That’s a post I saw not long ago on social media. It reminded me of the Legally Blonde quote about getting into Harvard Law, and it struck me as overly simplistic and dismissive. To me, ensuring accessibility is hard sometimes. It requires careful thought. I’ve been at this a while, and I’m still learning more every day about making the content I create more accessible (including this website).
Just because creating accessible content can seem daunting at times doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up and not do it. Because let me tell you what isn’t hard at all. Compassion. Not excluding people. Always striving to do the right thing. Inclusive design involves stepping into someone else’s shoes and considering things from their perspective. And even if we don’t always do it perfectly, we should keep trying our best to get it right. I’ll share some easy-to-follow principles in this post that will make creating accessible content less intimidating.
Accessibility Isn't Just for Websites
We usually think about accessibility in terms of websites and eLearning courses. But what about that great job aid you created? Or the instructor guide you developed? Or the slide deck you’re sending to participants to download? Would people with disabilities be able to access that content?
The revised Section 508 standards include electronic documents in the definition of information and communication technology (ICT)—meaning that if Section 508 compliance is required for your organization, it’s required for electronic documents. Even internal documents.
Even if it’s not required by law for your organization, making documents accessible is the right thing to do. In this post, I’ll share some ways you can use the POUR principles to create accessible documents and presentations.
POUR stands for perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust—all the things information must be for it to be accessible. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are organized around these four principles of accessibility. In this post, I’ll discuss each one and share ways to apply it to documents and presentations.
The Perceivable principle states that “information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.” Consider, for example, learners with low vision, color blindness, hearing impairments, or sensory processing disorders.
Here are some strategies for making accessible documents and presentations that are perceivable:
- Use alt text descriptions of the meaning conveyed by images. Use automatically generated alt text with caution; it’s rarely accurate. Refer to these tips for writing good alt text. You may need to use longer textual descriptions for complex images. For example, a PDF with a complex chart could include a link to an appendix with a long description. A PowerPoint presentation with an infographic could include an explanation in the slide notes.
- Don’t use alt text for decorative images. If an image doesn’t convey meaning, it doesn’t need alt text—which could slow down, distract, and confuse a learner using a screen reader. Word, PowerPoint, and Adobe Acrobat allow you to mark an image as decorative.
- Provide captions and transcripts. Use captions when audio is synchronized with imagery. Transcripts are sufficient for audio-only content but are also useful for videos (in addition to captions). They provide a study aid for later reference, making them helpful for people with short-term memory challenges.
- Don’t set video or audio to autoplay. Or provide an easy way to turn it off. Imagine you are using screen reader assistive technology to access a PowerPoint, and suddenly a narrator starts talking as a video plays. You’ll hear both voices and won’t be able to understand either. Use animated backgrounds with caution, such as those available with newer versions of PowerPoint. While movement may add visual interest, it will cause nausea and vertigo for people like me with vestibular disorders.
- Use sufficient color contrast. Color blindness is more common than most people think, affecting approximately 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women in the world. Yet I frequently see documents and presentations with light gray text on a white background, or orange text on a blue background. It’s an easy enough problem to avoid, as a plethora of color contrast checkers exist. I like the one from WebAIM.
- Use legible fonts and sizes. Fancy scripts, scrawled text, cramped lettering, or small fonts can make it more difficult for learners with low vision, dyslexia, or learning disabilities to understand your content. Connie Malamed recently shared a wonderful post about how visual clarity affects learning.
- Avoid scanned text and images of text. Learners using screen readers can’t access scanned text. Images of text may pixelate when enlarged, so avoid them when possible. Describe any informative text on an image in the alt text or long description.
- Don’t use color as the sole means of conveying information. This is especially important for charts, which are often color-coded. Consider adding labels or data to the chart rather than relying solely on the color coding. Or you can use patterned shading or dotted lines to differentiate items on the chart.
Consider the examples below. Both charts convey the same data for the question, “Which is the better book series?” Divergent received 29% of the votes, and The Hunger Games received 71%. But in the first chart, this data might not be perceivable to a person with color blindness, and the font of the book titles is too small to be legible to many people. The second chart corrects these issues by adding the book titles in large font, with lines pointing to the respective part of the chart. Plus, the added percentages clarify the information further. Describing the data in the surrounding text, as I’ve done here, can help keep the length of the alt text reasonable.
The Operable principle states that “user interface components and navigation must be operable.”
Here are some questions to consider to ensure that documents and presentations are operable:
- Can you navigate through the file using only your keyboard? This is especially important when creating fillable forms, since the tab order must be set properly.
- Are the buttons and links large enough? They need to be operable by someone using an assistive pointer or someone with limited manual dexterity. Rather than creating a hyperlink from a single word, use multiple-word links. Try selecting them with the side of your finger or two knuckles.
- Are links descriptive? Rather than “click here,” make sure the destination of the link is clear in the text of the link or button label.
- Don’t pressure the learner. Some PowerPoint-based games include time limits, but users need to be able to pause the timer or disengage it. Some learners, such as those with limited mobility, require additional time to complete interactions. For others, time limits create debilitating anxiety that’s not conducive to learning.
- Don’t use flashing or flickering elements. Items that flash or flicker can not only be distracting, but they can also be dangerous for people with seizure disorders. Or they can make people with migraine disorder or vestibular disorders feel very ill.
The Understandable principle states that “information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.”
Here are some strategies for creating accessible documents and presentations that are understandable:
- Provide clear instructions. Preferably use multiple formats. For example, in an instructor-led class, don’t rely solely on the facilitator to give oral instructions; provide them in writing for participants as well.
- Use plain language. Writing in plain English helps everyone, and it’s more inclusive for people with learning disabilities. See this post for some plain language tips and this one for more detailed plain language guidance. Also remember to set the language in PDF documents (in the file properties).
- Use predictable and consistent navigation. For example, if a video on one slide plays with just a click (anywhere), but a video on another slide requires me to select an object, that inconsistency can be confusing and add to the learner’s cognitive load.
- Use heading styles to organize content. Increasing the font size and bolding text does not let screen reader users know it’s a heading. Select headings from the Styles Pane in Word. In PowerPoint, use titles and content placeholders from the slide master, and check to ensure that all text is visible in the Outline view.
- Place images in line with text. When placing images in a document, use the “in line with text” option. Other options can interfere with a screen reader user’s ability to access the content in the right order.
- Left-align paragraphs of text. Left-aligned text is easier to read than centered or justified text. It’s okay to center short blocks of text, such as column headers.
- Consider language barriers. Avoid idioms and colloquial phrases, which might not translate well. If your audience includes learners with limited English proficiency, provide translations.
The Robust principles states that “content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.”
You can make sure documents and presentations are robust by following these tips:
- Use metadata. Fill out the document properties, including the title, subject, author, and keywords.
- Use accessible authoring tools and platforms. Microsoft Office has made accessibility a priority, including a “Check Accessibility” feature (from the Review tab). Adobe InDesign also includes robust accessibility options. Other tools, such as Canva, may not provide easy ways to make documents and presentations accessible. (I personally haven’t tried creating accessible presentations with Canva, so I’d love to hear from you if have.)
Remembering the POUR principles can make it easier to create accessible content.
- Perceivable: Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
- Operable: User interface components and navigation must be operable.
- Understandable: Information and the operation of user interface must be understandable.
- Robust: Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.
Resources for Learning More
Upcoming Accessibility Conferences and Events
- This Thursday is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Find an event here.
- TLDC Accessible & Inclusive Design Conference 2021 – Friday, July 9 (More Information Coming Soon!)
- List of Accessibility Conferences and Events
What I'm (Still) Reading
- Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, by Sasha Costanza-Chock (Thanks to Erica Zimmer for this recommendation!)
- Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, by Judith Heumann with Kristen Joiner
- Inclusive Design for a Digital World: Designing with Accessibility in Mind, by Regine M. Gilbert
- Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, by Alice Wong