Creating Accessible PowerPoints (Part 1)

man giving a presentation with a slide displayed on a monitor
In this post, I’ll walk you through some additional steps to make a PowerPoint presentation accessible.

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Reading Time: 8 minutes

Introduction

Whether you’re giving a presentation or you’re developing a PowerPoint as part of a course, if it’s not accessible, it’s not finished. Making the files accessible ensures that everyone can enjoy the material. This is important if you send the slides to participants or post them online. In the U.S., federal government agencies and those receiving federal funding are required to make electronic documents accessible. Besides being a legal obligation, accessibility is just the right thing to do.

Last week, I shared a step-by-step guide to creating accessible PowerPoint templates. Starting with a good template can save you a lot of rework. But you can’t stop with the template. In this post, I’ll walk you through some additional steps to make a PowerPoint presentation accessible.

Run an Accessibility Check

PowerPoint comes with a built-in accessibility checker. To use it, select “Check Accessibility” from the Review tab. If the checker finds issues, a list will appear in the right pane.

Sample accessibility pane showing two errors and two warnings

My sample inspection results show one slide with missing alternative text, one slide that’s missing a title, and two slides for which I need to manually verify the reading order.

The accessibility checker also provides information at the bottom of the accessibility pane about why and how to fix the issues. In addition, PowerPoint for Windows includes a dropdown menu next to the problem slide that makes it easy to correct the issue. PowerPoint for Mac does not yet have this option.

(Way to play favorites, Microsoft. But hey, at least you make a Mac version. You’re miles ahead of Articulate… but I’m not bitter.)

About Missing Slide Titles

Every slide needs a unique title for accessibility purposes. But what if you don’t want a title to show up on the slide? If you’re a Windows user, you can choose “Add Hidden Slide Title.” This option adds a title off the viewable slide that will be accessible to screen readers. This is useful if your slide consists of only an image, for example.

Dropdown Menu with Recommended Actions: Set as Slide Title, Add Slide Title, or Add Hidden Slide Title

If you don’t have the quick-fix options, you can add a slide title by checking the box next to “Title” in the slide master view (View > Slide Master). This adds a placeholder box to your slide. If you don’t want additional text visible, you can move the title off the slide, so it’s hidden from view but accessible to screen readers. (Or you can hide it by selecting the “eye” icon on the selection pane.) Before you decide that’s the best option, consider whether the title would be useful for any sighted users. Leave it on the slide if it helps users organize and understand the information better.

Check the Outline View

As I mentioned last week, screen readers may not be able to view text that’s entered into text boxes on the main slide. Instead, you need to use content placeholders on the master. To verify that all text is accessible, check the outline view (View tab > Outline View). Compare the text in the left pane to the slide. For any text missing from the outline, add a text placeholder to a layout master (see last week’s post).

Text in images will not appear in the outline view. Avoid using images of text whenever possible. If you must use them, make them accessible through alt text and potentially captions. (More on that next.)

Screenshot showing the Outline View selected from the View tab in PowerPoint, with the outline appearing in the left pane next to the slide. All text on the slide is visible in the Outline View.
Outline View in PowerPoint showing all text that's on the slide, accessed from the View tab

Slide titled Introduction to Ents, with three columns. 

Origin

  • Created upon request from Yavanna
  • Taught to speak by Elves

Characteristics

  • Tree-like appearance
  • Immortal
  • Very strong

Notable Ents

  • Treebeard
  • Leaflock
  • Skinbark
  • Quickbeam
  • Beechbone
  • Fimbrethil

Source: http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Ents

Add Alt Text

I find it easiest to add alt text as I insert images. Even so, I almost always inadvertently miss one or two—often as a result of replacing the image at some point. Fortunately, the accessibility checker flags any images without alternative text. It also flags those with automatically generated alt text (depending on your version of PowerPoint).

Automatically generated alt text is almost never accurate and rarely describes the intended meaning. If you wish, you can turn off this feature in your PowerPoint options or preferences, under Ease of Access.

Ease of Access option in PowerPoint with the checkbox next to "Automatically generate alt text for me" unchecked. See text description for more.

PowerPoint screenshot of the Ease of Access option with the checkbox next to "Automatically generate alt text for me" unchecked. Automatic alt text generates descriptions for pictures to make them accessible for people with vision impairments. Turn automatic alt text on by checking this box.

If you have PowerPoint for Windows, you can use the dropdown menu next to the item in the accessibility pane and choose “Add a description” or “Mark as decorative.” If you don’t have that dropdown menu, select the item from the accessibility pane, and it will go to that image on the slide. Then right-click the image and choose “Edit Alt Text.”

PowerPoint screenshot of the accessibility pane with Recommended Actions for missing alt text: Add a description or Mark as decorative.
Accessibility Pane showing recommended actions for correcting missing alternative text

Think Beyond Alt Text

Remember, not every person with impaired vision uses a screen reader. Some rely on screen magnification, so the alt text won’t help them. Images of text can get pixelated when enlarged. Test your images by zooming in to 200%. If necessary, you can add descriptive captions or descriptions in off-screen placeholders.

Set the Reading Order

I described how to use the selection pane to set the reading order in last week’s post (Home tab > Arrange). The accessibility checker flags any slides that might have a complex reading order, but it’s a good idea to check each slide just to be sure.

If you have multiple shapes that make up one object, use the selection pane to group them. In the selection pane, use Ctrl + Click to select the items. Then in the “Arrange” dropdown (from the Home tab), select “Group.” Warning: Any animations assigned to individual objects will be lost when grouping the objects.

Here’s another accessibility perk for Windows users. PowerPoint for Windows includes a Reading Order pane, which is different from the selection pane. You can open it by selecting the dropdown menu next to the “Check Accessibility” option on the Home tab.  

PowerPoint screenshot of the Check Accessibility dropdown menu with four options: Check Accessibility, Alt Text, Reading Order Pane, and Options: Ease of Access. Reading Order Pane is selected and a callout reads "Display the Reading Order Pane. Adjust the order that your objects will be read in to improve accessibility."
Check Accessibility dropdown menu

PowerPoint screenshot of the Check Accessibility dropdown menu with four options:

  • Check Accessibility
  • Alt Text
  • Reading Order Pane
  • Options: Ease of Access.

Reading Order Pane is selected. A callout reads "Display the Reading Order Pane: Adjust the order that your objects will be read in to improve accessibility."

The Reading Order pane lists each item in the order in which a screen reader will view it, from top to bottom (whereas the selection pane lists them from bottom to top). Deselecting the checkbox next an item will hide it from screen readers, but it will still be visible to sighted users.

Reading Order pane

PowerPoint screenshot of the Reading Order pane displaying a title, slide number, and 6 text placeholders, with a selected checkbox next to each item.

Create Accessible Tables

Ask any accessibility tester for their top five pet peeves, and I’d bet they mention irregular tables. An irregular table is one in which columns and rows don’t make an even grid—for example, when someone merges all the cells across the top to make a heading. Merged cells present a problem for screen readers, which reads each cell from left to right and top to bottom.

Table with three columns and two rows. A title appears above the table.
Simple table with the title above it
Table with three rows. At the top, a merged cell spanning three columns, and two rows below that.
Irregular table with the title in a merged cell spanning 3 columns

(Duplicate of Introduction to Ents Content Presented Earlier)  

Both tables contain the same information, but table 1 lists the title above the table, while table 2 lists the title in a merged cell.

Title: Introduction to Ents

Origin

  • Created upon request from Yavanna
  • Taught to speak by Elves

Characteristics

  • Tree-like appearance
  • Immortal
  • Very strong

Notable Ents

  • Treebeard
  • Leaflock
  • Skinbark
  • Quickbeam
  • Beechbone
  • Fimbrethil

Source: http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Ents

Below are some tips for creating accessible tables:

DO: 

  • Create tables using PowerPoint’s built-in functionality
  • Specify a header row
  • Provide a title or caption

DON’T:

  • Don’t copy tables from Word or other apps into PowerPoint
  • Don’t use tabs and spaces to make a pseudo-table
  • Don’t use a table just for layout 
  • Don’t merge cells

Don't Skip the Manual Check!

No automated tool can detect all accessibility issues. Thus, you need to manually review each slide. See the resources at the end of this post for some checklists.

Here are some miscellaneous items to include in your manual check. I’ll talk more about a few of these in next week’s post:

  • Include captions and transcripts for videos and audio.
  • Provide alt text or long descriptions for any animations that convey meaning.
  • Provide descriptions for graphs and charts. Don’t rely solely on color to convey meaning.
  • Verify correct use of bulleted and numbered lists. Don’t use asterisks, hyphens, and other symbols to manually create pseudo-lists.
  • Check color contrast (again).
  • Give your presentation a descriptive file name.
  • Edit the file properties to include a descriptive title, the subject, the author, and keywords.
  • Do a spelling and grammar check.

Summary

I’ll wrap this series up next week with one more post about PowerPoint accessibility. I’ll discuss videos, animations, and SmartArt graphics. If there’s anything else you’d like to learn more about, leave a comment below.

Remember:

  • Run an accessibility check.
  • Check the outline view to ensure that text is accessible.
  • Add alt text (Right-click > Add alt text) and long descriptions.
  • Set the reading order using the Selection Pane (Home tab > Arrange).
  • Create accessible tables using the Insert > Table function in PowerPoint. Don’t merge cells.
  • Don’t skip the manual check!

Weigh In!

What are your accessibility best practices for PowerPoint? I’d love to hear them!

If you know the keyboard shortcuts to the mouse-only instructions I’ve provided in this post, please comment below, and I’ll update the post.

If you found this post useful, please share! If you find a mistake, reach out! I’m still learning every day.

Want to Learn More?

If you don’t already have it, I highly recommend Susi Miller’s new book, Designing Accessible Learning Content. It translates the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines into language we can understand using L&D examples and use cases.

Here are some other great resources that are free:

As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn a small amount if you purchase Susi’s book from the link above. This does not affect the price you pay or influence my recommendation.

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