Topic: September 2017 – Criterion

Making Documents Accessible

Accessibility is not just for web-based information, though that is important. Document accessibility is important for businesses to consider when they create content through Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and PDF.

While the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines exist as the global standard for web accessibility, there is no universal standard for documents. The International Organization for Standardization is a non-governmental international organization based in Geneva, Switzerland that provides specifications for products, services, and systems through international voluntary standards. ISO 14289 is the organization’s PDF standard for universal accessibility, most often called PDF/UA. It is considered a complement to WCAG.

Requirements of PDF/UA include tagging content correctly and in logical reading order, using correct headings and nesting them properly, announcing important actions to users, adhering to proper color contrast ratios, providing alternative text descriptions for meaningful images, allowing assistive technology to access content, and providing appropriate navigation through a variety of means.

While much of those same issues must be considered for Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, Microsoft documents do not have universal accessibility standards. Government agencies will have their own list of requirements, and best practices usually guide organizations and agencies that do not have their own.

In Microsoft products, beyond similar requirements for PDF/UA, here are four important considerations. (Please note this is a sampling of accessibility issues, not comprehensive.)

  1. Tables
  2. Text Boxes
  3. Spacing
  4. Accessibility Checkers


First of all, tables need to be used for brief pieces of comparative information. They should not be used for decoration, spacing, or column formatting. Tables should be created by using the Insert Table tool rather than the Draw Table option. This allows for screen readers to read the tables easily. Add a caption to your table and in the table properties, allow heading rows to repeat on new pages. Do not allow the rows to break across the pages.

Text Boxes

Text boxes are most often not accessible to screen readers, even when you have created them through the toolbar. For this reason, stay away from text boxes. For those using PowerPoint, a screen reader cannot access any formatting that happens outside the created layouts. Therefore, a document creator must use the Slide Master feature to create the layouts necessary so that no text boxes are added in the normal view. For a more accurate picture of what the screen reader can see within a PowerPoint, go to the Outline View of your presentation. If you have added a text box with text in Normal View, you will see that its content is not listed in the Outline View.


Extra unnecessary spacing throughout your document will be difficult for a screen reader trying to access pertinent information. Remove any extra spaces including spaces created by the enter key. To create spacing for aesthetic purposes in Word, use the Line Spacing feature in the Paragraph section of the toolbar. For Excel documents, format the cell size in order to make spacing as desired.

Built-In Accessibility Checker

Microsoft products now include a built-in accessibility checker. At the end of each document creation, you should check your document using this checker. It will easily pick up issues such as images with no alternative text or headings that are nested incorrectly. However, please note that these are not comprehensive checkers. They will not pick up if you have used a text box or forgotten to fill out the file’s properties. Logical reading order and color contrast must be checked manually. You will not be aware of headings labeled incorrectly or improperly structured tables by using the automated accessibility checker. These serve almost similar to an HTML validator scan for a website. While they can catch a small percentage of issues, it should not be relied on heavily for testing whether or not a document is accessible.

Criterion’s Document Services

For more information about document accessibility including courses and document remediation services we offer, contact us at (888) 508-3973 or visit our Document Accessibility page.