Excel Accessibility: General Principles, Especially for Screen Reader Users

In case you’re not familiar with the term screen reader, here’s a quick description from the American Federation for the Blind:

Screen readers are software programs that allow blind or visually impaired users to read the text that is displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display. A screen reader is the interface between the computer’s operating system, its applications, and the user. The user sends commands by pressing different combinations of keys on the computer keyboard or braille display to instruct the speech synthesizer what to say and to speak automatically when changes occur on the computer screen.


At VC, if students need to use a screen reader, they typically use NVDA or JAWS.

Jaws Movie Review

Image from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-jaws-1975

No, not that Jaws. JAWS stands for Job Access with Speech. (They do use a shark with the logo, though!) If you’ve never experienced a screen reader before, check out this demo (approximately 4 minute YouTube video) from Assistive Technology Showcase: Screen Reader User’s Experience and MS Word. The video illustrates the difference between reading an accessible and an inaccessible Word document with JAWS.


  • Screen readers usually start reading with the A1 cell, so it’s a good idea to put important information about the worksheet in this cell, and avoid leaving this cell blank.
  • Avoid using blank cells for formatting.
    • Instead, try adjusting the cell height, width, etc. by using the Format options for Cells.
    • Also, try to avoid empty rows and/or columns which may make a screen reader user think the worksheet has ended before it actually does.
    • Note: if you must leave a cell blank, here’s a trick so that screen readers aren’t confused. Write “no data” or “cell intentionally left blank” in the cell and then change the text color to match the background color (e.g. white text on a white background). This provides information to the screen reader while keeping the visual clean.
  • Screen readers announce the cell number as users navigate from cell to cell (e.g. “Cost B5”).

Worksheets & Tabs

Give worksheet tabs unique names. The name should provide some specific information about what is in the worksheet. This aids navigation in the workbook.

Avoid blank worksheets in a workbook.

Next week we’ll talk about some tips for Tables.



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