Why OneNote is the best note-taking app when it comes to accessibility

October 25, 2021 | Reading time 4 minutes

Companies and people talk a lot about how much they care about accessibility, but only a few act on it. It’s time that companies put their money where their mouth is. And Microsoft leads by example, and OneNote is an excellent showcase for that.

For a long time, I used OneNote on and off. I switched because I don’t like OneNote on mobile due to the way its canvas works. But, the desktop version kept pulling be back. The way you operate and navigate it through your keyboard is unmatched. It’s one of the features that makes it shine in accessibility. I think that Microsoft doesn’t get enough credits for not only talking about accessibility, but actually implement it in useful ways. Anyway, for me it’s an important reason for using Microsoft OneNote in my work.

Why care about accessibility?

The answer is simple: you shouldn’t exclude people. According to Worldbank approximately one billion people experience some form of disability. That goes from being unable to walk to being vision impaired. Those people want to live, be independent and participate in society. And it’s not a fact that they can.

An introduction to Microsoft OneNote

For those of you who aren’t familiar with OneNote. Microsoft OneNote is a note-taking app like Apple Notes, Evernote and Bear. It’s available on Windows, macOS, Android, iOS, iPadOS and the web.

In OneNote you create notebooks that contain sections and those sections contain pages. The latter are your actual notes. Dependent on the device you use, you can either type notes or write them with a pen. You can add images, PDF files and more. It’s an allround note-taking app that helps you organise your work. No matter if it’s for your job, school or private projects.

You can share notebooks with other people for collaboration, and it lets you do an accessibility check on your notes. A feature that I haven’t seen in other note apps.

Microsoft OneNote and accessibility

OneNote has several features built in for improving accessibility. The first is the option for using it with a screen reader. This helps blind or visually impaired people to read the text that is displayed. Operating systems like Windows and macOS have this as a built in feature

The second is the Accessibility Check which you find in the View tab i OneNote. It checks your notes and shows you which parts don’t meet the accessibility requirements. Think of adding Alt text to images and contrast that makes reading text easier.

When it’s only you who uses the notebook, accessibility of notes might be less important. f you’re not disabled, you might not even notice inaccessible parts. But, when collaborating with others, it does matter and Accessibility Check helps you to make your notes more accessible.

OneNote is the only note app, as far as I know, that offers this feature.

Screenshot of OneNote Accessibility Checker on macOS. It shows the accessibility actions for the current page.

The third accessibility feature is the one that’s useful for everyone. Even if you don’t have a disability. On a desktop (or laptop) Microsoft OneNote offers access to all its features through the keyboard. This means that you can use the app without a mouse.

Keyboard accessibility is one of the most important of accessibility, because many people with motor disabilities rely on a keyboard. You need to learn the shortcuts and I listed the most important ones below.

ShortcutDescription
Alt (or F6)Move focus to the menu bar
Ctrl + GMove focus notebooks
Ctrl + Shift + GMove focus sections
Ctrl + AltMove focus pages
EnterOpens page from pages pane
Ctrl / CMD + NCreate a new page
Ctrl / CMD + TCreate a new section
Ctrl / CMD + FOpen a search box for all open notebooks
Shift + F10Open the context menu for the object in focus

That are all the shortcuts you need the know. There are more, but these are enough, at least for my for everyday tasks. When you remember these keyboard shortcuts, you’ll fly through the app.

It takes some time getting used to if you’re not using your keyboard for navigating your computer. Once you’re beyond that point, using your keyboard makes using OneNote more fluent. It’s fast and makes it more accessible. The same goes for the use of your computer in general.

Microsoft has a dedicated web page for accessibility support in OneNote. You can use it to learn more about the features, and it contains links to all keyboard shortcuts.

Accessibility is not a luxury and with OneNote, Microsoft shows how to implement this in apps.