NCDAE Tips and Tools: Writer

Created: August 2006

Description is a free, open source office suite, comparable to Microsoft Office. Although it is often called Open Office, the correct name of the suite of tools is, often abbreviated OOo. Several government agencies (including the state of Massachusetts), institutions and individuals use as their primary office suite. is not quite as robust as Microsoft Office, but it provides almost all the features your average user will encounter. For those of you familiar with Microsoft Office, the following table should help clarify the similarities between MS Office and OOo:
Function Comparable Microsoft
Office application
Writer Word processor Word
Impress Presentation PowerPoint
Calc Spreadsheet Excel
Base Database Access
Math Equation creator Equation Editor
Draw Graphic editor None

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

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Increasing OOo Writer Accessibility

There are at least two things that can be done to increase the accessibility of OOo Writer documents:

  1. Improve the native accessibility of the OOo Writer ODT file.
  2. If you export the ODT file to another format (usually DOC, PDF or HTML), ensure that the exported file is accessible as well.

Improve Native Accessibility

Note: 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.

Accessibility challenge Disability type(s) Solution(s)
Only true headings and lists will convey semantic meaning to a screen reader user. Blind
  • Create true headings and subheadings (Heading 1, 2, 3 etc.), not just bolded, enlarged or centered text.
    • One way to apply true styles is with the Styles and Formatting panel. Open the panel by selecting Format > Styles and Formatting or F11.
    • To turn a line of text into a 1st, 2nd or 3rd level heading, use Ctrl + 1, 2, or 3, respectively.
  • Create true bulleted or numbered lists.
Images must include an alternative description (alt text) to be meaningful to a screen reader user. Blind
  • Windows users: Right Click the image, select Picture (or double click the picture, or select Format > Picture from the menu bar), select the Options tab and enter the description in the box labeled Alternative (Text only).
Complex charts or tables may not contain proper headings, captions or summaries. Blind
  • Make sure 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 headings (Ctrl + Click is one way to do this), open the Styles and Formatting panel, and change the style from Table Contents to Table Heading. (Note: headers do not always export correctly to HTML and PDF. Ensure that exported tables contain proper headings.)
  • Complex charts need to be explained in the body of the document.
Poor color contrast, especially in images and charts. Color blindness, Low vision
  • Ensure sufficient color contrast in text, charts and images.
Large file size may make it difficult to download a file. All users
  • Reduce file size by importing correctly sized images instead of resizing them in Writer.
Writer must be installed on the user's computer in order for the presentation to be viewed. All users
  • Provide a link to one of several OOo viewers that are available.
  • Create an HTML equivalent.
Documents with forms that can be filled in on the screen (checkboxes, text fields etc.) may not be accessible to screen reader users and may not export correctly to other formats. Blindness, All users
  • Make sure that form elements have text descriptions.
  • Verify that the form can be completed using common screen readers.
A piece of clip art or a text box may be read out of order by a screen reader. That is, the reading order and the visual order may be different. Blind
  • An anchor should be visible for each image, usually in the upper-left corner. To ensure that reading order is correct, make sure that the anchor appears in the appropriate place in the content.
  • Verify the reading order using a screen reader.
A document may be confusing if it is not written in simple language or divided into meaningful sections. Cognitive, All users
  • Use the simplest language and structure appropriate for the content.
  • Run your document through a free readability tool and make adjustments if necessary.
  • Increase white space between sections.
  • Set important words apart to improve comprehension.
  • Chunk text into meaningful sections; include headings and sub-headings for sections.

Save and Export Writer Documents to Other Formats

Although OOo is fast becoming a popular Suite of applications, it is still not a very common format when compared to 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 save or export an ODT file to other formats and retain the information that will make the file more acceptable.
Although a Writer document may be saved as several different types of files, 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)

Note: 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 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.

Note: 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 exports documents 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. 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.
Note: There is a little icon labeled PDF on the menu bar that will allow you to save a file as a PDF without opening the Options window. You must ensure that Tagged PDF is selected 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 modify a tagged PDF, and it is not always possible to create a perfectly tagged PDF using only Writer. A document with complex tables or forms, or with a multicolumn layout, may need to have the tagging process completed in Acrobat Pro.
In summary, it is possible to convert a ODT document into a properly tagged PDF if you can verify the following.

For more information on PDF accessibility, visit


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 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. More on that below.

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.


A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a vendor-generated table that describes to what extent a product complies with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. There doesn't seem to be a VPAT on the site.