Accessibility Tip of the Week: Columns, the right tool for the job

This week Robert Hardy, our district website accessibility specialist, shares about how to control the layout of a document using the Columns Tool. Please contact Robert with any accessibility questions. He is more than happy to talk by phone or schedule a time to meet with you.

One of the most important elements of creating accessible content is to use the right tool for the job. As so many of us are self-taught Microsoft Office users, we find ourselves relying on the tools we are familiar with, rather than the ones designed for the task.

For instance, we may use asterisks rather than bulleted lists, or bolded text rather than true heading styles. While this may visually create the structure of a document, it fails to provide the programmatic accompaniment needed for users of assistive technology. These methods also often require more work from the author for a less satisfactory end product.

One of the more problematic uses of the wrong tool is the use of tables to define a document’s layout, rather than using the columns tool. By using the table tool rather than columns, the programmatic structure of the document is one of a data table. This sets users of assistive technology up for trouble, as these tools will anticipate a data table and describe the page in terms of rows and columns. As is apparent from the example below, describing the second column as “_______________” isn’t very informative.


Rather than use tables, using the column tool is the way to get the job done:

Name ______________

Class: _______________

Date:   _______________

School: _______________

To add a columned section to your Microsoft Word document, simply select the Column Tool from the Layout Ribbon and select how many columns you would like.

Now, for many, the column tool within Microsoft Word is initially unwieldy, pushing text into the wrong columns or leaving too much blank space. Thankfully, there are solutions.

To control the margins of your columns, you can select the columned space, click the Column Tool, and then select More Columns. You can then define the column width, the spacing between columns and even if you want columns to be different widths.

To control the flow of text between columns, you can insert column breaks that force the text below them to the next column:

  • Windows: [Ctrl]+[Shift]+[Enter]
  • Mac: [Cmd]+[Shift]+[Enter]

These two simple controls over the Column Tool remove its unwieldy nature and enable authors to use the right tool for the job. If you have questions about this or other accessibility features, please reach out to Robert Hardy, the district’s website accessibility specialist.