Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning

Blog Post #10 in Series of Accessibility Tips for Online Teaching. Only two more coming!

Microsoft® PowerPoint® presentation graphics program and similar programs are frequently used for creating course content in all levels of education. If those PowerPoint® slide decks are placed online as part of an online course, it is important for those decks to be accessible to student using assistive technology.

Using PowerPoint Slides in Online Courses

First, an opinion regarding slide shows as course content. From an accessibility perspective, the same content provided in an HTML page or a series of pages would usually be more accessible than a slide deck. Whenever possible, provide online course content as a web page. If that is not possible, then providing a slide deck that is created in an accessible manner is one alternative to consider.

There is a complicating factor when designing a slide deck for students using a screen reader. There are different views that the student can utilize when screen reading through a PowerPoint file. The Normal View in PowerPoint presentation manager is most often used by sighted users, and can be used with a screen reader. However, many unsighted users will switch to the Outline View which provides a text-only reading of the slide contents. It is a good practice to design your content in Outline View to ensure that all important information is available to students using a screen reader with this view. When the Outline contains all necessary information, you can switch to Normal View to add additional elements for sighted users.

Accessibility Tips and Techniques When Using PowerPoint

In this post, we’ll consider the following items:

  • Proper use of layout templates
  • Proper use of slide titles
  • Reading order of multiple elements in a slide
  • Similarities to accessibility in Microsoft® Word®
  • Using the built-in Accessibility Checker

Proper use of layout templates

The home tab in PowerPoint includes the New Slide drop-down where you can select from many different slide layouts

Since 2000, PowerPoint presentation graphics program has included a selection of highly-accessible slide layouts. By utilizing these layout options, you will have an easier time making your slide content accessible to students using assistive technology such as screen reader platforms. Every time that you add an additional element to a slide that isn’t contained in one of the built-in placeholders, you run the risk of that piece of content being inaccessible.

When adding a new slide, choose the slide layout that contains the type of content elements that will best fit your needs. You can also change the current layout of any existing slide by selecting your choice from the Home > Layout menu.

You can resize and move the slide elements without negatively impacting the accessibility of the slide. However, let’s look at an example of what happens when you add new elements to a slide.

Let’s assume that you choose a new slide from the graphic shown above, and that you choose the “Title Only” layout. You enter a title for the slide. You then select Insert > Pictures and you add a photograph to the slide. You then select Insert > Text Box and write a caption for the photograph. You size and position both the photo and the caption so it looks good to the sighted student. However, to the unsighted student using a screen reader in Outline View, they will hear the slide title, and that’s all. Neither the added text box nor the inserted photo will appear in the Outline View of the slide.

Proper use of Slide Titles

Until you design a slide deck with accessibility in mind, you probably haven’t given much thought to your slide titles, at least not much thought to their importance to a student using a screen reader.

Each slide should have a descriptive title that helps organize the content for the unsighted user. Including a slide that does not have a title leaves a blank space in the Outline View, which is confusing to someone using a screen reader. Even if you don’t want to have the slide title appear on the slide for sighted viewers, you should still populate the title placeholder, and then hide the title behind another object, or by moving it off-screen (it’s still part of the slide, just not in the viewing area), or by using the Hide feature found in Home > Arrange > Selection Pane.

The titles should also be unique. Repeating the same title text would be similar to having two chapters in a book with the same title. Having unique titles enables people to navigate quickly, especially when attempting to return to an earlier slide for review.

PowerPoint outline view showing one slide without a title at all and two slides that have the same title. Both should be avoided.

The example above indicates what it would be like for an unsighted student to use a screen reader while tabbing through the titles of slides. Slide 2 has no title at all, and slides 4 and 5 have the same title.

Reading order of multiple elements in a slide

This one is often overlooked by people creating PowerPoint slides, unless they have an eye on accessibility. Previously we looked at the importance of using the built-in slide layouts with accessible placeholders for titles, text, pictures, etc. Now let’s look at what difference it makes when those multiple slide elements are being read to a student by a screen reader. In the accompanying graphic, there are five elements on the slide: 1) title, 2) left text placeholder, 3) left content, 4) right text placeholder, 5) right content.

Most of the time, you would want a screen reading program to read those five elements in the order listed above. The newer versions of PowerPoint presentation graphics program are better at determining a logical reading order for the elements on a slide, but older versions are trickier. The graphic below shows the order that the elements would be read by a screen reader. Notice that the Home > Arrange> Selection Panel will list the slide elements from the bottom up. In this example, the elements would be read to the student in the proper order.

Screenshot showing the Powepoint Selection panel that indicates the reading order of the items on the slide

However, in older versions of PowerPoint, the elements would be read in the order in which you entered them into the boxes. For example, the reading order could be as shown below by the black boxes:

Selection pane showing a strange order for the items on the page to be read by a screen reader. In this example, the slide title would be read last.

In this case, you would need to drag and drop the elements in the Selection pane to put them in the proper reading order, again with the first item at the bottom of the list and the last item at the top. This is counter-intuitive to many people.

Similarities to accessibility in Microsoft Word

In the previous post, we looked at various accessibility features in Microsoft Word. There are many similarities between Word and PowerPoint programs when it comes to accessibility for students using assistive technology. Please refer back to the previous post for information about the following items:

  • Where to add Alt Text
  • Formatting of tables

Using the Built-in Accessibility Checker

Starting with PowerPoint 2010 presentation graphics program, there is a built-in tool that checks your document for accessibility problems. The Accessibility Checker makes it much easier to identify and repair accessibility issues. To use the tool, select File > Info > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility.

Accessibility checker window indicating two errors; 1) Missing alt text for an image and 2) missing slide title on slide 2. Also two tips are displayed.

An example report is shown on the right. Click on any of the reported items to get help with improving the accessibility of the various slides.

Categories of items found by Accessibility Checker

Errors: Content that makes the document impossible or very difficult to read and understand for people using assistive technology. Common errors in PowerPoint documents include:

  • Slides without titles
  • Missing alt text for non-text objects
  • Proper table header formatting

Warnings: Content that will likely (but not always) make the document difficult to understand for people using assistive technology. Common warnings include:

  • Table structure (split or merged cells, nested tables, or completely blank rows or columns)
  • Hyperlink text that is not meaningful or descriptive

Tips: Content that should be understood with assistive technology, but could be better organized to improve the experience. Common tips include:

  • If there is a video, it will alert you to check for closed captions
  • Slide titles should be unique (not repeated)
  • The reading order of various slide components is in logical order

One more thing. If you’re designing slides for accessibility, you’ll need to make the file available to students so that they can use the file with their screen reading platform. If you put the slides online, there is a good chance that many of the accessibility features will be lost. Make the file available for download for those who need to use a screen reader.

In the next post, we’ll conclude this series with six more tips to improve the accessibility of your online course content.

Much of the content in this series of posts comes from WAMOE, the Web Accessibility MOOC for Online Educators; co-created by Karen Sorensen of Portland Community College and Barry Dahl of D2L.

Microsoft and PowerPoint are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.

Directory to posts in this series:

  1. Improving Accessibility of Online Courses – the why
  2. What do Educators Need to Know about VPATs?
  3. Alt Text for Simple Images in Online Courses
  4. Complex Images – Going Beyond Simple Alt Text
  5. Finding Videos with Good Captions
  6. Captioning Videos for Your Online Courses
  7. Improving the Accessibility of your HTML Content Pages – Part 1
  8. Improving the #A11y of Your HTML Content Pages – Part 2
  9. Making Word Documents Accessible for Online Learning
  10. Making PowerPoint Files Accessible for Online Learning
  11. Using Web-based Tools in Online Learning – #A11y
  12. Six More Tips for Making Online Courses Accessible

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