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Accessible Assistive Technology Resources Advocacy Resources Bridges Blog Series: Self-advocacy September, 2021

Self-advocacy September: Making Word Documents Accessible

It seems simple: if information in a document is important, you need to be able to access it. But, sometimes making that happen is not so simple. This week, the Free Bridges Helpdesk explores accessible text documents (like Word) in terms of self-advocacy.

What is accessibility?

At its core, accessibility is a simple concept: something is accessible if a person can get to it and interact with it. For example, when a classroom is locked, it is not accessible to anyone without a key. Similarly, a password-protected computer file (like a worksheet in class) is not accessible to anyone without the password.

As you can see, accessibility is not tied to disability. While individuals with disabilities typically run into more accessibility barriers than the nondisabled, any barrier to access for anyone is an accessibility barrier.

What about disability-related accessibility?

In the world of disability, both federal and Maryland state laws require that reasonable accommodations be made to allow individuals with disabilities the opportunity to interact with something in a manner that is as efficient, as effective, and for as sustainable a length of time as others. In fact, Maryland has a specific law that requires each school district to ensure that its digital learning materials “… comply with WCAG 2.1 Level AA (June 5, 2018) … [in order] to provide equitable learning opportunities for all students.” COMAR section 13a.06.05.06.

How to self-advocate for accessible text documents (Word, etc.)

It can be frustrating when text documents (in Word, etc.) for school or work are in a format that is not fully accessible and/or easy to use. Sometimes it can feel like a big “ask” to have these documents be provided in an accessible form.

A crucial first step in self-advocacy for accessible Word documents is to explain that EVERYONE needs accessibility and that nondisabled students get fully accessible documents every day. In other words, you are only asking for something every nondisabled student is already receiving: the opportunity to use the document.

Next, explain that accessibility is not difficult to achieve, especially in a Word document. Word has many accessibility features built into the program, and simply using these features makes a document accessible to blind/low vision individuals.

Quick-and-easy steps toward accessibility for Word documents

While actual accessibility requires FULL accessibility, here are some best practices to get started:

If in doubt, copy it out.

  1. Sometimes we get Word documents that have “invisible” accessibility hurdles, and it can be time-consuming to make sure each is eliminated.
  2. A quick way to eliminate these is to take the document, select all text (Control + A), open a new document (Control + N), and paste the contents into the new document UNFORMATTED (Alt + H, V, S, U).
  3. Now, you have unformatted text without lots of hidden stuff.
  4. Please note that this also removes important formatting (including embedded hyperlinks, automatic numbering, etc.), so you will need to add those back in.

Don’t use text boxes.

  1. Text boxes force a screen reader user to “jump into” the text box to read the text and then “jump out” of it.
  2. This is like a sighted user being forced to jump to a hyperlink to read the text and then being forced to go back to the original document.
  3. This process is inefficient for any user, so it is better to simply refrain from using text boxes.

DO use headings; do NOT use text effects.

  1. Headings provide navigability to a document.
  2. Sighted users typically use text changes for navigability (larger text, bolded/italicized/underlined text, colored text, etc.) for this purpose.
    • NONE OF THESE TEXT CHANGES ARE ACCESSIBLE for a screen reader user, and many create difficulties for individuals using screen magnifying software.
    • NONE OF THESE TEXT CHANGES comply with WCAG guidelines, and they are therefore unacceptable under Maryland law.
  3. Bonus: by using headings, it is WAY easier to change the “look” of the heading for sighted users: instead of finding each instance, you can make the change once and update the heading. Word will make the rest of the changes for you!

Make Word work for you!

  1. Use automatic columns (so much easier than adding tabs or spaces).
  2. Use automatic numbering.
  3. Use automatic bulleting.
  4. Use embedded hyperlinks and make certain that the selected text is meaningful standing alone:
    • No: “here”
    • Yes: “find out more about hyperlinks”
  5. Use Word to create tables accessibly

Remember to pay attention to graphics!

  1. In general, graphics should contain alternative text “alt text” to describe what is in the graphic. You may add alt text to a graphic by:
    • Right-clicking on the graphic
    • Selecting “Edit Alt Text” from the drop-down menu
    • Typing a description of the graphic into the Alt text box
  2. In some cases, the graphic is merely decorative, and it should be marked as such. You may mark a graphic as decorative by:
    • Right-clicking on the graphic
    • Selecting “Edit Alt Text” from the drop-down menu
    • Clicking the “Mark as decorative” check box
  3. In many cases, alt text, alone, is not enough.
    • Test: would the alt text, alone, be enough information for sighted students; in other words, would you feel comfortable taking ALL the graphics out and leaving only the alt text in the document?
    • If no, blind/low vision students should also receive tactile or enlarged graphics so that they may fully access the information conveyed in the graphic.

Use Word’s built-in Accessibility Checker!

  1. YES! Word has a built-in accessibility checker!
    • It is not perfect, but it is helpful.
    • It will miss issues like text boxes and most text effects, so make sure you’ve addressed these issues first.
  2. There are several ways to access the Accessibility Checker:
    • Use the “Review” ribbon and choose “Check Accessibility” and choose “Check Accessibility” from the drop-down menu
    • Type Alt, then R, then A and 1, then A
    • Go to the “Tell me what you want to do tab (Alt + Q),” and type “Accessibility Checker”

Check out great Word accessibility resources from the TVI Portal Maryland

Word Document Accessibility Resource page

Accessibility For All Video series from the Maryland State Department of Education

Use the Free Bridges Helpdesk

Let us help! We are here to support blind and low vision transition-age students in Maryland, and we are available to you anytime. Whether you need self-advocacy support one-on-one or you want us to support you in your communications with your teachers (or parents), please know that you are here for you!

We can also help your teachers (both regular education teachers and teachers of blind/low vision students) learn about and implement accessibility best practices. We do not make judgments or criticize anyone. Instead, we meet people where they are and provide support and resources to help them get to where they want to go.

Self-advocacy is a lifetime journey. Please allow us to join you.

Contact us

Follow the Bridges Helpdesk Facebook page for more transition tips, and please contact the Free Helpdesk for Maryland Blind/Low Vision Transition Students, Families, and Educators anytime using:

This unique project is being coordinated through The IMAGE Center of Maryland, a center for independent living in Towson, and it is funded by a grant from the Maryland Department of Education Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.

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