Accessibility of an Excel file

Information can be tabulated in an accessible manner

The spreadsheet program Excel can also be used to produce accessible documents. When you remember certain operating methods and settings, Excel will enable you to produce accessible tables and PDF files formed from them. As with other files published online, when producing worksheets with Excel, you should think about which format is the most suitable for publishing the information.

A clear layout makes it easier to perceive contents

As with other documents, you should ensure that your Excel files and PDF files created from them have a sufficiently clear layout and structure.

Information presented in a table is often easier to perceive if the table has more rows than columns. Long-stretching columns in particular require horizontal scrolling, which is more difficult than vertical scrolling in terms of aspects such as perception. The small screens of mobile devices in particular can make it impossible to examine such tables.

Another common problem with presenting information in a table is that tables can easily become excessively broad. In particular, if the table calls for subheadings, it may be more sensible to structure the information into several smaller tables.

In the default settings of Excel, the font size is quite small and the rows are narrow. If there is no particular reason to save space (e.g. the print layout in a document intended for printing), tables should be made easier to perceive and read. This can be done by means such as using a clear font with a font size of at least 12 and increasing the spacing of columns and rows.

Because aid devices always read tables in order, the first cell (1A) should always have content so that the file is not interpreted as blank. Usually, this cell should contain the main title or name of the table.

Remember colours and contrasts

Colours are commonly used in Excel tables to distinguish different areas of information from one another. Colour can be used as an effect, which is often useful for users such as people with dyslexia. However, colour should not be the only means of conveying information, so make sure that the same matter is also expressed verbally.

When selecting colours, you should keep in mind that the colour templates provided in MS Office do not necessarily meet the minimum contrast levels determined in the accessibility requirements. If you want to use many colours, you must ensure their sufficient contrast separately. One good method is to check what the worksheet would look like entirely in black and white, e.g. by using the greyscale print preview feature.

Name your worksheet and its tables

As with other documents, Excel worksheets published online must be given a title and a descriptive file name. The in-document title is given in the ‘File’ tab.

An Excel worksheet often consists of many tables and tabs, and each table must also be named and no empty or unnamed tables must be left in the worksheet.

Avoid merged, hidden and nested cells

Placing information in the cells of a table should be simple in order for the table to be as accessible as possible. Avoid any split, merged and nested cells, as not only are they difficult to perceive, but they are problematic to screen readers as well. In the worst case scenario, the reader gets stuck in such an information cell.

There should not be any empty cells, rows or columns in the information area, either. If a cell contains no value, this lack of information should also be marked (e.g. with a zero or a dash, depending on the situation).

Protecting or hiding cells and information areas also makes using them with aids difficult or even impossible, so this should be avoided.

Give every table a title: click ‘Insert’, select ‘Table’ and check the box ‘My table has headers.’ This enables aid devices to repeat the title information while browsing the table, whereby the reader does not need to keep that information in mind.

Provide alt texts for graphs

Images and graphs must have alt texts in Excel as well. In an Excel file, the text can be brief, as it is usually accompanied by the actual table with detailed information. For example, if a table contains information about the frequency of certain occurrences in different years and the table is used to create a line graph, the alt text is adequate when it names the trend indicated by the line, e.g. even, rising or declining.

However, graphs created in Excel are often used in other documents. In such a case, the alt text depends on the surrounding text. If you use a graph created in Excel in a PowerPoint presentation, for example, and the essential information of the graph is also expressed verbally, the alt text can be brief. If the information of the graph is indicated by the graph only, explain its contents in the description. If you use an illustrative image, mark the image as decorative. The alt text can be created in Excel or the program with which the document is created.

How to provide alt texts in Excel 2016:

  1. Select the image by clicking on the edge of the graph area (not over the image).
  2. Press the secondary mouse button.
  3. In the menu that opens up, select ‘Edit image.’
  4. Go to the third section and select the bottom option, i.e. ‘Alternative description.’
  5. Enter the alt text into the ‘Description’ field in the window that opens. The ‘Title’ field can be left empty.


Once you have completed your worksheet, check and verify its accessibility. The best results can be achieved by using built-in Accessibility Checker function in conjunction with a human review.

Accessibility Checker

Excel features a function for checking the accessibility of the document. This function is called the Accessibility Checker. It is capable of detecting plenty of accessibility errors and issues, but not all of them. The function can be found via the ‘Review’ or ‘File’ menu. The Accessibility Checker can only be used on files in the .xlsx format.

  1. Open the ‘File’ tab. The ‘Info’ section features the ‘Check for Issues’ button.
  2. Press the button to open a menu and select the middle option, ‘Check Accessibility.’
  3. An Accessibility Checker panel will open to the right of the document, showing any errors and warnings detected by the checker.
  4. For more information about the results, click the name of the element on the results list. Excel will point out the erroneous item and tell you why the issue should be remedied, providing instructions. The program also issues warnings and gives tips.
  5. Correct all direct errors at least.

Keep in mind that the checker does not find all errors, nor does it inspect the quality of the document. For example, the checker examines whether an image has an alt text, but it does not assess how good the alt text is. As such, a human review is needed as well.

Check the document yourself

Once you have run the Accessibility Checker and remedied all issues detected, check the following yourself:

• If you used images and colours, are their contrasts sufficient?
• Is the layout of the worksheet clear and spacious enough?
• Has every table been given a name?
• Has a title been assigned in the file properties?
• Does the file have a food file name that indicates the contents of the file to people who download it?

An accessible PDF file exported from Excel

Once you have created your worksheet in accordance with the instructions given above and checked its accessibility, you can convert it into an accessible PDF file.

  1. Create the PDF file by using the ‘Export’ function.
  2. Select ‘Export’ > ‘Create PDF/XPS Document.’
  3. Before publishing, open the ‘Settings’ menu.
  4. In the saving settings, select ‘Document Structure Tags for Accessibility.’ This selection will add the accessibility features you have created to the PDF file.
  5. After that, you can publish the PDF.

Do not use the ‘Print PDF’ function. Instead of an accessible PDF, this function only creates an image.