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Instructions for improving the accessibility of Excel spreadsheets.

First published:
4 June 2020
Last updated:

Start with an accessible Excel template

Pre-built Excel templates can help save time and improve accessibility in the content that you create. Microsoft have a range of these templates available for users to download at office.com.

Templates from this collection have several features that support accessibility.

For instance:

  • there is a lot of white space, which makes them easier to read
  • the colours contrast well, making them easier to tell apart, even for colourblind readers. Colour choice and contrast are important for low vision and colourblind users
  • for users who cannot perceive colour at all and see only monochrome, the contrast still works well
  • when it comes to text, larger fonts are easier for low vision users (12 point is the minimum recommended size)
  • many low vision users rely on screen readers. These templates come pre-set with descriptive headings and labels. Low vision users will easily understand their meaning when read aloud by a screen reader
  • screen reading programs also read worksheet names, so make sure those labels are clear and descriptive. Also, it’s always best to make sure there are no blank sheets in your workbook

Create accessible tables from data sets

Tables can help you identify a set of data by name, or apply a more polished format that makes that data stand out. By carefully naming and formatting your table you can be sure that everyone can understand your data. This includes those with low vision or users of screen reading software.

To turn your Excel data into a table:

  1. select any cell within your data set
  2. on the ribbon, select Insert and then Table
  3. drag the highlighted selection to adjust or redefine the cell range
  4. select 'My table has headers'

This is important for accessibility, because screen readers use table headers to navigate.

To give your table a descriptive name:

  1. click anywhere in the table and select the Design tab
  2. under Table Name, replace the generic name ‘Table_1’ with a more descriptive one

With a descriptive name, you can now jump to the table using the ‘Go To’ command or the ‘Name’ box. You can also refer to the table in formulas.

A meaningful table name like “EmployeeList” is more helpful than the generic “Table1” or a table reference code such as: $A$3:$D$16.

Certain table formats can be hard on people with low vision, so be sure to choose a format with good contrast and readability.

Here are some tips to optimise your table for accessibility using the Design tab:

  • Excel includes Header rows by default, because they are essential for accessibility
  • to make the labels in the in the first column stand out more, select First Column and then choose Banded rows. This makes the separation between rows more visible
  • there are lots of table styles to choose from. Lighter coloured tables with low contrast can be hard for anyone to read, but it’s even harder for people with low vision. Styles that alternate between white and a dark colour - such as black, dark grey or dark blue - provide a strong contrast that makes a table more accessible
  • to make sure the text inside a table is readable, you can adjust the font, row and column size. To do this go to the Home tab, select Font Size and increase the point size up to 14
  • make sure there’s enough space around the text to keep it from looking crowded. Users with dyslexia can find crowded text especially tough to read (under Format, select Row Height and increase it to 30. This makes the rows a little taller)
  • if the text is still too big to fit in the cells comfortably, select the columns and click Format again
  • choose AutoFit Column Width then add a little more white space manually by dragging the column dividers outwards
  • it is good practice to increase the font size and embolden the title of your table, to make it stand out, much like a ‘Header 1’ element

Create accessible charts

The charts and graphs you create in Excel help make complex information easier to understand. To make this visual information accessible for those with low vision you need to use words carefully. This way people with low vision can understand what others see. If you label chart elements with care and include Alt Text, all users will better understand the data.

Create a chart from your data table

  1. Select the data you want to use for the chart.
  2. Click on the Insert tab.
  3. Select a Chart Type from the available options.

Making chart elements accessible

Chart title

Select the generic chart title – ‘Chart 1’ - and replace it with a meaningful title.

Add Axis titles

  1. Select the chart, and click on Design > Add Chart Element > Axis Titles.
  2. Select Primary Horizontal or Primary Vertical.
  3. In the chart, select the new Axis Title field and type a title that clearly describes the axis.

Add Data labels

  1. Select the chart, and then click on Design > Add Chart Element > Data Labels.
  2. Choose Outside End.

Data label format

  1. Select the horizontal or vertical axis.
  2. Choose Format > Current Selection > Format Selection.
  3. On the Format Axis pane, set options to adjust the format and legibility of the axis. Options include the axis type, axis crosses, position, tick marks, label position, interval and number format.

Font format

Use light-coloured text on a dark background (or dark text on a light background) and apply a simple, sans serif font that is 12 points or larger.

To do this:

  1. select the chart text that you want to change
  2. click on the Home tab and change the Font, Font Size, Font Colour and other attributes

Add Alt Text

  1. Right-click the chart and select Format Chart Area.
  2. Select Size & Properties > Alt Text.
  3. Add a meaningful Title and Description.

After adding these elements, your charts will communicate better visually and to users with low vision or screen readers.

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