Office 2010: Accessibility Investments & Document Accessibility

My name is Larry Waldman -- I am a Program Manager on the Office User Experience team and have been working in this role to make Office more accessible for almost 5 years. When users of Office hear that Microsoft has many people working specifically to make our products more accessible to people with disabilities, many express surprise. With such a broad customer base, we recognize the importance of considering accessibility impact in every feature we build. For example, check out this article I wrote about Accessibility and the Ribbon in Office 2007.

Upon starting our research for the 2010 release, we knew it was important to continue our accessibility focus (see Microsoft Accessibility for more info) and ensure that Office 2010 is the most accessible version of Office ever. Not only are accessibility improvements garnering increasing attention from governments, but accessibility improvements provide broad usability improvements and as such are becoming a key area of focus for the software industry in general. With that in mind, we planned Office 2010 with two key accessibility pillars:

  • Improve Office’s interoperability platform to make it easier for assistive technologies (like screen readers, for example) to build features for their users. This includes our web products like SharePoint.
  • Provide several easy-to-use, powerful features built directly into the product that ensure users around the world are able to reach their full potential.

Providing detail on all of Office 2010’s accessibility improvements can’t be done in a single blog post, so I’m going to focus today’s discussion on Office 2010’s new document Accessibility Checker feature. I’ll end the post with a few high level bullets of other accessibility features that we might discuss in the future.

Understanding Document Accessibility

While user interface accessibility has been well understood for years, the accessibility of Office document content is a burgeoning new area. In particular, we’ve seen many requests from companies and governments who have been wondering how to help their employees create accessible content. To solve this problem in Office 2010 we created a document Accessibility Checker (like a spell checker, but for accessibility issues) as a core feature of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

We started by examining the most common accessibility problems in Office documents and bucketing them in terms of their severity – we ended up with three categories:

  • Issues where content is unreadable. For example, a picture missing alternative text (alt text provides a text based representation of an image) is unreadable to a person who is blind.
  • Issues where content is difficult to read. In general, these issues are less severe than unreadable content – for example, if an author has created a data table and used complex formatting to alter its presentation (i.e. using blank rows or columns, or merged and split cells), then a person with a disability might have difficulty understanding content in the table.
  • Issues that may or may not make content difficult to read. In our explorations, there were a set of issues that potentially cause users with disabilities difficulty for which we don’t have a high confidence, automatic way to determine whether the issue is really a problem. For example, knowing whether or not the reading order of objects on a slide or cells in a layout table is optimal for a particular reader falls into this bucket.

Based on these three categories, we came up with a set of issues our checker looks for (described in more detail below) – when presented to the user, they are bucketed into “Errors”, “Warnings”, and “Tips” – these buckets correspond to the above three descriptions.

Using the Accessibility Checker

One of our key principles for Office 2010’s accessibility checker was to make the feature available out of the box for all users – in a way that’s integrated with the authoring workflow. Rather than force users to remember to run the accessibility checker before sending a document, we integrated accessibility results directly into the Backstage view. Anytime you click the File tab and view the Info place, accessibility information will be provided under the Prepare for Sharing header. Prepare for Sharing is described more generally in this Backstage view blog post, but this is the place in the UI where authors go to ensure their file is ready to be shared with other readers; they can check for hidden information, metadata, and now accessibility issues.

Screenshot of the Backstage view Prepare for Sharing UI, showing that accessibility results automatically appear under prepare for sharing. In this example, the text in Prepare for Sharing includes a bullet that reads "Content that people with disabilities are unable to read"

To receive more detailed information (including what issues were found, why they are issues, and step-by-step instructions as to how to fix each one), users can click ‘Check for Issues’ and then click “Check Accessibility”.

Screenshot of the Check Accessibility button in the Prepare for Sharing UI

This will close the Backstage View and open a task pane so you can interactively find and fix the issues in your document. In addition to the screenshot below I’ve provided a detailed textual description of how to use the checker and how its UI is represented to screen readers.

Text description of the Checker Task Pane

The task pane has two main UI sections.

The top section is a tree view control (with each tree item navigable via arrow keys). Each “violation type” (missing alt text, no table header row, repeated blank characters, etc…) is an item that is collapsible.

When showing, each violation type contains one or more violations – these are represented to screen readers as children of the parent “tree items”. Each leaf is key focusable. For example, if you have two pictures that are missing alt text, they will be two violations under the “Missing Alt Text” node – each can be selected. When a violation is selected, the document will scroll to and select the problematic content.

Where possible we try to name each violation with a meaningful name (for example “Picture 1”) – And in PowerPoint or Excel you’ll find that we also try to provide what slide/sheet the object is on. Note – the violation types are grouped into “Errors”, “Warnings”, and “Tips” – These headers separate the tree items in the view, but they are not collapsible themselves. The group headers are also not key focusable.

When you select an issue in the top part of the pane, the bottom of the task describes how and why to fix it. Just above this bottom section is an “expand/collapse chevron” that allows a user to collapse the bottom pane.

All of the text in the bottom pane section is represented to a screen reader as one big pane with static text. When focus is on the pane, it can be scrolled using ctrl+up/down and pageUp/pageDown. Finally, there is some explanatory text and a more info link at the bottom of the pane if users need more help.

Screenshot of the document accessibility checker UI (as described in text in the blog post).

What exactly do we check for?

When Office 2010 ships there will be full documentation provided that details each violation the checker will scan for. In the meantime, here is a quick list of what we check for in each Office application – you can download the Beta and try out the Accessibility Checker with your files to see more details for the issues your content has. The top box for each application contains Errors, the middle contains Warnings, and the bottom contains Tips.

Diagram of what is checked for in each application. Word: Errors: Alt text is added to images, shapes, etc…, Data tables have a header row specified, Rights protected documents provide programmatic access, Headings have been used to provide document structure. Warnings: Headings are spaced evenly throughout the document, Tables haven’t used blank rows/columns for formatting, or split/merged cells, Hyperlinks have meaningful text representations, Headings aren’t used as “body text” throughout the document, Floating objects aren’t used inappropriately, Whitespace hasn’t been used for page layout. Tips: Layout Tables have an appropriate reading order, Images haven’t been used in watermarks, Headings are used in an appropriate order. Excel: Errors: Alt text is added to images, shapes, etc…, Data tables have a header row specified, Rights protected documents provide programmatic access. Warnings: Tables haven’t used blank rows/columns for formatting, or split/merged cells, Hyperlinks have meaningful text representations, Non-blank sheets have meaningful names. PowerPoint: Errors: Alt text is added to images, shapes, etc…, Data tables have a header row specified, Rights protected documents provide programmatic access, Every slide has a title. Warnings: Tables haven’t used blank rows/columns for formatting, or split/merged cells, Hyperlinks have meaningful text representations. Tips: Media objects are checked for closed captions as appropriate, Slides with non-placeholder objects (i.e. floating objects) have an appropriate reading order, Slide titles are unique.

While we’ve tried to include as many accessibility issues as we can for Office 2010, we do recognize that there are still accessibility issues we don't yet check for. If you have a particular issue that didn’t make it into this release, please feel free to leave us a comment on this post and let us know things you’d like us to consider for the next version.

As part of our documentation process we’ve provided Assistive Technology Vendors with details about how they can use the Office accessibility platform (including our Object Model) to ensure they optimally read back Office content for their users.

For organizations that are concerned about compliance for employees, we’ve provided several group policy settings that can be used to customize exactly which accessibility violations are checked. Administrators can also increase the visibility and emphasis of the Prepare for Sharing information when there are errors or warnings. Finally, IT departments can leverage Office 2010’s UI extensibility to enforce a workflow that requires users to run the checker – this will help many corporations reduce the risk of employees creating inaccessible content and increase the amount of accessible information available to people with disabilities.

Other Office 2010 accessibility highlights

While this post has drilled deeply into the new document accessibility checker, here are a few other highlights we’ll be considering blogging about in the future. Feel free to leave comments and we’ll be sure to drill into what you’re most interested in.

  • Increased Platform Support and Interoperability: Office is reliant on a complex network of Windows Assistive Technology (AT) to provide the best experience for users with all types of disabilities. Office 2010 incorporates User Interface Automation (UIA) platform support into many new features including, for example, the Ribbon, Backstage View, and Outlook message list.
  • Improved Web Accessibility: The W3C recently introduced its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) as a standard on which web application accessibility could be judged. Achieving WCAG 2.0 AA conformance has been a key tenet of the development of Office server products, including SharePoint Server, the Office Web Apps, InfoPath Forms Services, and other tools. With this release we’ve moved beyond “basic conformance” for our web tools and invested in new usability features and UI like the Ribbon to ensure all users have an intuitive, easy-to-use experience with Office’s presence in the browser.
  • Continued Focus on Efficiency and Usability: Despite such a large focus on interoperability platforms and standards, we’ve also continued our focus on making features easy to use. In addition to the Backstage View, Outlook Quick Steps (user friendly ways to automate repetitive Outlook tasks), and new language translation capabilities, we’ve also provided new keyboard shortcuts. For example, you can use ctrl + right/left in the Ribbon to keyboard through command groups, and you can now resize and rotate shapes in PowerPoint with one keyboard shortcut (shift + right/left/up/down resizes, and alt + right/left rotates – you can use ctrl with both for more fine grained adjustments).

The release Office 2010 is groundbreaking on many levels. Not only are we delivering features to users that provide a great accessibility experience across the PC, the Web, and the Phone, but we have continued to enhance our platform interoperability and commitment to AT Vendors. Hopefully this look at accessibility is useful – please let us know via the comments if you have questions or would like more information on a particular topic.

Larry Waldman, Program Manager, Microsoft Office

Update:   Nick Simons just blogged about accessibility and the Office Web Apps.  Check it out at

Another update: Diana Kimball just published a quick blog about accessibility and PowerPoint.  Check it out at .