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Product Guide: Microsoft Excel

Step 1: Create a file

When creating an excel file, make sure you give your document a clear and concise file name and fill in the document properties.

File Naming

Consider the following when creating and naming your files:

  • File names should be concise and make the contents of the file clear
  • Try to keep file names under 30 characters
  • Document file names should not contain spaces or special characters (Microsoft will not let you save documents with the following characters: / \ : * ? “ < > |)
  • Use dashes to separate elements of a file name. While it is common to use an underscore, this symbol can be hidden when text has an underline style, such as styling on links.

Document Properties

Fill in the document properties, which gives audience members using Assistive Technology more information about the document they are reading and makes your documents easier to find using search tools.

In all Office 365 tools, you can find the document properties by selecting File > Info. Be sure to complete the title, author, and keywords at a minimum. The author should always be “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Information and Technology” and never a personal identifier.

Excel document properties

Step 2: Use the Accessibility Checker

Microsoft products have a built-in accessibility checker under the “Review” tab in the navigation ribbon. Turn this tool on at outset of creating digital content and frequently check for and resolve errors.

The Accessibility Checker tool helps create accessible content by identifying potential issues for people with disabilities in reading content or using the document. Please note that the accessibility checker is one tool — just because there are no errors in the accessibility checker, does not mean your document is 508 compliant or accessible.

Review Ribbon in Word, where the Accessibility Checker tool can be accessed.

There are three categories of accessibility checker issues:

  • Error: content making the document difficult or impossible to read and understand
  • Warning: content making the document difficult to understand
  • Tip: content people with disabilities can understand, but could be presented in a different way to improve the user’s experience

Accessibility Checker showing Inspection Results

Step 3: Write content that is easy to understand

Text is the key to accessibility. First and foremost, the text in your documents must be easily understandable. In fact, there is a law that requires everything to be written in plain language.

Know Your Audience

One of the most popular plain language myths is that you have to "dumb down" your content so that everyone everywhere can read it. That's not true. The first rule of plain language is: write for your audience. Use language your audience knows and feels comfortable with. Take your audience's current level of knowledge into account. Don't write for an 8th grade class if your audience is composed of doctoral candidates, small business owners, working parents or immigrants. Only write for 8th graders if your audience is, in fact, an 8th grade class.

However, just because you are writing for other Office of Information and Technology staff members, do not assume they know what you are talking about or are familiar with jargon you may use daily. At a minimum, spell out all acronyms and abbreviations  on the first instance.

Things to Avoid

  • Abbreviations (acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviated names)
    • Abbreviations are shortened forms of words or phrases such approx. or Feb.
    • Initialisms are abbreviations that use the first letter of each word to form the abbreviation such as VHA, VBA, NCA, EHRM, or OIT.
    • Acronyms are similar to initialisms, but the letter are used to form an abbreviation that is spoken as a word such as NASA, VACO, LASER. Some acronyms can be used because that is their most common and understood usage such as NASA or VistA.
  • Technical jargon (know your audience)
  • Slashes in place of "and" or "or" (e.g., "red and/or blue" should be "red or blue, or both")
  • Passive voice
  • Run on sentences and long paragraphs
  • Meaningless filler phrases
    • Thinking outside the box
    • Value added
    • Best practice
    • For all intents and purposes
    • Touch base
    • Integrating quality solutions
    • Promoting an informed and inclusive multicultural society
  • Embedded media. If you must embed video or audio, they must also be accessible.

VA Style

  • “Veteran” is always capitalized!
  • Use AP style
  • Don't use ampersands "&" unless they are part of a corporate name e.g., AT&T. VA initialisms should not use an ampersand - there is no “&” in “OIT.”
  • Do not use the word “the” before VA
  • “Health care” is two words unless part of a brand or name that chooses otherwise

OIT Style

The Office of Information and Technology follows AP style, with some notable exceptions:

  • Use Oxford or serial comma
  • Only capitalize “federal” when using as part of a proper name or when used with “government”
  • Do not abbreviate “million” or “billion” as “M”or ”B”
  • When writing time, a.m. and p.m. are always punctuated and lowercase
  • There is no “&” in “OIT.”

Step 4: Ensure text and images provide sufficient contrast

An important aspect of color for both low vision and colorblind users is sufficient contrast between foreground (text or graphics) and the background.

OIT digital content must meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 criteria. All OIT documents and websites will meet a minimum AA rating, and AAA wherever possible. The colors chosen in the OIT design guide have been selected to ensure that the base colors meet the minimum contrast requirements, but if you need to extend the color palette, several online tools are available to help determine if the colors meet the minimum criteria.

Do not use color as the only method of emphasis. If your audience has a certain color perception problems, they may not be able to see the color you chose. Make sure to also bold text or use text or symbol in addition to color in images to make sure your meaning is clear to all.

Additional Tools

Step 5: Add alt text to images

Images are a wonderful way to draw attention, or to build on a story, or to provide visual reinforcement to a concept you are trying to explain. However, if your audience has a vision impairment that prevents them from seeing the image clearly or at all, you need to provide alternative text, or “alt text.”

Alt Text

To minimize frustration and to increase understanding, images that are intended to convey meaning must have a text description. Fortunately, documents created in Word can take advantage of the alternative text attribute — commonly referred to as “alt text.” Alt text is a description of an image that’s shown to people who can’t see the image and is meant to convey the meaning of that image to the audience.

General Guidance for Alt Text

  • All images must have alt text or be marked as decorative.
  • Images intended to convey meaning must have a textual equivalent available.
  • Avoid text on images and do not use images that are just text.
  • Don't use abbreviations.
  • Use punctuation for full sentences.
  • Describe the image, such as, “Group of people at an airport.”
  • Alt text should consider the context in which the photo is being used and be as meaningful as possible.
  • Keep the alt text clear, meaningful and concise (due to screen reader behavior and general useability, the text should be less than 250 characters). If longer text is required to convey the message, use captions or the surrounding text, and then in the alt attribute use very basic text.
  • Don’t repeat the text of an adjacent caption. Screen readers read both the caption and the alt text, so avoid having the same details in both.
  • End alt text with a period. This signals the screen reader to pause before proceeding.
  • If the image is just decorative and conveys no real meaning, use the "Mark as decorative" checkbox. Minimize the use of decorative images - they can be a distraction and they increase the file size.
  • If the image is a hyperlink without any text, it must have alt text. If the link includes the image and text, then the empty alt can be used to avoid redundancy.
  • Do not use "a picture of," "an image of," "a photo of," "the so-and-so icon." Screen readers tell the user that there is an image and then read the alt text.
  • Do begin with “Screenshot of … ” if the image is a screenshot
  • Manually check that all alt text is entered correctly, Microsoft auto-generates alt text for images, but this text should be removed unless it has been verified to be correct.


Captions must not be seen as a replacement for content that should be in the body of the article but can be used in lieu of alt text if greater explanation is needed. Captions can provide additional understanding to all users if the image represents concepts that may not be universally understood or are abstract in nature.

Other Resources

Step 6: Provide meaningful links

Links should tell people what action to take, where to go next, or what information to expect when they select the link. Create link text that’s as specific as possible. For example, instead of linking text like “Click here” (which may not make sense for folks using screen readers), consider instead something like “Download the full report.” Descriptive links provide all users more information about an action they may undertake.

  • Use natural and descriptive language. Make sure the voice and tone of your link text match those of the rest of the content to create a more consistent experience. Site visitors using screen readers and those reading page copy won’t be jarred from their experience if all text reflects the same voice and tone guidelines.
  • Hyperlink the most relevant word or phrase.
  • Avoid “Click here,” “Learn more,” “See more,” “Read more,” and other generic phrases.
  • Include information about what a link leads to; this is especially important for mobile device users. If you’re linking to a PDF, say so.
    • Don’t punctuate links. Exception: When the link text is a question.
    • If the link text comes at the end of a sentence, don’t hyperlink the ending punctuation.
    • Don’t make links open in a new window. Exception: Downloadable documents can force a new window or tab, but the label should indicate this behavior.
  • Do: If you have additional questions, contact us immediately.
  • Don’t: Click here for additional information.
  • Do: You should review the list of PIV office locations to find the nearest one to you.
  • Don’t: Click here to see a list of PIV office locations.

WCAG 2.0 references

Step 7: Give all sheet tabs unique names and remove blank sheets

Assistive Technology reads sheet names, so these should provide information about what can be found on the worksheet. This makes it easier to understand the contents of a workbook and to navigate through it.

Step 8: Use a simple table structure and specify column headers

Tables can be very difficult for Assistive Technology to understand unless there is a clear relationship between header and data cells. It is best to use simple tables with one row of column headers and no nested rows, columns, or merged cells. Avoid blank rows, columns, or cells. Avoid using tables for layout or formatting purposes, such as formatting a numbered list.

Complex tables can be made accessible in HTML or using Adobe Acrobat Pro. However, complex tables can often be simplified by breaking them into multiple simple tables with a heading above each.

Step 9: Be careful when Converting to PDF

Converting a 508 compliant Excel document to a PDF does not mean the PDF is 508 compliant. There are separate steps that must be taken to make the resulting PDF 508 compliant. If you require assistance with PDFs we stongly recommend reaching out to section 508 Office until a guide is available.


This website includes links to other websites outside our control and jurisdiction. VA is not responsible for the privacy practices or the content of non-VA Web sites. We encourage you to review the privacy policy or terms and conditions of those sites to fully understand what information is collected and how it is used.

Statement of Endorsement

Reference herein to any specific commercial products, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government, and shall not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes.

Page last updated on May 17, 2021

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