannot see the image. If the essential content of the image is already fully described in the body text, or if the image has no purpose other than decorative, an alternative text must still be defined for the image. However, in this case, it must be defined as empty: the screen reader can skip an image with an empty alt attribute.

If you do not separately specify an alternative text, Word will not create any alt attribute at all, and the screen reader informs the user that there is an image and may read aloud, for example, the file name of the image. Even if there was nothing important in the image, a screen reader user might be left with a feeling that they have missed something.

If the image is not decorative and you add an alternative text to it, put a full stop at the end of the description. This way, the screen reader user can easier deduce where the description ends.

How to add an alternative text to an image in Word:

  • Word’s browser version: you can find the feature in the ribbon. The width of the browser window determines whether the option is directly visible in the ribbon or hidden.
  • Word’s desktop version for Windows: the easiest way to find the Edit Alt Text option is to right-click on the top of the image to open the context menu.
  • Word’s desktop version for Mac: you can find the Alt text feature by selecting the picture to open the Picture format tab. In the Format Pane side panel, select Layout & Properties.

Depending on the tool version, you will be prompted for a description or both a Title and a Description. If you are prompted for both, just fill in the Description field and leave the Title field blank to avoid unnecessary automatically added title and description texts before the contents of the fields in question.

See an example image: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man (in Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

If both fields are used, the alternative text would be created, for example, as follows:
alt=”Title: The Vitruvian Man Description: A hand-drawn image of a nude man facing forward. He is surrounded by a square, which is superimposed on a circle. The man is portrayed in different stances at the same time: First, his arms are stretched above his shoulders and then also perpendicular to them, while his legs are together and at the same time spread out along the circle’s base.”

If only the Description field is used, the same description could be, for example, as follows:
alt=”The Vitruvian Man is a hand-drawn image of a nude man facing forward. He is surrounded by a square, which is superimposed on a circle. The man is portrayed in different stances at the same time: First, his arms are stretched above his shoulders and then also perpendicular to them, while his legs are together and at the same time spread out along the circle’s base.”

The latest versions have only one field, the content of which is the alt text. (Note that automatically added Title and Description headings are based on the language of the Windows’ user interface language, not the language of the text content.) See Microsoft’s version-specific guidelines for adding alt texts.

Mark decorative images and images already explained in the body text as decorative

All images must have an attribute. If the image is decorative, its attribute must be empty. The same applies to content-supportive images that have already been explained in the body text. There is no benefit in explaining the point twice. The latest Word desktop version (WIN) includes a Mark as Decorative option in the alt text settings. Selecting it creates an empty alt attribute to the image.

The option does not yet (08/2020) exist in all versions of Word, but you can work around this by adding a space in the Description field in the alternative text of the image. This results in the following alt attribute: alt=” ”. Actually, it should be empty, i.e. alt=””. Luckily, the screen reader reads the space correctly from the user’s point of view, meaning that the screen reader will not mention the image to the user if there is only a space in the field.

If you cannot mark images as decorative in the Word you use and add a space as alternative text, note that Word’s Check Accessibility feature will flag the lack of alternative text if the description is only a space. In that case, record and make sure that you add a space to images that do not need an alternative text.

Note: new versions of Word also include an AI-enabled “Automatically generate alt text for me” feature that tries to guess the content of an image and to suggest an alternative text to it. You should not use the feature because AI probably does not know what you want to say with the image. Most of its suggestions are unusable.

Once your document is ready, give it a title in its properties.

Specify a title for your file in the file’s metadata: Select File (Tiedosto)/Properties (Ominaisuudet) and specify the title in the Title (Otsikko) field. While you are at it, you can also add other things related to the document, such as keywords, to make it easier to find the file later using the search feature of your computer’s resource management. (Note: header data is mandatory in the metadata if you want to create an archivable PDF of the file. You can also edit metadata in Acrobat Pro or Reader, for example. However, in this case, you must remember to do it again if you update the file in Word.)

How to check accessibility in Word

Under Review (Tarkista) in Word, you will find the Check Accessibility (Tarkista helppokäyttöisyys) feature. By clicking on it, you can perform a quick accessibility check on your document. It is a good place to start, even though it cannot identify all the problems.

Make it a habit to review the document before publishing it and possibly converting it to a PDF file. The tool checks whether all images have an alternative text and whether the contrast between the text and its background is sufficient. Note that the tool cannot know whether you have used structures logically with respect to the actual meaning of the content. Also, it does not (yet) check everything that could, in principle, be checked with a program, such as the use of heading styles.

Some accessibility requirements must always be reviewed by a human. Therefore, check at least that the hierarchy of the headings is logical, that the headings describe the content well, and that the link texts are descriptive. For example, “Read More” is not an acceptable link text. A link text must indicate where the link will take you.

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