Random Word Accessibility Tips

There are lots of standard strategies for making more accessible Word files, but even so I have learned some new tricks this week.

Tip 1: Right Click to Modify Heading Styles

Using heading styles in Word such as Heading 1 (document title), Heading 2 (major section titles), Heading 3 (subsections) and so forth is a very important technique for making documents accessible. But it’s also rare that the default heading styles Word gives you are the ones you want.

The trick here is to change one piece of text to the format you like, then you modify or update the style to the appearance you want. Here are some quick and dirty instructions that work in recent versions of Word for Mac and PC.

  1. Type sample text and put into a heading style (e.g. Heading 2)
  2. Use formatting tools to adjust appearance
  3. Move cursor the list of Styles in the Ribbon
  4. Right click on style name (e.g. Heading 2) in the ribbon.
  5. Select option for updating the style to match selection. Your formatting is changed.

If you are very ambitious you can learn and/or assign a keyboard command for key styles including heading. On my Mac Office 2011, Command+2 in Word is the Heading 2 Style and Command+N is Normal and I can change both by going to the Tools menu and selecting Customize Keyboard and saving it to my Normal template. It’s saved many seconds for me.

Tip 2: Learn Advanced Formatting WITHOUT Text Boxes

Sadly, once you insert a text box into Word or PowerPoint it places a protective force field which the screen reader (i.e. JAWS) cannot penetrate. This is a problem because text boxes were a go-to tool for adding colored boxes, special 3D text effects and drop caps.

Fortunately, the newer versions of Word let you do more formatting without resorting to a text box. A lot of 3D effects are available in the Advanced character formatting options, not to mention text outlines, shadows, and gradients.

Similarly the paragraph formatting tools allow you to add borders, background colors and padding above and below. If you use borders, you may need to adjust the margins for each paragraph to the appropriate width, but it can be done without sacrificing accessibility. You can learn how by either searching Google and Penn Staters can find Word tutorials in Lynda.com.

Tip 3: Don’t Merge Table Cells

Tables can be a chore to deal with, but are made infinitely worse when you begin merging cells. A screen reader assumes that cells should be read left to right, top to bottom, but when cells are merged, it can get lost. I had one case where a merge caused the cursor (and the screen reader) to mysteriously jump to the right column, then back to the left. Our tester was definitely confused.

Reformatting the table so that the cells were larger, but not merged made the reading more coherent.

Tip 4: Reveal Mystery Table Layout

Speaking of tables, I was having problems troubleshooting why the cursor was reading items in a particular order because the table had hidden most of the borders. To reveal the structure, I simply went to the table formatting menu and made that borders were set to All to reveal borders around all cells. That’s when I found how cells have been merged.

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