How accessible are Microsoft Word documents?
Microsoft® Word is the world's most popular word processing software application, and files created with Word (typically ending in .DOC or .DOCX) are common as a means of distributing materials over the web, including materials used in education.
The greatest problem in distributing Word documents is that doing so assumes all recipients have Microsoft Word. In cases where the entire audience is known, this may be an accurate assumption. For example, in a school where Word is installed on all classroom computers, all students do have access to Word. However, for documents with larger distribution or where users' technology is unknown, some recipients may not have Word and may be unable or unwilling to procure it.
Beyond availability, whether Word is a good choice for accessibility depends largely on the content of the document. Microsoft Word itself is a reasonably accessible application, and many individuals with disabilities use it comfortably on a regular basis to compose their own documents. However, as documents become more complex, they are increasingly likely to present challenges to users of assistive technologies, particularly blind individuals using text-to-speech software (screen readers). These challenges can be overcome when Word styles are used properly and advice from Microsoft about accessibility is taken seriously.
An accessible format is one that explicitly communicates a document's structure, including but not limited to headings, subheadings, table structure, and alternate text for images.
When headings are marked up with a particular heading level using Word's styles and formatting functionally (e.g. H1, H2, H3), screen reader users can navigate easily through a document's headings, often with a single keystroke.
Word has limitations when it comes to making tables accessible. Simple tables with a defined header row and no nested or merged cells can be accessible to screen readers, more complex tables should be simplified by breaking them into multiple simple tables for clarity.
With most versions of Word include a field to enter alternate text for images. This "alt text" is read aloud by screen readers and is a textual way of representing visual content.
Another consideration, screen readers and other assistive technologies tend to perform poorly when reading a document opened within a web browser. Much of the specialized functionality that allows users to read, navigate, and better understand a document within the Microsoft Word application is lost when the document is opened within a plug-in. Therefore, in order to experience maximum accessibility, users must download and save the document and then open it in Word. Though not in itself an accessibility problem, this process is burdensome for users.
As these examples demonstrate, in most cases, choosing to provide a Word document should not be a problem as Microsoft is making steady improvements to the experience of both assistive technology users and content authors, alike. At the same time, assistive technologies continue to actively support the accessibility features that Microsoft is providing. Authors also share responsibility for accessibility when authoring documents in Word. For example, although Word provides a means by which images can be labeled with alternate text, few authors are aware of or use this feature. The same can be said of Word's ability to define various levels of headings using styles.
Given all of these variables, whether Word is an accessible format for distribution of educational documents is not a simple question to answer. It depends largely on the educational context and on the document content and complexity.
For information about how to design an accessible Word document, consult the following: