Using Word Documents and/or PDFs

Do you distribute information to students using Microsoft Word documents or PDFs?

Everyone benefits from organized, clear, concise and well laid-out assignments, syllabi and handouts. These tips can help you make your Word documents and PDFs accessible to the greatest number of students.

What makes a Word document accessible?

An accessible Word document is one that can be followed and understood by any student. Additionally, it can be read by a screen reader, has effective alternative text (Alt Text) and contains captioning or transcripts for any embedded audio or video.

Some students use assistive technology to adapt information into a usable format for their learning needs. Some examples of assistive technology are:

Screen readers: These read aloud information on a computer screen such as written text, or the description of an image provided through alternative text or Alt Text.

Screen enhancement software: This allows users to magnify the computer screen or change the contrast to make the content easier to see.

What makes a PDF accessible?

PDF stands for portable file document, a format that looks the same on the screen as it does in print, regardless of the software program used to create it or on which computer system it is being viewed. The free Adobe Reader software is used to view and print PDFs.

To create an accessible PDF, you should start by creating an accessible Word document. Step 2 is to convert the Word document to a properly tagged PDF, and Step 3 is to check the PDF’s accessibility and fix any problems.

Step 1: Create an accessible Word document

Step 2: Convert to PDF

Once you have prepared your Word document with accessibility in mind, you are ready to convert it to a PDF. For assistive technologies to be able to read it properly, the PDF must be tagged with an additional layer of information that allows the devices to determine how to navigate the file, and how to identify images, headings and paragraphs, among other items.

If you are working with Microsoft Word 2007 or 2010, this tagging will be done automatically when you save a file as PDF format. (Under “Options,” make sure to check the “Document structure tags for accessibility” box.) However, on the Mac operating system and in earlier versions of Word, using this method will create an untagged and therefore inaccessible PDF. In this case, to create a tagged PDF you will need to use the plug-in that is available within Word if Adobe Acrobat is installed:

  1. In the top toolbar, click the “Acrobat” tab.
  2. Select “Create PDF.
  3. In the “Save” box, select the “Options” button. Select the “Enable Accessibility” and “Reflow with Tagged Adobe PDF” options.
  4. Name the file as desired, select a destination folder and click “Save.

Step 3: Check and fix accessibility

If you have followed all of the above guidelines for creating your Word document, the resulting PDF has a basic level of accessibility. However, it is important to note that this document might not be fully accessible to all screen readers or assistive technologies; you may need to provide additional information using Adobe Acrobat software. For detailed information about creating accessible PDFs, see the Adobe Acrobat Accessibility Training Resources.

Recent versions of Word (after 2010) have an Accessibility Checker that operates like a spellchecker. It can be found under “File,” “Info,” “Check for Issues” and then “Check Accessibility.” It inspects your file and alerts you to issues that could make it difficult for a user with a disability to access.[i]


[i]Microsoft Corporation, Check for Accessibility Issues.