Office 365

Accessibility in Office 365—progress in 2015 and plans for 2016

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Today’s post was written by John Jendrezak, partner director of program management for the Office Engineering team.

Last week, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer for Microsoft, outlined our company-wide guiding principles and goals to improve accessibility across our products, services and websites. To support this company priority, the Office 365 team has increased its investments in accessibility to a historical high and is committed to delivering inclusive productivity experiences to empower the 1 billion+ people with disabilities on this planet to achieve more.

Our goals are to ensure that:

  • People with disabilities can communicate, consume and create content on any device.
  • Everyone can easily create content that is accessible for all people.

We have a strong track record of compliance with accessibility standards for our productivity applications on PCs and for our communication applications, including Section 508 Procurement Requirements. By the end of 2016, we want to extend this to all Office 365 applications on all platforms and are also committed to ensuring we meet more modern accessibility standards, including WCAG 2.0, Level AA Success Criteria and European Standard on accessibility for public procurement of ICT (EN 301 549).

That said, we know that compliance with accessibility standards does not guarantee ease of use. This is why the Office 365 team is not only using data from accessibility conformance tests, but also conducting usability studies with people who have vision, mobility, hearing, learning and literacy impairments to make our products more usable and to allow every person to achieve more.

Over the past year, we made progress in improving the accessibility of all the Office 365 applications and services, as well as our help documentation and training resources related to accessibility. A summary of the key enhancements we delivered in 2015 along with links to support material can be found below.

Looking forward, we are excited about 2016, as we have several accessibility improvements planned for our Office 365 customers. These will be delivered via application updates throughout 2016. An overview of our plans for this year can be found below.

Delivering productivity experiences that are inclusive, accessible and truly empower people of all abilities to achieve more is a priority for Microsoft. We invite all organizations and individuals who strive to create an inclusive work or classroom environment to follow our progress on Office Blogs and watch our video series showcasing the accessibility enhancements in Office 365:

If you have feedback that can help us improve our plans, we encourage you to let us know via Microsoft Accessibility Forum. If you require phone or 24/7 chat support regarding our accessibility features, please use the Disability Answer Desk. In the United States, we also have an ASL option for our customers with hearing loss via video phone at 503-427-1234.

Progress in 2015

Last year, we made some noteworthy progress toward our goals.

  • We ensured authors can easily add alt-text in documents via Word Online, so that the documents they create are more accessible to users with vision impairments.
  • We improved screen reader and keyboard/touch navigation experiences to ensure users with vision impairments can easily:
    • Use Office 2016 for Mac with VoiceOver.
    • Triage mail, read and compose a mail, review the calendar and send a calendar meeting in Outlook on the web.
    • Navigate Mail for Windows 10 with familiar keyboard commands and predictable focus.
    • Access shared files and share a file in OneDrive for Business on the web and iOS and discover shared content that might be interesting via the Delve app when using VoiceOver on iOS and TalkBack on Android devices. Watch this demo of OneDrive for Business on the web to learn more.
    • Read and navigate through a list in Word Online and use Bullets & Numbering in Word 2016 for PCs.
    • Work with Slicers, Timelines, PivotTables and PivotTable Fields List in Excel Online and with charts, data validation, sheet tabs and hyperlinks in Excel 2016 for PCs.
  • We improved the usability in high contrast mode for several applications: Skype for Business on PCs, Sway on the web, Word Online, Excel Online and PowerPoint Online.
  • We improved usability with speech input in Yammer on the web, so Dragon Naturally Speaking users can discover the names of icons, force actions to appear by saying “click show actions” and use speech to click icons.
  • We introduced “Tell me what you want to do…” in Office 2016 for the PC, which is particularly helpful for users with vision impairments. It lets you enter intuitive commands to get things done faster and to get help. This was previously only available in Office Online.

Plans for 2016

This year, we have plans to make even more progress toward our goals.

  • To aid authors in ensuring that their content will be accessible to screen reader users, we will:
    • Offer the Accessibility Checker in Office for Macs.
    • Enable authors of a Sway to add/modify alt-text and check accessibility.
    • Enable authors to easily add alt-text in workbooks via Excel Online.
    • Enhance our support for the PDF/UA standard, so when people export Office documents to PDF format, tags for screen readers will have the correct structure of a document, including lists, tables and headings.
  • To better meet the needs of diverse writers, we are making enhancements in the Spelling Checker of Word 2016 and Outlook 2016 for PCs. We will offer suggestions for phonetic and other less common misspellings, which will be particularly helpful for people with dyslexia.
  • To better meet the needs of diverse learners, we launched an add-in called Learning Tools, in preview in English for OneNote on PCs, in January and will make this generally available later in the year. This add-in is particularly helpful for people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia who are looking to improve their attention, comprehension or speed while reading or looking to author content via dictation. Watch this demo of Learning Tools to learn more about this technology.
  • To enable users with vision impairments to work easily with graphical objects in Word, Excel and PowerPoint on desktop and mobile platforms, we will offer:
    • Access via a screen reader to richer descriptions of shapes and text.
    • Better high contrast experience when using shapes, pictures and SmartArt.
    • Better feedback while authoring graphical Office content.
  • To enable users with vision impairments to be more productive with Office 365 apps on PCs, we will:
    • Make it easier for screen reader users in Outlook to use the Scheduling Assistant to set up a meeting, search and add mail recipients based on suggestions and set up Signatures for their account. Watch this demo of Outlook to learn more.
    • Make it easier for screen reader users in Word to use tables and lists, comments and track changes, fix proofing errors and enter text in dialogs such as Envelopes and Labels, Footnote and Endnote, Insert Index, Insert Captions and Mark Citations.
    • Make it easier for screen reader users in Skype for Business to receive incoming messages, navigate chat history, and share screens.
    • Make it easier for screen reader users in Access to use datasheets, forms and reports.
    • Improve the high contrast mode experience in all Office 2016 applications so users can read commands more easily on the ribbon and backstage areas.
    • Improve the keyboard navigation experience in all Office 2016 applications so users can navigate across the ribbon more predictably and consistently.
  • To enable users with vision impairments to be more productive with Word for Mac, we will improve the experience with VoiceOver so users can access tables and lists, fix proofing errors and better understand announcements when using option + arrow keys to navigate a document.
  • To enable users with vision impairments to be more productive with Office 365 mobile apps, we will:
    • Make all Office 365 Store apps for Windows 10 more accessible so people using assistive technologies can view and edit content easily.
    • Make it easier in Word on iOS with VoiceOver to access tables and lists and fix proofing errors.
    • Make it easier in Outlook on iOS with VoiceOver to use calendar.
    • Make it easier in OneNote on iOS to edit notebooks.
    • Offer the “Tell me what you want to do…” control in Word, Excel and PowerPoint iOS and Android apps.
  • To enable users with vision impairments to be more productive in Office Online and Outlook on the web, we will enhance the screen reader, keyboard navigation and high contrast mode experiences.

Join the conversation

  1. The education and accessibility communities really need native MathML support in Edge. After all, it is the accepted standard for representing mathematical equations for accessibility and part of HTML5. My company’s MathPlayer product used to supply such support in Internet Explorer but no longer due to lack of COM add-in support. It is a real opportunity for Microsoft to show some leadership here. A good education includes math and it should be available to all.

  2. Dear Office folks

    One thing which apparently helps people with dyslexia is the ability to change the background colour of desktop windows, so they don’t have a white background.

    I’m no expert but I believe pale shades are easier to use (as opposed to people with visual impairment who may want High Contrast). For instance the British Dyslexia Association here ( says:
    “The use of cream or pastel coloured backgrounds can mitigate this difficulty ”

    For computers with Windows 7 it’s easy to change the window background colour to any colour from a very wide range and this then appears within Word, Excel etc. . This also has the advantage that documents produced look normal to others when they are sent on, and appear with the white background – so the colour scheme isn’t stored within the document.

    However for Windows 10, the ability to change the window background has only appeared in the November update, and even then it has a very restricted choice of colours, and not many are pastel.

    Is there anything you can do on the Office side to help this? Or perhaps give a nudge to your colleagues who write Windows 10?!

    Thanks for your help.

    • I would echo the statements above but request features like Word’s Speak command to be expanded in a way that WordTalk from the University of Edinburgh has done/did (I can not get it to work in newer versions of the OS or Office no fault to anyone implied). The word is highlighted as it is spoken, currently a user selects and hits speak to hear a document with no highlight.

      This feature is in One Note’s add-in but needs to be in multiple products.

    • David(s), the system settings in Windows are designed primarily for personalization rather than to address learning disabilities. With that sais, we are investigating learning solutions and you can find an example of that in the Learning Tools for OneNote preview ( As that preview technology matures, we will work to integrate it more broadly into Office and potentially Windows.

      Thanks for the comments.

  3. As a result of the needs in my own middle school language arts classroom, I have helped to create and develop a patented desktop app for individuals of all ages with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, low vision, stroke/brain injury issuea and/or other conditions that often impact all aspects of reading digital media—whether online or offline. This assistive technology app works well together with Office, University 365 and other underlying Microsoft applications as well as other vendors’ programs.

    Would appreciate an opportunity to talk with your Ms. Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer for Microsoft, regarding how we might be able to partner in creating a mobile version of this app that is already used by many challenged students and other differently-abled desktop users around the world. Would you kindly provide the preferred method/means for communicating with Ms. Lay-Flurrie? Please feel free to email me via my Microsoft account information.

    I will very much appreciate your assistance. Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

    Joan M. Brennan

    • Thanks for the comment Joan. I’ll make sure that Jenny sees your comment and invitation to meet.

  4. The function to changing the Window background color in Word documents is very usefull or even necessary for computer users with photophobia.
    In Windows 7 the user could easily change this background Window color.
    The colors used in Windows 8 & 10 and also in recent Office versions are often soft-tone colors with very low contrast. When you want to use your keyboard to navigate through menu’s, you want to be able to see the selected item!
    In Windows 8 & 10 the text size can be set bij the user, but unfortunately colorsettings for the title bar, window background and selected items ar no longer available.
    Setting the background with a change of the registry is technically possible but absolutely not the way to go.

    I am computer adaptation advisor in The Netherlands. On weekly basis I do advise visually-limited users how to optimally use a computer at home and for work.
    In some cases I do need to advice: Stay with Windows 7 because accessibility (contrasts and colors) in Windows 8 & 10 are less or not adaptable!

    It would be great if Microsoft could have another look at the options of personal color-use.

    Wim van Reenen, Bartiméus

    • Thank you for the feedback on the Windows 8 & 10 color options. I’m not on the Windows team but will ensure that they hear this feedback. They are very open to hearing (and responding to) input like this so thank you for taking the time to post. Much appreciated.

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