Accessibility limitations of Microsoft Word for Mac

Like the majority of graphic designers, I prefer to work on a Mac. Fortunately, I am able to work on my platform of choice most of the time, even when I have to share files with clients who work on PC. Whether I’m working with Adobe Creative Suite or Microsoft Word, my clients and I just have to make sure we both have all the required fonts, to ensure the layouts don’t reflow. In that regard, it’s no different to sharing files with clients who work on a Mac.

We’ve all seen instances of Microsoft Word layouts reflowing when opened on a different computer, whether on the same platform or another platform. The most likely cause is that one or more of the fonts are not available. If all the fonts are available, reflows are most likely due to poor formatting and layout techniques.

Over the years, I’ve shared hundreds of Microsoft Word files with clients on PC. We make sure we only use fonts we both have on our respective computers, and we rarely have any issues with reflows.

The file formats .doc and .docx are essentially the same on both platforms. However, although the file formats are the same, the functionality of the various versions of Microsoft Word are not identical. Comparing the current versions I use, Microsoft Word 2011 for Mac and Microsoft Word 2010 for PC, the PC version has some capabilities that are missing on the Mac version. Unfortunately, a number of these capabilities are relevant to preparing accessible documents in both Microsoft Word format and in PDF format.

Because of this, I always swing over to my PC to prepare final versions of accessible documents from Microsoft Word layouts. Any graphic designer who prepares accessible files from Microsoft Word really needs to use the PC version, even if it’s only at the very end of the process. For those who currently work exclusively on Mac, one way to do this is to install Windows as a virtual machine on their Mac.

Features that are not available on Word for Mac

Accessibility checker

Microsoft Word for PC offers an accessibility checker that scans the document for potential accessibility problems. Like the Adobe Acrobat checker, it can’t detect all type of problems, and some of the problems it finds are spurious. Nevertheless, it’s always worthwhile to run this check, as it can pick up things you may have overlooked.

The accessibility checker only works with files saved in .docx format. Generally, it’s best to use the .doc format for web-published documents so they can be opened by people using older version of Word. But it doesn’t take long to save your file as .docx, run the checker, then save back to .doc.

Hyperlinked table of contents

A hyperlinked table of contents is essential in an accessible document, unless it’s quite short. Microsoft Word for PC can generate a table of contents in which the text and the page number are both hyperlinked. On Word for Mac, it’s only possible to get the page number hyperlinked. If the table of contents is set up on a PC, both text and page numbers will remain hyperlinked when the file is opened on a Mac, and they will remain hyperlinked even if the field is updated for page numbers only. However, if you need to fully update the table of contents, it has to be done on PC.

You may have noticed on Word for PC that sometimes when you hover over a TOC item, you see a tooltip saying ‘Control-Click to follow the link’. This is a user preference, which the user can change to allow them to follow the link with a regular mouse click.

Save as PDF

Microsoft Word for PC has a native PDF export tool (Create a PDF/XPS Document) with a number of features not available on Microsoft Word for Mac. The PC export tool exports:

  • a tagged PDF, including automatic tagging of correctly formatted headings, bullets, numbering, footnotes, table headers and alt text
  • external and internal hyperlinks
  • a hyperlinked and correctly tagged table of contents
  • bookmarks based on the table of contents.

Note that although PDFs generated from Mac may appear to have successfully exported external hyperlinks, this is not actually the case. If the links do work in Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat, it is because those programs can automatically follow URLs that begin with http:// or www. However, if the URL spans two lines of text, the Adobe programs will only follow the portion of the URL that is on the line you clicked on. Clicking on the first line of the split URL will either lead to an error message in your browser or take take you to a higher-level page on the same website. Clicking on the second line of the split URL will almost always lead to an error message.

Summary

Looking back on these PC-only features, we can see they are all about functions, not about the file format. An accessible layout can certainly be prepared in Microsoft Word for Mac, but when we want to generate a fully hyperlinked table of contents, use the accessibility checker or export a tagged PDF, we need to switch to PC to use functions that are only available on that platform.