6 Ways To Make Your Word Documents More Accessible Using TTS Readers, Captions, Links, And More

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A document that takes accessibility issues into account will reach a wider audience than another. Here’s how to do that in Microsoft Word.

Image: BigTunaOnline / Shutterstock

You don’t always know your audience, so when creating a document for the web or a number of unknown recipients, you need to keep accessibility in mind. In fact, make it a priority if you want the best results. Accessibility isn’t new, but it’s not on the mind of the average Word user, yet. But Microsoft 365 has done a lot to make documents more accessible to a wider audience by including text-to-speech technology. In this article, I’ll go over three TTS readers and then share some general guidelines for making Word documents more accessible.

SEE: 83 Excel Tips Every User Should Master (TechRepublic)

I am using Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64 bit system. There is no demo file; you won’t need it. SST is available in Microsoft 365 desktop apps and Word for the web. This document does not review accessibility laws.

About TTS players in Word

Text-to-speech readers are common these days, and Windows 10 and Microsoft 365 come with built-in TTS features. In this section, we’ll look at three of them: Read Aloud, Narrator, and Speak.

Word’s new reading feature is Read Aloud; it’s available in Office 2019 and Microsoft 365. You’ll find it in the Review tab in the Speech group. It’s easy to use and does exactly what you might expect – it reads your document aloud. Click the option and playback will start at the insertion point. Click again to stop. Click it again to start over, where you left off (if you haven’t moved the insertion point).

When you start the feature, Word displays a set of controls in the upper right corner of the document screen (Figure A). The buttons are mostly self-explanatory: Previous, Read and Next. The Settings button allows you to choose a drive and speed.

Figure A

wordaccessibility-a.jpg

Read Aloud’s default settings.

Although this feature is limited, reading only text, it does offer a few keyboard shortcuts that extend its functionality a bit. See Table A for an explanation of these shortcuts. It’s easy to use, but limited because it only reads text. If you need to recognize graphics, use Narrator.

Table A

Shortcut

Explanation

Ctrl + Alt + Space

Start reading aloud

Ctrl + Space

Read or pause reading aloud

Ctrl + Left Arrow

Skip to the start of the previous paragraph

Ctrl + Right arrow

Go to the beginning of the next paragraph

Alt + Left Arrow

Decrease reading speed

Alt + Right arrow

Increase reading speed

Narrator is a Windows 10 screen reader app that reads everything in the document, including UI options. This player is also available on Windows 8 and supports Office 2013 and later versions.

There’s a lot to learn if you want to use Narrator, but for our purposes you only need two shortcuts:

  • Start and stop Narrator: press Windows key + Ctrl + Enter
  • Open and close settings: press Windows key + Ctrl + N

If you’ve never used Narrator before, opening it will bring up the Narrator home page where you can read online tutorials and review settings. It starts with reading the home page. To disable this page, uncheck the Enable Show narrator welcome when narrator starts option in the lower left corner. Otherwise, every time you start the feature you will start by viewing this page – it quickly gets boring.

SEE: Windows 10: Lists of Voice Commands for Speech Recognition and Dictation (Free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Once activated, Narrator tells you a lot about a document: the document name and path, ribbon options, and even taskbar buttons. To read the document, click anywhere inside. While reading the document itself, Narrator will notify you when it encounters non-textual elements, such as images, graphics, videos, links, and more. If the graphic does not have alt text, Narrator will read the name of the file.

There really is no way to prepare yourself to use Narrator. Disable the home page as suggested above and jump right in. Using it is the fastest way to learn its features. My personal experience is that it’s awkward and boring until you get to grips with it. If you don’t like it, there are a number of third-party TTS apps that you can try.

Speak is an older feature that reads selected text. I mention it for completeness. In newer versions, you need to add it to the Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) to access it.

Now, let’s take a look at some ways to make your TTS reader more efficient when reading Word documents.

1. Use alt text

An electronic reader reads the text. Narrator informs you that it has encountered a graphic. But it will not describe the pictures and other graphic elements. That’s why you enter alt text. In Word, right-click the graphic element, choose Edit Alt Text from the resulting submenu. This opens the Alt Text pane displayed in Number B. As you can see it tries to describe the graph, but for now you will probably enter a more meaningful description. Keep in mind that graphics are often as informative as text, and you’ll want to add that information as alt text.

Number B

wordaccessibility-b.jpg

Enter a description for graphics files and images.

2. Use meaningful link text

A reader will read a URL, but it won’t be particularly helpful. Instead, display meaningful, unambiguous link text. For example, instead of http://anysite.com, or “view more” or something similar, use “Click now to go to our company home page”.

Leave the hyperlink style (blue font and underline) in place. Visually impaired users need clues to help them discern hyperlinks. In addition, avoid linking graphics and images. If you do, be sure to put this information in the alt text of the chart.

3. Apply high contrast characteristics

Fonts, colors, and contrast are an important topic when accessibility is important, far too broad to cover in this article. What is important to remember is this:

  • Fonts should be larger than normal.
  • Use a font with simple, clear characters.
  • Make sure there is a lot of contrast between the text and the background.
  • People who are color blind do not process red and green correctly. When using these colors, include other ways to discern a meaning other than color.

I oversimplified the subject, but you get the idea.

4. Add subtitles to videos

A video is of little value to a hearing or visually impaired person. If you need to include a video, be sure to add captions. Word won’t help you do this, so you’ll need a third-party capture service. This is another great topic and comes with a bit of a learning curve. If the video comes with embedded captions, be sure to view all of them to make sure they’re accurate.

5. Run the accessibility checker

When you think your document is finished, Word may check it for accessibility properties. Word will scan your document and suggest changes to make the document more accessible. You can apply the tips or not. Click the Review tab, and then click Check Accessibility in the Accessibility group. Word will display the Accessibility pane. As you can see in Figure C, Word found a graphic with no alt text.

Figure C

wordaccessibility-c.jpg

Run the Accessibility Checker.

6. Listen to yourself

This last tip can be used on any document, even if you aren’t concerned with accessibility. Using Read Aloud will help you find awkward sentences and other texts that you might not read as inferior but sound inferior. Listening to a reader assess your intentions is the best way to learn when your efforts just aren’t working out as intended.

Making a document more accessible requires little time or specialist knowledge. Going forward, try to keep this in mind, unless you know your audience and accessibility is an issue.

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