WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

OpenOffice.org Writer


OpenOffice.org is a free, open source office suite, often compared to Microsoft (MS) Office. Several agencies (including the entire state of Massachusetts), institutions and individuals use OpenOffice.org as their primary office suite. Although it is not as popular as Microsoft Office, it provides almost all the features your average user will use in an Office Suite and even some features not available in Microsoft Office. For those of you familiar with Microsoft Office, the following table should help clarify the similarities between MS Office and OOo:

Function OpenOffice.org
Comparable Microsoft
Office application
Word processor Writer Word
Presentation Impress PowerPoint
Spreadsheet Calc Excel
Database Base Access
Equation creator Math Equation Editor
Graphic editor Draw None

Although it is often called Open Office or OpenOffice, the true name of the application is "OpenOffice.org," usually abbreviated OOo.

Increasing Document Accessibility in OOo Writer

Whether documents are going to be accessed in Writer or exported to a more common format, there are several things you can do to increase the native accessibility of documents in OOo Writer.


One of the best things you can do to increase the accessibility of a document is to use true headings. Headings create logical divisions that usually make the document easier to understand. This can make the document more accessible to people with cognitive disabilities.

True headings and subheadings (Heading 1, 2, 3, etc.), are more than just bolded, enlarged, or centered text. One way to apply headings is with the Styles and Formatting panel. Open the panel by selecting Format > Styles and Formatting or by pressing F11.

  • By default, headings are displayed visually as larger, bold text. This makes it more clear to all users.
  • Screen reader users should be able to navigate a document by headings. The value of being able to navigate by heading cannot be understated.
  • Changes made to the appearance of a heading in the Styles and Formatting panel will be made to every heading in the document. This is usually an easier way to control the appearance of your document.

Screenshot of the styles and formatting panel

You can also highlight the text and select the desired heading from the dropdown list in the menu bar.

Screenshot of the dropdown list that can be used to changes formatting. Heading 1 is selected

There is an even easier way to create a 1st, 2nd or 3rd level heading. Highlight the desired text and select Ctrl + 1, 2, or 3.


Many documents, especially documents on the web, contain lists. They are a valuable way to organize content. To create an ordered or unordered list choose Format > Bullets and Numbering... or click on one of the appropriate icons in the menu bar.

Ordered list and unordered list button on the menu bar

Table headers

Make sure data tables have proper headers. By default, when you create a table the first row of cells will be marked as headers. There are a couple of ways to add additional headers. The easiest way to do this is to select the table cells that should be headers (Ctrl + Click is one way to do this), open the Styles and Formatting panel, and change the style from Table Contents to Table Heading.


Headers do not always export correctly to HTML and PDF. Ensure that exported tables contain proper headings.

Styles and Formatting panel, Table Heading is selected


Just as with the web, images should have alternative text. To add alternative text to an image, Right Click the image (Ctrl + Click on Mac) and select Picture (or double click the picture, or select Format > Picture from the menu bar).

screenshot showing the dialogue box that appears when you right click an image

Then select the Options tab and enter the description in the box labeled Alternative (Text only).

screenshot of dialog box used to enter alternative text

Exporting to Other Formats

OpenOffice.org saves files to the OpenDocument format or ODF. The extension for files created in OOo Writer is ODT (OpenDocument text). In this article, files created in OOo Writer will be referred to as ODT files and Writer Files.

Although OOo is quickly becoming a popular suite of applications, it is still not a very common format when compared to the Microsoft Word DOC format, or other formats such as HTML or PDF. For that reason, you will probably find yourself frequently saving an ODT file in other formats. With a couple of exceptions, you can usually export an ODT file to other formats and retain the information that will make the file more accessible.

Although a Writer document may be saved in several different formats, there are three very common formats that will be addressed in this section:

  1. DOC (Microsoft Word document)
  2. PDF (Portable Document Format)
  3. HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language)

Any time you convert a file to another format, it is recommended that you ensure the accessibility features, such as alt text for images and headers for tables, remain intact.


Microsoft Word DOC format is currently the de facto standard for document creation. If you use OOo Writer you will very likely need to save documents to that format occasionally. That can easily be accomplished by selecting File > Save As > and then choosing Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP from the dropdown list labeled Save as Type. There are other MS Word formats, but this is probably the most reliable. The look of the document may change if it is saved in another format, but the structure of the document should still basically be the same.


OOo Writer can easily open and edit most MS Office documents. You can even change the default behavior of Writer so it saves all your files in the DOC format. To do this, choose Tools > Options > Load/Save > General > and select Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP from the Always save as dropdown list.


Microsoft Office and Adobe tools used to be the only programs that would cleanly export a document as a tagged PDF, and that was only if you owned Adobe Acrobat. This is no longer the case. OOo now has the capability to export a document as a tagged PDF. This is an exciting development because it is one of the only free tools that can be used to create tagged PDF documents and it does quite a good job.

To save as a tagged PDF, choose File > Export as PDF, enter the name of the PDF file and choose where you would like to save it. Select Save and a second window titled PDF Options should open.

screenshot of dialog box of PDF options. The checkbox labeled tagged PDF is highlighted

There are several options that you may want to modify but the only one that concerns accessibility is the check box labeled Tagged PDF. This must be checked for the file to be as accessible as possible. Although this option is not enabled by default, it remains selected once you have selected it the first time.


There is an icon labeled PDF on the menu bar (Screenshot of PDF icon)) that will allow you to save a file as a PDF without opening the Options window. You must ensure that Tagged PDF is selected in the PDF Options dialog box before you use this icon, or your files will not be saved as tagged PDF files.

Of course Adobe Acrobat Professional is still required if you want to modify a tagged PDF, and it is not always possible to create a correctly-tagged PDF using only Writer. For example, a document with complex tables or forms, or with a multi-column layout, may need to have the tagging process completed in Acrobat Pro.

In summary, it is possible to convert an ODT document into a properly tagged PDF if you can verify the following.

  • The ODT document has been appropriately tagged.
  • The document is exported to PDF using OOo Writer.
  • The Tagged PDF option is selected.
  • The PDF is correctly tagged (this probably requires Acrobat Professional).

More information on PDF accessibility


It is possible to save an ODT file as HTML, but the resulting file can be bulky and contain a large amount of unnecessary formatting. This is due to an attempt to make the HTML file match the look of the original document as much as possible. In Writer, you can either save a file as HTML 4 Transitional or Export as XHTML 1 Strict. XHTML is the successor to HTML and saving a file as XHTML is almost always better when you have the option in a program. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case in Writer.

Both the HTML and the XHTML files created in Writer are problematic, and it is difficult to recommend one format over the other, but the HTML file created in Writer (once it is cleaned up) is usually more accessible than the XHTML file.

Save as HTML

The HTML file created in Writer is not valid and uses unnecessary styles, but it is more clearly structured and much smaller than the XHTML file; for those reasons, it is probably the more desirable HTML file format. To save the file as HTML, choose File > Save As > choose HTML Document under Save as File Type. The file is saved as HTML 4 Transitional. Once the file is saved, be prepared to clean up the file extensively. See below for more information regarding clean up.

Export to XHTML

The XTML file created in Writer is valid XHTML 1 Strict, but it is basically one large block of unorganized text filled with unnecessary styles. Files exported to XHTML are not always marked up correctly (e.g., tables headers are not exported as headers). That is why it is usually better to save a file as HTML instead of XHTML. To Export a document to XHTML choose File > Export > and then choose XHTML under File Format.

Clean up HTML and Verify Accessibility

Whether you choose to save your ODT file as HTML or export as XHTML, there are quite a few steps that need to be taken before HTML is clean and accessible.

  • You may want to start by running your file through a utility like HTML Tidy. Save as XHTML and try to get the tool to remove as many unnecessary tags and styles as possible.
  • Make the file as compact as possible. Remove any unnecessary styles, line breaks, etc.
  • Remove unnecessary markup. Most HTML editors can help you with this process. If you are familiar with HTML, you can also do it yourself. Here are some (but not all) changes to make.
    • Remove unnecessary id, class and type attributes (almost all of them are unnecessary).
    • Remove font tags.
    • Remove styles in the <head> tag.
    • Make sure <th> tags all have a scope attribute.
    • Remove <p> tags nested inside <th> and <td> tags.
  • Make sure the HTML file is accessible. You will probably want to double check data tables and form elements, since these are not always saved correctly.

Mac and Accessibility

On a PC, most of the accessibility features in MS Word and OOo Writer are very similar. But on a Mac, there are a couple of very important accessibility features available in Writer that are not available in Word (the most prominent feature missing in Word on a Mac is probably the ability to add alt text to images). In other words, OOo for Mac has the potential to create documents that are more accessible than documents created in MS Office for Mac.


There have been groups voicing their concern over the accessibility of OOo Writer vs. Microsoft Office. While there may be some concern over the accessibility of Writer as an application, in terms of document accessibility, it seems that OOo Writer and Microsoft Word have almost the same abilities and limitations. There are a few places where one application seems to perform slightly better that the other; for instance, Writer seems to handle tables better but it is probably easier to convert a Word document into clean HTML. Overall, however, accessibility between the two is usually very similar.