The Ableism of The DOCX File Type

    As composition continues to occur more frequently on digital mediums, institutions must question digital file types in terms of their accessibility. An unquestioningly and commonly used but inaccessible file type used by instructors is the DOCX file. 

    The DOCX file fails to be accessible due to a variety of structures built within the file type’s coding. DOCX files are, “not suitable for interactive help” (MS Word DOCX) this means, for example, that text-to-speech functions cannot be added to DOCX files. Furthermore, DOCX files limit program choice as they can only be run on, “a limited number of special software[s]” (Kivi) this can force students with dis/abilities to use unaccommodating programs. This program limitation comes from the very design of DOCX files which are, “a collection of XML files containing different types of content zipped in an archive. [DOCX files require] specific software with capabilities of correctly reading the XML contents and their dependencies,”(Ksenija) this means that any program that is unable to open XML or Zip files cannot run a DOCX file. This is why DOCX files are only available on limited software, Word processors specialized for individuals with dis/abilities such as PnC Memo and Co:Writer cannot run XML or Zip as files as these programs are designed with other more needed functionalities in mind. Lastly, the DOCX file has, “no consistent layout” (Kivi) and, “cannot include macros” (Bulldog Reporter) which can both translate to students with dis/abilities being unable to access retrofitted features within Word documents. If a word processor lacks a consistent layout then a student's comfort is removed an inability to go about an assignment is hampered; this is even more detrimental for students with dis/abilities who already experience myriad environments not built for them. By also not including macros which are, “a recorded sequence of actions or commands that can be used to automate repetitive tasks,” (Numa) DOCX files remove an often rare opportunity for students with dis/abilities to build their own tools for their environment. DOCX files are another example of arbitrary environments imposing themselves harmfully on individuals with dis/abilities. For these reasons, the DOCX file type can be demonstrated as being a product of ableist design. 

    Given all of this, what is the realistic educational solution to the ableism of the DOCX file? The DOCX file is not disappearing from usage and computer scientists cannot fix the DOCX file as any fix would turn the DOCX file into another file type. Instead, educational institutions must recommend that DOCX files are not put into use in educational spaces, and if used students with dis/abilities need assistance with the file type. While computer science departments could make this recommendation, writing centers would serve as the ideal point for this recommendation and assistance. This is because writing centers are found at most levels of education (middle school to higher education) and writing centers are already built to work with students. Writing centers are also a point of contact with students’ usage of file types while writing center tutors work with a variety of file types (especially those tutors who work in multimodal writing centers). 

    If writing centers cannot convince educational institutions to stop using DOCX files then writing center tutors must be readily able to assist students through ableist design possibly even retrofitting DOCX files. Yet, it is not the moral, legal, or institutional responsibility of tutors to make digital files more accessible. Nonetheless, sometimes dis/abled students under the weight of ableist design turn to tutors for assistance rather than instructors. Though it is not the responsibility of tutors to make materials given by instructors more accessible, tutors should still try as a means of fulfilling service to a student in need. Ideally writing center tutors could have some awareness of word processors and enough to convert or retrofit DOCX files for the benefit of students with or without dis/abilities.

    This is not to say that all writing center tutors should know how to retrofit DOCX files. Retrofitting should be avoided in the first place. Tutors can however have the greatest potential to assist in counteracting ableist design imposed on students with dis/abilities. Writing center tutors through the myriad projects they are presented with see the spectrum of file type accessibility. The examination of the DOCX file type is a potential starting point for academia to go about checking the accessibility of all file types for students with dis/abilities. With the writing center tutors are strong candidates as examiners of file types. 

    While research on digital types and their accessibility is limited it is recommended that for students with dis/abilities, “PDF format should be chosen when the document is to be printed…If printing is not necessary, documents should be distributed in EPUB format” (Disability-Inclusive Communications Guidelines). Writing center spaces create a befitting research environment for understanding the accessibility of file types. This is because a vast portion of the assignments brought into writing centers are written on digital files be they Word documents, PowerPoints, videos, or so on. Furthermore, writing center tutors can see how file types are used in practice and examine where students are facing inaccessibility with file types.

    No aspect of the educational system should go unquestioned, including the seemingly mundane file types many use questioningly. All in all, the writing center offers a readymade space to question the accessibility of all file types not just the DOCX. I propose that research could be potentially conducted through writing centers that examine the accessibility of the DOCX file type with potential follow-up studies examining other file types.


Kivi, Meelika. PDF vs DOCX: Which Format Is Better?” Pdf Mail Merger, 19 Nov. 2022,

Ksenija. “PDF vs DOCX: What Are the Differences?” Only Office, 8 July 2022,

MS Word DOCX.” Help + Manual,

Numa, Emily. “What Is a Macro in Microsoft Word?” Know A Days, 15 July 2023,

PDF, DOC or DOCX? Choosing the Right Format for Sending Documents to Journalists.” Agility | PR Solutions, Bulldog Reporter, 27 Aug. 2013,


Popular posts from this blog

IWCA Forum: Peer Tutor => What do we call ourselves: the poll!

Are we aiding and abetting fraud?

On Writing as a STEM major