Module: Microsoft Word, Universally Designed (Full Document)


  1. Purpose
  2. Presenting Information in Multiple Ways
    1. Images
    2. Tables
  3. Organizing and Adding Style
    1. Styles
    2. General Tips to Improve Readability
  4. Saving Documents in Multiple Formats
  5. Resources
    1. Microsoft
    2. Other Resources
  6. Feedback


Creating Word documents according to the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) offers important benefits to you and your readers. Universally-designed documents have a clearly defined structure and are therefore easier to navigate. They offer information in multiple formats, which ensures equal access to information contained in images and tables. They follow guidelines designed to improve readability and comprehension. And they easily convert to other file formats, like PDF and HTML, while preserving all of the accessibility and usability features just described.

This module explains the key features of a universally-designed Word document, along with helpful tips and additional resources.

Presenting Information in Multiple Ways

One of the hallmarks of UDL is its emphasis on presenting information in multiple ways—visual, oral, and textual. According to this principle, known as “multiple means of representation,” information that must be seen to be understood puts some readers at a disadvantage. Fortunately, you can level the playing field by describing in text the visual information contained in images and tables.


Images convey information quickly and powerfully—assuming they can been seen and understood. However, some readers may not understand the meaning of the image; others may not be able to see it due to visual impairment, personal viewing preferences (especially on the web), or technological limitations.

Whether the image is a photograph, clip art illustration, or Excel chart, make sure the information it contains is available textually as well as visually. This can be achieved in several ways, including describing the image in the text of the document, adding a caption, or adding an alternative text description.

How to add alternative text to an image

Select the picture and right-click (or press Shift-F10) to bring up the context menu, then choose “Format Picture...” In Word 2010, choose “Alt Text” from the left pane of the dialog box, then enter a description of the image.

Related TutorialSee the tutorial Adding Alt Text to Images in Microsoft Word for more detailed instructions.


Tables provide a clear and succinct format for presenting certain types of information. But like images, tables can be difficult to interpret for people who cannot see them. To ensure that your tabular information remains understandable to all readers, do the following:

  • Keep tables as simple as possible. Use two tables rather than one very complicated table whenever possible.
  • Design tables so that they make sense when linearized (i.e., when read strictly from left to right, top to bottom).
  • Give the table a simple, clear title.
  • If you add a caption to the table, summarize the table’s significant information concisely but clearly. For example, “Steve’s office hours are 10-11, Tuesday through Thursday,” rather than “Table shows Steve’s office hours.”
  • Make use of table headers, order them logically, and name them clearly.

Related Tutorial For more information about table headers in Microsoft Word, see the tutorial Indicating Table Headers in Word.

Organizing and Adding Style

How you organize and present information determines the usability of your Microsoft Word document. Documents that clearly convey their information in a logical fashion benefit more people. Information that is “chunked,” or delivered in small sections, is easier to remember.

Visual formatting—Layout, spacing, color, and font selection—all affect the degree to which information can be easily read and understood. We know this from age-old principles of graphic design as well as modern studies of usability. Yet we mustn’t rely on visual formatting alone to convey important information. Why? Because not every reader will be able to see your document. Some will hear the text using text-to-speech software. Others will print or photocopy your colorful text and graphics in black and white.

Visual formatting should therefore be combined with structural formatting. Word provides one powerful tool—Styles—for managing both. Creating an accessible and usable Word document is largely the result of using Styles.


Word’s Styles apply structure to text, placing elements into categories such as headings (levels 1-9) and lists (bulleted and numbered). Styles also control the appearance of page elements.

Word comes with a large number of built-in styles. Although styles are preformatted in appearance, they are customizable in all respects, including font, size, paragraph indents, tabs, color, and more. The appearance of a style can be modified without changing its structural meaning. For example, the style “Heading 2” can be modified to appear in any size, font, and color without altering its meaning as a second-level page heading.

The benefits of using styles are many:

  • Document navigation becomes easier for both reader and author alike. The document takes on a consistent appearance, with elements like headings standing out clearly.
  • Styles help you maintain consistent formatting throughout your document. When saved in a “template,” Styles provide consistency across multiple documents. Templates can be customized to create a special look, such as memos and manuscripts, and can help you conform to publication standards.
  • Design changes are dramatically faster, especially in large documents.
  • When combined with Word’s built-in headings, styles allow you to automatically add a table of contents to your document, complete with dynamically updated page numbers.
  • Styled documents allow for easier conversion to other formats, such as PDF and HTML.

General Tips to Improve Readability

Sometimes a simple change can have a large impact. Such is the case with the following “best practices,” which are easy to implement and can greatly improve the usability of your Word documents:

  • Use fonts that are legible and not overly ornate. For body text especially, avoid fonts that look like handwriting, calligraphy, or fancy headlines.
  • Use a font size that is large enough for easy reading.
  • Pick a text color and background combination that offers high contrast.
  • Define acronyms upon first usage, and avoid using slang, jargon, or ambiguous terms that limit universal understanding.
  • Explain any background context that might be crucial to understanding.
  • Hyperlinks to websites should clearly convey where they will send the user and, ideally, what the user will find there.

Saving Documents in Multiple Formats

As the popularity of electronic file distribution grows, so does the importance of saving documents in formats that everyone can access. By default, Word documents are saved in a proprietary .doc and .docx format that cannot always be opened by other software. Fortunately, it’s easy to save Word documents in alternate formats, such as Adobe PDF, HTML and Rich Text Format (RTF).

Related Tutorial The following tutorials offer additional information about preparing Microsoft Word documents for conversion to alternate formats:



Create accessible Word documents
Short videos. “Create Word 2010 documents that are more accessible to people with disabilities. Learn how to format your document using Styles, add alternative text to images, and other tips to make your document easier for users and assistive technologies to navigate.”
Accessibility features in Word
“Microsoft Word includes features that make the software accessible to a wider range of users, including those who have limited dexterity, low vision, or other disabilities.”
Add alternative text to a shape, picture, chart, table, SmartArt graphic, or other object
“This article discusses adding alternative text to a shape, picture, chart, table, SmartArt graphic, or other object and shows you how you can make the Alt Text command always available.”
Other Microsoft Word training
Articles and videos covering a wide range of topics related to Word 2010.

Other Resources

WebAIM Microsoft Word
A concise article on what you need to do to make accessible Word documents from the accessibility experts at WebAIM.
Georgia Tech Research on Accessible Distance Education (GRADE)
Guidelines: Accessible Word Documents Offers lists of “Must, Should and May Items” that create more accessibility: “Must” items are critical to basic access for people with disabilities.
Access E-Learning, is a free, online ten-module tutorial from the GRADE project that offers information, instructional techniques, and practice labs on how to make the most common needs in distance education accessible for individuals with disabilities, and enhance the usability of online materials for all students. Requires creating a log-on, but this is only for user numbers tracking. Module 6 is Improving Word File Accessibility.
How to Create Descriptive Text for Graphs, Charts & other Diagrams
A Descriptive Text Tutorial Web Accessibility Tutorial for Creating Descriptive Text for Diagrams, Charts & Other Graphics from the Center on Education and Work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Microsoft Word, Universally Designed
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