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508 Compliance for Word Documents

In my last post “Intro to Section 508 and Accessibility” I explained what Section 508 is, why it’s important, and how to be compliant. As a quick review, Section 508 is a law requiring Federal agencies to meet standards during “development, procurement, maintenance, and use” of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). These standards help users with disabilities have comparable access to others. In this post I will focus on 508 Compliance for Word Documents, just one piece of ICT. I’ll detail the steps involved in preparing these documents to be 508 compliant and accessible, and I’ll show how to convert it into a PDF document that is suitable to be shared with others or posted to a website.  

508 Compliance for Word Documents

Many documents are created in a Word Processing software, such as Microsoft Word. When distributing your document to a wide audience or publishing to a website, sharing a PDF rather than a Word document will allow access to more users because PDFs can be opened and read in a web browser or using the free Acrobat Reader software. Acrobat also offers accessible features to enable people with disabilities to access the information in PDFs, however only if the PDF and/or the originating document was created with accessibility in mind.

Before converting a Word document to a PDF, it should be well-structured and logically organized so that minimal adjustments will be required to ensure accessibility and 508 compliance on the PDF document. Furthermore, keep in mind that many properties from a Word document are transferred to the PDF during the conversion process, including metadata, bookmarks, alternative text for images, heading levels, and comments.

Let’s begin with making a Word document accessible. I will be using the 2016 version of Word. Please note that instructions may vary slightly if you are running a different version.

Properties and Structure

Document Properties

The document properties are important elements of any document. The more properties you provide the better as these are used by search engines and screen readers to find and identify content in documents. At a minimum, the author, title, subject, and language fields should be completed.

To view or edit the document properties click on File > Info. Then click on Properties and choose Advanced Properties. Under the Summary tab, fill in the relevant fields for the document. To set the language click on the Custom tab. Type English in the Value field. Click OK to save.

Document Properties Window
Document Properties Window

Reading Order of Columns

Assistive technology will read tabbed text line by line, from left to right, and top to bottom. Therefore, do not use the tab key to mimic the appearance of columns.

Orientation of Pages

Ensure all pages are the same orientation (landscape or portrait), and the text reads from left to right to avoid issues with table structure and accessibility. If you have a table with a lot of data, you may need to reformat it to ensure it fits within the same orientation.

Document Elements


The use of style elements creates the necessary tags needed by screen readers to navigate the document. Heading styles should be used only to indicate the hierarchical level of a title or heading and not for styling purposes. Use Heading 1 for the document title, Heading 2 for the main section headings, Heading 3 for subsections, etc.


Hyperlinks should be active (they turn blue) when copied into the document. If the links are not active, they may be made active by highlighting the text that needs to be made active; right-clicking; then choosing Link (or Ctrl + K).

All links should use the fully-qualified URL, for example https://www instead of www.


  • Do not separate items using tabs – use the table feature
  • Tables should read logically from left to right, and top to bottom
  • Merged and split cells should be avoided
  • Column headings should appear at the top of each column
  • Any row headings should be positioned in the first left-hand column
  • Headings should be short and descriptive
  • Captions should appear above or below table
  • For complex tables, include a description of the table contents in the text of the document.
  • Tables spanning multiple pages should have column headings that repeat on each page by formatting the top row as a header row:
    • Highlight the top row of the table
    • Right-click and select “Table Properties”
    • Click on the “Row” tab
    • Check the option “Repeat as header at the top of each page
    • Click on OK
  • Do not allow rows to break across pages.  To set this:
    • Highlight entire table by clicking on the box on the top left of table
    • Right-click and select “Table Properties”
    • Click on the “Row” tab
    • Uncheck “Allow row to break across pages
    • Click on OK


Avoid using text boxes for simple labeled graphics or even as callouts. Although a text box appears in a particular place in your document, they are considered floating objects on a page and have no fixed position.

Inserting Images

Word has a variety of different ways that you can insert graphics into your document. However, unless you use the appropriate technique, a tagged PDF generated from a Word document with graphics will not retain its proper reading order. To ensure that your graphics retain their proper reading order, you must make sure that the graphic has been inserted in line with the text.

The simplest way to insert a graphic, and have it remember its place in the document, is to use Insert > Pictures. It is strongly recommended that you combine any composite graphics into one image in an outside application, and save it as a standard graphic format (.jpg, .gif, etc).

An alternative approach is to copy the graphic and paste it into Word. By default, this operation does not insert the graphic as an inline image. Consequently, you will need to edit the properties of the graphic in order to change its text wrapping.

Adjust Text Wrapping

Graphics need to be in line with the text.  To edit this, right-click on the image, then select Wrap Text – In Line with Text.

Add Alternative (alt) Text

  • Alternative or alt text is required for all pictures, graphics, or illustrations that convey meaning.  
  • Background images and decorative images without meaningful content should not have any alt text.
  • Alt text should be greater than 7 and less than 80 characters in length. If it exceeds 80 characters, the long description attribute (or caption) should be used.
  • To add alt text:
    • Right-click on the image; select Edit Alt Text.
    • In the text field add a description of the image. Example: Yes-73; No-15; Not Applicable-2; Unknown-2; Did Not Answer-1.

Use Captions for Charts and Graphs

In some instances, an image is too complex to describe in a few words. Charts and graphs are primary examples of such images. Despite there being any limits to the length of text in an “alt” attribute, “alt text” is meant to be relatively brief and to the point. For complex images, it is suggested to briefly describe the image in the alt text and reference the location of the long description or caption. By including a long description or caption with the graphic, you will add information that can be used by all readers, not just those with disabilities.

To insert a long description or caption to a graphic, right-click on the image and choose Insert Caption. Captions usually appear just below the image.

Example image with caption below:

Example chart
The above bar graph indicates the number of DEA funded Clandestine drug laboratory cleanups per fiscal year for 1991 through 2008. The value for each year is as follows:  1991 – 446; 1992 – 394; 1993 – 396; 1994 – 308; 1995 – 325; 1996 – 738; 1997 – 1,383; 1998 – 1,923; 1999 – 3,846; 2000 – 4,505; 2001 – 6,390; 2002 – 7,243; 2003 – 8,631; 2004 – 9,825; 2005 – 11,790; 2006 – 4,744; 2007 – 3,405; 2008 – 3,866.

Alternatively, you can add a data table below the chart/graph. Example below:

1991 446
1992 394
1993 396
1994 308
1995 325

Final Preparations for Conversion

Under Review Tab

  • Accept all Edits – Click on the Accept icon, then select Accept All Changes and Stop Tracking from the drop-down menu. 
  • Turn Track Changes Off – Click on the Track Changes icon to see if Track Changes is on or off.  If Track Changes is on, select Track Changes Icon to turn it off.
  • Remove All Comments – In the Comments section, select the drop-down arrow under the Delete icon and select Delete All Comments in Document

Turn Off Formatting Marks

  • Click File > Options, then Display.
  • Under Always show these formatting marks on the screen, clear all the checkboxes.

Turn on Print Layout View

  • Select View tab; then Print Layout.

Check for Issues

Word has a built-in accessibility checker so you can check for any issues you might have missed. To access the checker, click on File > Info. Click on the box labeled ‘Check for Issues’, then select ‘Check Accessibility’ in the drop-down menu.

Navigating to the Accessibility Checker
Navigating to the Accessibility Checker

A panel will open to the right with the inspection results. Clicking on each one will take you to the error or warning in the document so you can fix it. You can also keep the accessibility checker running while you work through the document.

Your Word document should now be accessible and 508 compliant. You can also refer to this checklist of accessibility requirements provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to verify you have covered everything.

Finally, if you plan to distribute the document, follow the instructions below to convert it to a PDF.

Convert Document to a PDF

Basic Requirements and Settings

Although there are free software options online, for this example I will be using Adobe Acrobat Professional. Version 8.0 or higher must be installed on your computer in order to properly convert Word documents to PDF format. If Adobe Acrobat Professional has been installed, an Acrobat tab should appear in the top menu bar in Word. If the tab is not present, you may also create a PDF by clicking on Print, then choosing Adobe PDF from the list of printers.

To check the PDF conversion settings in Microsoft Word, click on the Acrobat tab located in the top menu bar; then select Preferences. Be sure the following items are checked:


  • View Adobe PDF result
  • Prompt for Adobe PDF file name
  • Convert Document Information

 Application Settings:

  • Create Bookmarks
  • Add Links
  • Enable Accessibility and Reflow with Tagged Adobe PDF

 Click OK or Cancel to return to the document.

The Conversion

To convert the document, click on the Acrobat tab and select Create PDF.  You will be prompted to save the document and after the conversion is complete, the PDF will open in Adobe.

You should now have a new PDF document, which will need to be reviewed and further prepared for Section 508 compliance. Stay tuned for those details in a future post.

UPDATE: Related post 508 Compliance for PDF Documents is now available.

This post was written by Fawn Kildoo

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