Provide a more equitable experience for disabled folks in your audience.
One in five Minnesotans and one in four Americans has a disability. These tutorials assemble some basic information and resources to help you make accessibility part of your everyday practice for lessons, presentations, and publications.
Image credit: Disabled And Here
Disabled people are experts in our own experiences, and every individual is different. It's important to take an individualized approach whenever possible. Start by asking someone what they need, and believe them when they tell you, even if it conflicts with what you've heard before (including in this resource).
When you don't know who will be in the audience or can't customize based on individuals' needs, following the recommendations in this resource will allow you to make the default experience more accessible for more people. But customization is always the best option.
Help your audience:
- Anticipate what they might need in order to participate.
- Reduce or manage anxiety by increasing predictability and structure.
This is helpful for everyone. It can be particularly helpful for people with disabilities who need to bring materials or supplies, request accommodations, or otherwise plan ahead to be able to participate.
- Share an agenda before the event to allow prep time and facilitate accommodations requests.
- If you share the agenda at the beginning of an event, take a short break afterwards to allow processing and prep time.
- If you share an agenda, stick to it as much as you can. Deviations are sometimes inevitable. But if you must deviate, it is important to acknowledge that you have done so. Otherwise, audience members who rely on the agenda may feel frustrated or wrongfooted.
Slides and handouts
Slides on a shared computer screen or a projection screen are inaccessible for some people, including:
- Blind participants.
- Participants without internet connection who call in to a videoconference.
- Participants for whom the slide contents display too small to see clearly.
- Participants who can’t read quickly enough before the slide advances.
- Participants who can’t split their attention between reading the slide and listening to the speaker.
Handouts may be inaccessible for similar reasons.
To ensure equal access to the content of the presentation:
- Share the materials before the event. This is the only way to ensure truly equal access to the information.
- Share the materials after the event if you absolutely cannot share them before. This is second best, because it means some people in the audience go through the event missing information that other people have access to.
Preview will happen before any major transitions during the event, including:
- Changes in format, e.g. single speaker to panel, live speaker to recorded video, Zoom to Jamboard.
- Changes in sensory environment, e.g. lighting, sound, and temperature.
This helps people with disabilities who may need to prepare for a transition by changing the settings on an assistive device, using different adaptive tools or strategies, steeling for discomfort, or stepping away.
Ensure that your audience can easily navigate a document and tell:
- What the document’s contents are.
- Where things are located in the document.
Some people with vision, motor, or cognitive impairments may be unable to scroll through a document and scan it visually to find this information. Everyone benefits from not needing to navigate a document way.
Tables of Contents
Use a Table of Contents for any multi-page document to make it easier to navigate.
Generate a Table of Contents automatically based on section headings:
- In Microsoft Word, go to References > Table of Contents and select one of the “automatic” options.
- In Google Docs, go to Insert > Table of Contents to automatically generate a table of contents.
- Note that this only works if you use built-in heading styles. See the “Create more navigable documents” tutorial for more information about headings.
Mask hyperlinks to other websites with text that describes where the link leads. The link text should be:
- Informative on its own, without any of the surrounding, non-hyperlinked words.
This is particularly important for screen reader users, who may skip directly to the links on a page before reading the page.
Add timestamps to any video longer than a couple minutes.
Timestamps are like bookmarks that divide a video into sections. Here is a one-minute tutorial for how to do this on YouTube: How to Add Chapters to Your Videos Using Timestamps
- Be flexible. It’s ok if you have to improvise. The most important thing is for all parties to the communication attempt to make a genuine effort.
- We all use different communication methods in different circumstances. Don’t be surprised if the same person uses multiple methods depending on the situation.
- If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. Never pretend to understand something you haven’t.
- Have all speakers say their name before speaking so audience members who can't see the speakers can track who says what. (Differentiating speakers based on the sound of their voices requires familiarity with the speakers.)
- On Zoom: invite participants to unmute to ask questions or contribute to discussion. Not everyone will be comfortable typing into chat to participate.
- In person: have everyone speak into a microphone so hard of hearing audience members can hear. If it’s not possible to give the audience access to a mic, have one of the mic'd speakers repeat questions and comments from the audience.
- On Zoom: invite use of the chat. Read aloud comments in the chat to provide access for participants who can’t follow the chat.
- In person: provide a phone number where participants can send a text message to ask a question or request help. This can be especially helpful during discussions of sensitive topics, where someone may not want to be identified before other participants as the source of a question.
- Know that communication will move more slowly if you have a participant who communicates by typing on an assistive device (AAC). Here are some tips from AssistiveWare for successful communication:
- Allow time for the AAC user to make their message.
- Wait for a message to be composed before talking.
- Pause for the AAC user to take a turn or respond.
- Pause expectantly. Look toward the AAC user with an open expression that invites them to take up their turn if they wish to. It can be a great idea to count in our head for at least 5 seconds. This is a useful strategy to help us to pause.
- Don't jump in with prompts or help if they have not responded immediately.
- See the entry below on ASL Interpretation.
- Have pencils and paper (e.g. index cards) on hand during events so participants can submit handwritten questions. Again, this can be particularly helpful during sessions where participants may want to maintain some anonymity.
- Tools like fat pencils or pencil grips can help make handwriting more comfortable. You can request these tools from PANDA.
Expressing ourselves poetically can be great, but not in contexts where we’re trying to communicate specific information or teach specific skills. In those contexts, we should express ourselves plainly. This section includes some basic principles for communicating in plain language.
- Don’t make people guess what you mean.
- Instead of: "That's interesting."
- Say: "That's fascinating!" or "That's questionable."
- Don’t disguise instructions or requirements as suggestions.
- Instead of: "It would be great if you could finish this by tomorrow."
- Say: "Finish this by tomorrow."
- Don’t disguise questions as statements or vice versa.
- Instead of: "I was wondering if we could meet tomorrow."
- Say: "Can we please meet tomorrow?"
- Don’t hide the true subject or verb of a sentence.
- Instead of: "We do youth education."
- Say: "We teach youth."
- Avoid using the same word to mean different things.
- Instead of: "That's right, turn left at the stop sign and then right at the traffic ight!"
- Say: "That's correct, turn left at the stop sign and then right at the traffic light!"
- Avoid using different words for the same thing.
- Instead of: "The state should protect our rights. The government should provide public services."
- Say: "The government should protect our rights. The government should provide public services."
- Prefer shorter and simpler words.
- Prefer shorter and simpler sentence constructions.
- Avoid euphemisms.
- Exercise caution with figurative language. Express the idea literally. Use a metaphor in addition to the literal expression of the idea, never instead. Figurative language should be a supplement, not a substitute.
These guidelines help you produce files that are more readable with assistive technology like screen readers. Many of these recommendations improve readability for everyone.
Headings let the audience navigate between sections in the document and find information in a particular section again. They’re crucial for navigating documents with assistive technology.
- Break documents up into sections and subsections.
- Give each section and subsection an informative heading.
- Format your headings using the built-in heading styles. Find these under “Styles” in the main toolbar in Microsoft Office and Google Docs.
- Select heading levels based on the logical structure of the document, and then change the visual formatting of the heading levels as desired. If you need help choosing the right heading level, imagine converting the document into an outline.
- Heading 1 is the main title.
- Heading 2s are the main sections.
- Heading 3s are subsections of Heading 2 sections. And so on.
To change the visual formatting for the heading level, follow these steps in this order:
- Apply the logically correct heading level to your heading text.
- Highlight the heading text and manually change the font, text size, color, etc. to achieve your desired visual formatting.
- Highlight the heading text and then go to Styles. In Microsoft Office, right click the corresponding heading style and then select “Update Heading _ to Match Selection.” In Google Docs, hover over the arrow on the right side of the heading menu and then select “Update Heading _ to match”
Slide titles let the audience navigate the slide deck and find information on a particular slide again. They’re important for navigating slide decks with assistive technology.
- Give every slide a title.
- Titles should be unique and informative.
- Add a slide title using the built-in function rather than just formatting a text box with large font at the top of the slide. In PowerPoint, go to Home > Layout > Title Only. In Google Slides, go to Slide > Apply layout > Title Only. Selecting “Title Only” will add a field for a title without removing any existing content on the slide.
Lists make documents more accessible and easier to read when you use them for their true purpose, which is to list things. The benefits of lists start to be lost when the lists are too long (too many list items) or individual list items are too long.
Tables are inherently difficult to read with assistive technology. For every table cell, a screen reader has to report the meta-information about the position of the cell in the table as well as the text contained in the cell. Tables can also be difficult to interpret for people with visual or cognitive impairments. It is best not to use a table if you can avoid it.
If you need to use a table:
- Format tables with a header row.When available, usethe built-in functionto define the header row. To do this in Microsoft Word, go to Table Tools > Design and check the “Header Row” checkbox.
- Stick to tables that are a simple grid layout. Don’t use split or merged cells or multiple header rows.
- Include alt text for the table. The alt text should summarize the information people should glean from the table. In Word, right click on the table and go to Table Properties > Alt Text. If you’re working in another program that doesn’t allow alt text for tables, or if the information to glean from the table is too long for alt text, include a summary in the body of the document before the table.
PDFs are one of the worst offenders in terms of everyday digital accessibility barriers.
- Some PDFs are totally unreadable by a screen reader. If text can’t be grabbed and highlighted with the cursor, then the PDF is totally inaccessible.
- Many PDFs arebarely readable by a screen reader user because all the text in the document reads as a solid, continuous wall with no structure or organization. It is also common for words and sentences to get distorted or the order of text to get garbled. This is true for PDFs exported from Google Workspace, unless you use the third party app Grackle Docs.
Any PDF can be remediated (made accessible) by someone with the necessary software and skillset, but this is an involved process. The following alternative strategies can improve accessibility.
- Don’t use a PDF. Share a Word document, Google Doc, or HTML webpage. This is the safest and most equitable strategy.
- Create your PDF by composing the document in Microsoft Office and exporting it from there. If you follow the guidelines in the rest of this tutorial series and run the automated Microsoft Office Accessibility Checker, then the resulting PDF should be reasonably accessible.
- Use a PDF, but include the phrase “Alternative accessible format available upon request” in the webpage or email from which the PDF can be downloaded. See the "alternative file formats" section for more information.
- Keep the font simple. Many recommend sans serif over serif for digital text, but this is debated.
- The font for body text should be absolutely as simple as possible. The font for titles and headings may be a little more ornate.
- Some typically safe choices are Arial, Veranda, Tahoma, Helvetica, and Times New Roman.
- There are some particular considerations for dyslexia. For example, many fonts have several letters and numbers that look very similar. There are fonts designed specifically for dyslexic readers, including the free font OpenDyslexic, though the benefits of these fonts are attested more through anecdote than research.
- For documents and handouts, use 12 pt or larger.
- For slides projected onto personal computer screens, use 18 pt or larger.
- For slides projected in person, use 24 pt or larger.
- Text should be in a color that contrasts highly with the background. Furthermore, the text should be dark and the background should be light, not vice versa. You can easily check contrast online using WebAIM: Contrast Checker.
- Black text is recommended. Consider adding color to your design through non-text elements instead of changing the text color.
- Dyslexic readers can be sensitive to color contrast that is too high. For this reason, a pale cream or gray background is recommended above a white background.
- Low vision readers benefit from maximum contrast, so a pure white background is recommended.
- Minimize use of all-caps, italics, and underline.
- If you use all-caps, don’t use caps lock or individually type capital letters using shift, which will cause screen readers to read the words letter by letter or try to interpret them as acronyms. Instead, use the built-in all-caps font effect.
- Avoid bolding long stretches of text.
- 1.5 or double line spacing is best. It is crucial to preserve a healthy cushion of white space and not cram text in.
- Left align text. This is especially important for text of any substantial length. It’s also best to keep the text alignment consistent so readers’ eyes don’t have to bounce around the page to pick up where the text starts.
- Keep spacing between words consistent. Don’t justify text, as this creates disorienting gaps.
- Screen reader users will follow a single linear path through the text. This is different from the experience of sighted users, who will scan ahead both horizontally and vertically (in two directions) while reading. If your layout does not allow you to define a linear path through the content that makes sense, consider offering an alternative resource in the form of a linear content outline.
- Sighted readers generally scan ahead horizontally and vertically across the page while reading. A layout that requires scanning in a more complicated pattern (for example, a circle or a spiral) is less accessible for sighted readers and assistive technologies.
Optimally accessible text formatting varies from person to person. Something that enhances accessibility for one person may even impede accessibility for another (for example, different background colors). For this reason, publishing and sharing text in a format that the reader can customize on their own device is highly recommended whenever possible.
- Microsoft Office files allow for easy customization of text display.
- Web pages allow for easy display customization without easy editing of text. You can publish and share resources on the web—including directly from Google Docs using the “publish to the web” feature—and help inform your audience about customization options like the free extension Helperbird, available for Safari, Edge, Firefox and Chrome.
- Helperbird allows the user to customize the font, word spacing, letter spacing, and magnification on pretty much any webpage.
- Helperbird also allows the user to access Microsoft’s Immersive Reader tool on non-Microsoft devices, and access it more easily on Microsoft devices. Immersive Reader allows the user to customize the font, text size, and background color, as well as other features like highlighting parts of speech, segmenting words into syllables, and applying a focus bar to a single line or paragraph of text.
- Unlike some built-in options, Helperbird also has versions for Google Docs and Slides, and works on Google Docs and Slides that have been published to the web via File > Publish to the web. This offers an easy way to share resources with customizable text display.
- The purpose of PDFs is to preserve the visual display of a document across any device. They are an anti-customizable format by design. Some apps do allow for PDF customization, though I am not aware of any good free options. Apple users can buy Voice Dream Reader (one time payment of $20 and then $4.99/month subscription fee) to convert a PDF to plain text and customize the text size, spacing, and font, while easily reverting to display the document’s original layout and pictures when needed.
- Alt text is a description of an image that assistive technology reads for users who can't see the image.
- Alt text is not visible on the page.
- Alt text should be added for images and graphics across all digital media: documents, slides, websites, and social media.
- To add alt text in Microsoft Office and Google Workspace, right click the image and select the alt text menu item. In Google Workspace, two fields will appear; you want the field labeled “Description.”
Tips for good alt text
- Capture the content of the image that is relevant and informative given the context in which the image appears.
- Be non-redundant given the other information that appears in the surrounding text.
- Be as concise as possible-at most the length of a Tweet.
- If the image contains more information than can be captured in alt text, convey that information in an image description. An image description is a longer description of the contents of the image that is placed as regular text somewhere else on the page. Learn more about image descriptions vs. alt text.
Example: Ilhan Omar
- llhan Omar in front of U.S. and House of Representatives flags. This is a concise option that probably suffices in many contexts.
- Close-up of Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American woman wearing a black hijab, smiling while posed in front of the U.S. and House of Representatives flags. This is a more detailed option, closer to an image description. If Omar's heritage and religious presentation are both relevant and not conveyed elsewhere, then this may be a better option.
Purely decorative images
- When an image is purely decorative, sometimes you can mark it as decorative, which instructs assistive technology to ignore it entirely.
- Use this option if the image adds nothing to the audience’s understanding or appreciation of the presentation.
Example: slide graphics
- The colorful rectangular frame on this slide is purely decorative. Vector shapes usually are.
- The graphic at the center of the slide is not purely decorative, because it conveys some information about the subject of the presentation: that it’s related to the topic of human diversity.
- The Literacy Minnesota logo is the only thing on the page indicating that the presentation is associated with Literacy Minnesota, so it conveys important information and should have alt text. It is enough for the alt text to read “Literacy Minnesota," though some people would use "Literacy Minnesota logo."
- If Literacy Minnesota were referenced as the author or sponsor somewhere in text, then the Literacy Minnesota logo would add no additional information and could be marked as decorative.
- During a live presentation, a lot of information is conveyed visually. Verbal descriptions help ensure equal access to this information.
- Live descriptions aren’t a substitute for ensuring the audience has access to the slides in an accessible format to review the information at their own pace.
Verbal descriptions apply in three places:
- A verbal description of yourself at the beginning of your speaking time.
- Verbal descriptions of the contents of slides throughout the presentation.
- Verbal summaries of important comments in the chat (in virtual settings).
- Describe a few salient details about yourself at the beginning of the presentation or the first time you begin speaking.
- You can also encourage participants to give visual descriptions if they are speaking on camera at any point, including breakout rooms.
- There’s no single, universally agreed upon formula for what to include. Your visual description can include any of the following depending on personal preference:
- Race or skin tone.
- Disability status.
- Details about clothing, makeup or hairstyle that convey personality.
- Background or setting you’re presenting from.
- There is some debate in blind communities about this practice. If you are interested in learning more, check out Making a Case for Self-Description: It’s Not About Eye Candy – Disability Visibility Project.