Creating Accessible Documents

Trent University faculty, staff, and students are engaged in creating documents on a regular basis. The purpose of this page is to provide a brief guide to making those documents accessible. As well, as of January 1, 2021 the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act stipulates that all web content will be required to be accessible, so we are working to build the skills of members of the Trent community in this area.

The following video walks through the content of the primer on creating accessible MS Word documents that we have created. The content of the primer is included below on this webpage.

The MS Word accessible style template is available for download here.

We are currently working on additional information relating to creating accessible PDFs and HTML versions.

For information on creating accessible webpages, please consult the Marketing and Communications Department's information on web content accessibility.

Video on creating accessible documents in MS Word

If the documents displayed in the video are blurry, click the gear icon on the bottom right of the video screen and change the quality to 480 or 720. You can also enable closed captioning by clicking the cc buttom at the bottom of the video screen.

The audio contents of the video has been transcribed and is available in a MS Word document available for download here.

Creating accessible Word documents – a primer

There are a few straightforward ways to make MS Word documents significantly more accessible to people with disabilities, including those with visual impairments, learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities. To begin with, we’ve created a style template to make it easier for you to format your documents in an accessible way.

Style template

To load the style template complete the following steps:

  • Download the accessible style template
  • Open the template
  • First go to File->Options
  • In the dialogue box that opens, click “Add-ins” in the left side menu
  • In the Add-ins window, look to the bottom where it says “Manage:” with a drop down menu immediately to the right. Select “Templates” from the drop down menu and click “Go”
  • In the dialogue box that opens, click “Attach…”, navigate to the template file you downloaded in step 1, and then click “Open”
  • Make sure that the box “Automatically update document styles” is selected, and then click “Ok” Title: screenshot of loading a template - Description: how to load a template file. a screenshot of what is described in the points above.


Adding heading styles to documents is crucial for enabling people with people with disabilities to successfully navigate through the document.

Once the style template is loaded, you can quickly assign headings by clicking in the left margin beside text that you want to make into a heading. You’ll notice that the mouse cursor turns to an arrow facing right – it needs to be in this mode to select a group of text. You can select multiple lines of text in different places in the document (i.e. all the text to be made into headings) by hitting ctrl while you click. Once text is selected, use the style pane in the ribbon at the top to assign heading styles. Lower level headings can be assigned Heading 2 or Heading 3.

Once all of the headings have been assigned, open the navigation pane, by clicking on the View menu at the top of the screen and then selecting Navigation Pane under the Show section (towards the left side). In the navigation pane, you’ll see that with the headings programmed, you can easily navigate the structure of the document.

Ensuring styles from accessible template are applied

If you are working on updating an existing document to an accessible format, you may need to go through some extra steps to apply the styles from the accessible style template. A common issue is that when load the accessible style template, the text in the document does not update. Also, you may find that when you select a block of text and try to apply a style, it does not change.

MS Word assumes that any manual updates to default style (font type, font size, spacing, etc.) should override the default styling. When you loaded the accessible style template (see above) it replaced the default template and became the new default style, but it does not override any manually changed styles, even though these occurred before the new template was loaded. Imagine that there are two layers of styling on top of each other. The bottom layer is the default styling, and the second layer on top is the manually adjusted styling. Loading the accessible style template replaces the bottom layer but leaves the top layer. All this to say, in these situations, in order to get to the accessible styling in the bottom layer you need to remove the styling on top.

To remove styles, you need to open the style pane. In the ribbon at the top, notice the section called “Styles”. In the bottom right of that section there is a little arrow pointing down and to the right; click on it to open the style pane. At the top of the style pane there is an option called “Clear All”. To remove styling from a block of text (and revert to the default) highlight the text and click “Clear All”.

Alt text for images

Adding alt text to images allows people who cannot see the image to know what meaning the image is trying to convey. To add alt text, right click the image and click Format Picture. In the panel that opens, click the icon with the four-way arrows. Add a title and a description. The description should be focused on the meaning that the image is conveying. For example, rather than saying “a group of people on the Faryon bridge”, you could say “four students on the Faryon bridge, smiling and leaning against each other on a sunny day.” Images should also be “in line” rather than have text flowing around them, otherwise screen readers may miss either the alt text or the flowing text. To make images “in line”, right click the image, mouse over “Wrap Text”, and select “In Line with Text”.


Hyperlinks have two components, the URL that is linked to and the text that is displayed and clicked in the document. The text that is displayed should describe the link and not just be the URL. For example, rather than, you would write Trent University website. To format links properly, type the descriptive text, highlight it, right click, and select “Hyperlink”. In the menu that opens, you’ll see that you can add the actual URL at the bottom. To edit an existing hyperlink, right click on it and select “edit hyperlink”. From there you can edit, at the top, the “Text to Display”.

Extra spaces

It is important to eliminate extra spaces between paragraphs and between words, as a screen reader will read each space (i.e. it will actually say “space, space, space”). To add extra space between paragraphs, rather than hitting enter you should alter the paragraph styling. In the ribbon at the top of the screen, there is a section called ‘Paragraph’ (that has the options for bulleted lists, indents, etc). Notice that in the bottom right of this section there is a small arrow pointing down and to the right; clicking this opens the Paragraph style window. Use the Spacing section in the Paragraph style window to add or remove space before or after a paragraph.

The accessibility checker (see below) will also point out the places in the document where there are extra spaces.


In general it is best to avoid the use of tables when possible. Tables can be difficult for screen readers to interpret, and can be challenging to interpret for people with low vision and learning disabilities. As well, long tables are difficult to navigate as the heading features described above cannot be applied to the content of tables.

If a table is required, try to make it as simple as possible, avoiding the use of complex nested tables with blank rows and columns.

Accessibility checker

MS Word has a built in accessibility checker. It does not catch all the issues discussed in this document, and when it says “no issues found” that does not necessarily mean that the document is fully accessible. That being said, the checker is a useful tool for pointing out some common issues, and it provides information on how and why to fix issues.

To open the accessibility checker, click on “File”. In the Info menu that opens, click on the box called “Check for issues” and then click on “Check Accessibility”. If this option is not available, the first box should say “Convert”; click on “Convert” and then click okay in the box that opens. After this, go back to the File->Info menu and the check accessibility option should become available.

Title: screen shot  - Description: screen capture of how to open the accessibility checker in MS Word

Font size, colour, etc.

With the accessible style template loaded, as long as you are using the default styles you don’t need to worry about using appropriate font size, colour, etc. If you wish to apply styles different from the defaults in the accessible style template, as a general guideline fonts should be size 12 or more, and sans serif (i.e. no ornamentation). Avoid the following when possible: all caps, italics, and underlines. Colours are okay, but colour contrast is important. Black on white or white on black are the best choices. If you have specific questions you can contact Andrea Walsh, Institutional Accessibility Advisor by email or by phone at extension 6602.