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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 5

Product Evaluations and Guides

Evaluating the Accessibility of Microsoft Office for the iPad

On March 27 of this year, Microsoft introduced the long-awaited Office for iPad. For many years MS Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook have been the go-to applications for both education and business productivity. Rare is the individual who attends high school or college, or who works in a business setting, who does not use MS Office daily. Combine that with the ever-increasing use of Apple products for working on the go and Office for iPad would appear to fill a definite need. But how does this suite stack up as far as accessibility? Let's take a look.

Getting Started

Let's start with the bad news. As the name implies, Office for iPad is available only for iPads running iOS 7.0 or later. It is not compatible with the original iPad, any iPhone, or any iPod touch. The good news is that Office for iPad is free--well, sort of. Anyone can use the apps to read and review Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. However, to create, edit, and save documents--even those you reviewed for free using the app--you will need an Office 365 subscription.

Office 365 includes the latest versions of all of the standard Office Home Premium applications, only instead of purchasing a single version of the software, you pay a subscription fee of $9.99 (monthly) or $99 (yearly). The subscription entitles you to install the suite on five different computers, and to use the Office mobile apps for creating and editing Office documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. There is also a new Office 365 Personal subscription for $69.95 per year or $6.99 per month for use on a single computer plus mobile device. Additionally, if you are affiliated with a university or other educational institution (student, faculty, or staff), you may also qualify for the Office 365 University package, which costs $79.99 for a four-year subscription. Microsoft also offers a 30-day free trial of the suite at Office.com. You can subscribe to Office 365 there, or sign up in any of the iPad apps. Note, however, the apps only offer the yearly subscription option.

Office for iPad includes three apps: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Access, Publisher, and Outlook are not a part of the iPad suite. You will need to download each app separately from the App Store, and together they will use 672 megabytes of your device's memory.

An Office Overview

Upon opening each of the apps for the first time, you are presented with a brief slide show/advertisement for Office 365. Each of the slideshow screens voices automatically before moving onto the next slide. At the conclusion you are given the opportunity to log in to the Microsoft account you have registered to your Office 365 account, or you can skip this step by activating the "Sign in Later" button (but without an Office 365 account you will be limited to read-only mode in all of the Office for iPad apps).

At each of the main app screens you are presented with several basic templates, along with a New Document tab. Double-tapping the latter will call up the document creation screen, and the onscreen keyboard will appear. You can use the keyboard to type. You can even tap the "Dictate" button or double-tap the edit window to start dictation. However, in read-only mode none of my text appeared. The only place I could enter characters in ready-only mode was in the Search menu.

In read-only mode you can't open a document, spreadsheet, or PowerPoint presentation from within the associated app unless you sign in to your Windows account, which comes with 8 GB of free OneDrive cloud storage. You can save documents to OneDrive from your desktop Office sessions using either Office 2010 or 2013. These documents can only be viewed using the Office for iPad apps; to create and edit them you will need an Office 365 subscription.

There are also other ways to open an Office file on your iPad. Perhaps the easiest is to either e-mail or text a file attachment to yourself, then do a double-tap-and-hold gesture to call up the Open In menu, where you will find Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, depending on the file type you are trying to open.

You can also use the Open In menu option to open Office files using a third-party cloud storage service such as Dropbox, Box.net or Google Drive. The Office apps also showed up in the Open In menu when I clicked on a webpage download link of an appropriate file type using Safari.

With an activated Office 365 account you can create documents by invoking the New tab. You can also retrieve documents using the Open and Recent tabs. Additionally, the screen provides links where you can browse Office files you have saved on your iPad, and a link to the OneDrive account associated with your Windows login. Each Office 365 account comes with 20 GB of free OneDrive cloud storage. There is an "Add a Place" link on the file screen, but the only options are OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, and Add a SharePoint location. You can't open files directly from Dropbox or other cloud services, and if you use your cloud service app to open a file in Edit mode, before you can work with the file you are required to resave it first on your iPad or OneDrive. Note: in read-only mode you can't save documents, you can only review them.

Each of the Office iPad apps presents a slightly abbreviated version of the standard ribbon interface across the top of the screen, populated with app-specific toolbars. In read-only mode most of these ribbon options have been disabled, with the exception of the "View/Search" button.

Controls for the currently open toolbar appear just beneath the ribbon. You can touch and explore, or swipe left or right to access the various tabs and controls. Invoking one of these controls causes a pop-up to display sub-options that are accessible both with Explore by Touch and left and right swipe gestures.

Unfortunately, the ribbon is extremely close to the iPad status bar, and I found it took a while to be able to locate the tabs using Explore by Touch. More often than not I found myself locating one of the tabs, then swiping left or right to find the tab I wanted, which could be very time consuming.

Autocorrections are handled by VoiceOver. Text marking is also done via VoiceOver text highlighting commands. Basically, you perform a double-tap-and-hold gesture at the place where you want the action to begin, then with that finger firmly on the screen, slide a second finger in a spreading outward gesture to add letters, words, lines, etc., depending on the option your VoiceOver rotor is set to. You can then rotor to the Edit option, which will allow you to cut, copy, and paste. You can also invoke one of the Office ribbon options, such as adding a style, centering text, underlining the text, etc.

Unfortunately, I found this very difficult to do. Trying to locate the ribbon option I would invariably touch the Edit window and lose my highlighting. Even if I did catch the correct button there wasn't any audio feedback to alert me to my success. An additional and more serious issue is that you can't monitor attribute changes--font style and size changes, heading text, or bullets in a bulleted list--using VoiceOver. In my opinion this is a major shortcoming of Office for iPad and needs to be fixed. Here's one possible solution: The VoiceOver rotor contains an option called Actions. In Mail, doing a one-finger swipe up or down invokes options such as Delete, Forward, and Archive. Perhaps Microsoft should consider adding a few VoiceOver-specific Actions options, such as Enhanced Sound Feedback, Announce Attribute Changes, and Begin Highlight Here.

One last feature of possible interest common to all three apps is located in the file menu, where you will find a link to the Help and Support screen. Under the heading "Help and How to" there is an option labeled "Turn on Accessibility Options." Unfortunately, there are no Office specific accessibility options--this page merely describes how to set accessibility options in VoiceOver. Hopefully, this section will contain additional, Office-specific accessibility settings in future updates of the suite. Meanwhile, at the bottom of this screen you will find a section titled "You can use keyboard shortcuts instead of a mouse." We will discuss using external keyboards with the Office for iPad apps later in this review. For now we'll merely wonder: How many users of Office for iPad does Microsoft suppose will be relieved to learn they don't have to use a mouse?

MS Word

When reviewing an open Word document in Word for iPad, you can't navigate by swiping left or right. Doing so will kick you out of the document window. You can only use the up and down swipe gestures with character, word, or lines options. The lines option moves through the document one paragraph at a time, assuming the text is single spaced and also that there are no line breaks mid-paragraph. You can also use a two-finger swipe down to read the entire document from beginning to end, or a three-finger swipe to scroll screen-by-screen through the document.

As mentioned, Office apps do not announce font, style, or other text attribute changes. It is possible to learn this information for a single spot, however. The Home tab includes options to add styles, fonts, and such. It will announce the current font, and say "selected" if either bold or underline is active at the current spot. In my opinion, however, checking a block of text character-by-character for these attribute changes is utterly impractical.

I was able to create a table in a new Word for iPad document, and to review tables I had created in other documents. Using the line option in the rotor, VoiceOver would read one cell with each swipe down gesture, moving left to right, then down at each column end. Header and footer information cannot be reviewed mid-table, however.


Spreadsheet navigation in Excel for the iPad is straightforward and effective. Double-tap the file to open the edit window, and then use the left and right swipe gestures to move from column to column. VoiceOver announces the cell number and the contents for each cell as you pass over it. If you don't already have the "vertical Navigation" option in your VoiceOver rotor, be sure to add it via the VoiceOver settings menu. Rotor to this option and up and down swipes will move you from row to row. Cell navigation does not scroll, however. You will need to do a three finger scroll gesture to move from screen to screen. I could find no way to have VoiceOver read out entire rows or columns.

I was completely unsuccessful using the VoiceOver text marking gestures to mark a block of Excel cells. I might be at cell A1 when I performed a double-tap-and-hold gesture, but by the time I finished moving my other finger and lifted it, Excel might announce the block of text that was selected as D6 through I27.

Many Excel workbooks contain multiple sheets. To get to them you have to find the last cell of the visible spreadsheet, then swipe right. You can also find them running vertically along the right edge of the screen using Explore by Touch.

Excel for iPad does not allow macros, so you can't create them, and if a spreadsheet you open includes them, they will be stripped from the workbook before you can begin using it.

I opened a very small worksheet consisting basically of a short column of numbers in Row A, and a formula in cell B1 that would compute their average. I could swipe down the column of numbers, and over to the result, but I could not move the cell selection away from cell A1. I could change the data in that cell and then read the new average. I could not review the formula, however, or create a new formula in cell B12 to total the column of numbers.

After an hour of struggling I decided there must be something fundamental I was missing. I called the Microsoft Accessibility Answer Desk, where a service tech explained that there are several limitations to current Office for iPad accessibility and the ability to create or edit an Excel worksheet are among these limitations. During my evaluation I called the Accessibility Answer Desk a number of times, and nearly all of my questions were answered with "current accessibility limitations."


I had high hopes for PowerPoint for iPad. After all, the opening screen for each of the three Office apps began with a PowerPoint-like presentation, and each page voiced and scrolled perfectly.

Unfortunately, when I loaded a PowerPoint file and double tapped the "Play Slide Show" button I was faced with a mostly blank screen. Touch navigation spoke "Slide show" at nearly every point. I did finally find an "End Slide Show" button at the extreme upper left of the screen, but even then a double-tap did not always work. Often the only way I could close the slide show was to close the app, remove it from my running apps list, and then reopen PowerPoint.

The Home tab offers a list of slides, and double tapping one of your slides calls up the presentation window. There is a "Notes View" button beneath this text window. Use it to toggle back and forth between the presentation and the notes windows. VoiceOver does not announce the state of this button, however, so you will have to glean from context which of these windows you are currently editing.

The lack of attribute change announcements throughout the Office for iPad suite is particularly missed when you create or edit a PowerPoint presentation, since most contain headings, centered text, and bulleted lists, none of which you can review using VoiceOver.

You will need a special adapter to connect your iPad to a projector to run your PowerPoint presentation for group viewing. You can also use an Apple TV by invoking the Airplay option. Office for iPad does not fully support Airplay, however, so you can only show your entire PowerPoint screen--you can't access your notes and keep them to yourself. For now, at least, it would seem that the iPad is not a viable way to create, edit, or present a PowerPoint slide show.

Using a Bluetooth Keyboard

As mentioned above, you can use a Bluetooth keyboard paired with your iPad to create and edit documents in Office for iPad. Keep in mind, however, that you will not be using your doubtless well-practiced Office for Windows keyboard shortcuts for Word. Instead you will use a mix of Office for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint shortcuts and the standard, iOS VoiceOver keyboard shortcuts.

Mac users will be familiar with pressing Control + Option + M (usually abbreviated VO-m) to move to the menu bar. I did find another way, however. The VO + I Item Chooser called up a list of all command tabs, the displayed toolbar, and the open document itself. This made it considerably easier to locate and open command tabs and settings using a keyboard instead of touch.

During my testing I discovered that some of the Office shortcut keys worked, others did not. Pressing Command + Up Arrow, for example, is supposed to move you to the top of a Word document. This did not work with VoiceOver turned on, but when I turned VoiceOver off briefly and issued the command, it worked fine. Pressing Control + B for bold or Control + U for underline also worked as advertised. However there is no audible alert that bold or underline is toggled on or off, and even using a keyboard there is no way to have VoiceOver announce attribute changes.

In Excel I was still not able to create or edit a spreadsheet with a Bluetooth keyboard. Using a keyboard with the Quick Nav rotor set to vertical navigation, whenever I moved up to the top and pressed the Up Arrow again instead of scrolling the sheet, I was tossed out of the editing window and into the app controls.

Final Thoughts

Microsoft acknowledges that Office for iPad is not yet fully accessible. I find this both disappointing and discouraging, especially considering the length of time this product has been under development. From what I have read, the code base for the iPad suite is the same one that will be used for the Office for Mac suite, which is due to be released later this year. Hopefully, the Mac suite will be much more VoiceOver accessible from the start.

The Office iPad apps are free, so it won't hurt to install one or more of them so you can follow along as Microsoft attempts to improve accessibility. To get the full use of the suite, however, you will need an Office 365 subscription. For sighted users, the ability to open, create, and edit Office documents on the go is a strong enticement to purchase a subscription. For the sight-impaired community, however, the enticement is simply not yet there.

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