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The Incredible, Accessible Presentation

Crafting PowerPointâ Presentations That Work With Assistive Technology

By Glenna Shaw

Certificate Accessible Information Technology (EASI)

Certified PowerPoint® MOS (Microsoft)

Certified Word® MOS (Microsoft)

In its purest sense, a presentation is the act of making information publicly available.  Today, the world is the audience and electronic presentations are the delivery vehicle.  A simple web search for “online presentations” lists over 6 million results.  Technology has become the presenter and the presentation.  With more than 17 million users worldwide, PowerPoint® is the technology.

The appeal is easy to see.  Thousands of dollars can be saved in travel costs.  Your presentation, sales pitch, training course, etc. is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Almost anyone can create a presentation or training course.  The downside is that everyone may not be able to access your presentation.

The Census Bureau released an announcement on the anniversary of the American Disabilities Act.  This announcement reports that 19 percent (49.7 million) of Americans over the age of 5 have some form of disability. This number will continue to increase because people are living longer lives. As people age, their vision, hearing, and cognitive abilities decline.   Ten years ago I could see clearly and type over 60 words a minute.  Today, I need reading glasses and suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome.

For many persons with disabilities, the advent of computers was like receiving the keys to the world.  Unfortunately, with the graphical user interface, many of the locks were changed.  We, as members of a civilized society, have a responsibility to avoid discrimination, even if it is unintentional.

You can learn more at this site: Accessibility in Mind.

Understanding Accessibility

The Definition

Each of these definitions can be a goal for accessibility of information.  My personal favorite is number four, easy to get along with and friendly.

1.     Capable of being reached; "a town accessible by rail"

2.     Capable of being read with comprehension; "readily accessible to the nonprofessional reader"; "the tales seem more accessible than his more difficult novels"

3.     Easily obtained; "most students now have computers accessible"; "accessible money"

4.     Easy to get along with or talk to; friendly; "an accessible and genial man"


Source: WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University

The Ideal

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) commitment to lead the Web to its full potential includes promoting a high degree of usability for people with disabilities.

WAI, in coordination with organizations around the world, pursues accessibility of the Web through five primary areas of work: technology, guidelines, tools, education and outreach, and research and development.  Learn more at http://www.w3.org/WAI/

The Law

President Clinton signed Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act as amended by the Workforce Investment Act into law in 1998.  Section 508 requires that Federal agencies' electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities.  Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals.  The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology.  Learn more at http://www.section508.gov/

Accessibility & Presentations

Although there are no definitive guidelines, accessibility is about making presentations readable, usable and navigable for everybody, not just people with permanent or temporary physical impairments.

·       Readability involves making sure that the language used in a presentation is understandable by its audience, and that spelling and grammar are correct. It also involves ensuring that slides can be read properly, regardless of the browser or platform being used by the reader.

·       Usability means that the presentation offers a convenient and efficient browsing experience to the reader, and allows them to achieve the primary goal for which they are viewing the presentation in the first place. This is most likely to access a particular piece of information.

·       Navigability means that the presentation can be easily traversed, the reader is aware of where they are and how they got there, and information is organized according to a logical system that readers can follow.

(Paraphrased from “Maintaining accessible websites with Microsoft Word and XML” by Eoin Campbell, http://www.xmlw.ie/, April 2003)

The Technology

Assistive/Adaptive Technology is innovative software and hardware solutions for people with special needs.  There are five main categories of assistive technology.  This information is taken from the Microsoft Accessibility Web site.


Visual impairments include low vision, color blindness, and blindness. People who are blind cannot use a computer monitor and must receive information from their computers via another sense—hearing or touch. People with low vision can also receive information through sound or touch, or they can modify their computer displays so the screen is more legible.  People who have visual impairments may be interested in the following assistive technology:

·       Screen Enlargers

·       Screen Readers

·       Speech Recognition Systems

·       Speech Synthesizers

·       Refreshable Braille Displays

·       Braille Embossers

·       Talking Word Processors

·       Large-print Word Processors



Hearing impairments encompass a range of conditions—from slight hearing loss to deafness. People who have hearing impairments might be able to hear some sound, but might not be able to distinguish words. People with this type of hearing impairment can use an amplifying device to provide functional hearing. Other people might not be able to hear sound at all.  People who have hearing impairments need closed captioning for multimedia and/or narration.


Mobility impairments can be caused by a wide range of common illnesses and accidents such as arthritis, stroke, cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, loss of limbs or digits, spinal cord injuries, and repetitive stress injury, among others. As a result of these accidents or conditions, individuals might be unable to use (or be without) arms or fingers to interact with their computers using the standard keyboard or mouse.  People who have mobility impairments may be interested in the following assistive technology:

·       Speech Recognition Systems

·       On-screen Keyboard Programs

·       Keyboard Filters

·       Touch Screens

·       Alternative Input Devices



Language impairments include conditions such as aphasia (loss or impairment of the power to use or comprehend words, often as a result of brain damage), delayed speech (a symptom of cognitive impairment), and other conditions resulting in difficulties remembering, solving problems, or perceiving sensory information. For people who have these impairments, complex or inconsistent visual displays or word choices can make using computers more difficult.  This category can include persons for whom English is a second language.  People who have language impairments may be interested in the following:

·       Keyboard Filters

·       Speech Recognition Systems

·       Screen Review Utilities

·       Touch Screens

·       Speech Synthesizers



Learning impairments can range from conditions such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder to retardation. Processing problems are the most common and have the most impact on a person's ability to use computer applications. These conditions interfere with the learning process. Many people with these impairments are perfectly capable of learning if information is presented to them in a form and at a pace that is appropriate to them individually. During the learning process, many individuals with learning difficulties benefit from having a multi-sensory experience of audio speech paired with a visual representation.  People who have learning impairments may be interested in the following:

·       Word Prediction Programs

·       Reading Comprehension Programs

·       Reading Tools & Learning Disability Programs

·       Speech Synthesizers

·       Speech Recognition Programs


The Open Mind

Accessibility Is About Ability Not Disability

Accessibility is a celebration of diversity.  Everyone has limitations and everyone gains from assistive technology.  Some examples are:  wheelchair ramps (curb cuts), closed-captioned TVs, and speech recognition software.  Accessibility is also about respect for other’s abilities.  British Physicist Stephen Hawking revolutionized concepts of the universe and time, despite having severe mobility limitations.

Accessible PowerPoint

Primary Considerations

The primary consideration for PowerPoint® accessibility is compatibility with screen readers.  However, the old adage “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” still holds true for persons with language and/or cognitive considerations.  Although these two concepts may appear to be at odds, it is easier than you might think to meld the two in PowerPoint®.

The Well Crafted Presentation

Create the Outline

Start with a blank presentation.  Create the majority of your presentation content in the outline view.  To change to outline view, click on Outline View in the lower left corner of your PowerPoint® window.  Type the content of your presentation directly in the outline pane.  It will start automatically with the Title of the Title Slide.  When you hit enter it will create a new slide.  Before typing another title, hit the TAB key to demote the paragraph to type your subtitle.  Hit enter after typing your subtitle and then hit the Shift-TAB keys to create a new slide and enter the title.  Continue in this fashion until you have entered all the Titles and text for your presentation.  The keystrokes for editing in the outline mode are:



Promote a paragraph


Demote a paragraph


Move selected paragraphs up


Move selected paragraphs down


Show heading level 1


Expand text below a heading


Collapse text below a heading


Show all text or headings

SLASH (/) on the numeric keypad

Turn character formatting on/off


By entering your content in the outline mode, you make sure slides use the placeholders and slide layouts properly.  This is especially important for proper text flow in your finished presentation.

Add Meta-Data

Meta-Data increases the accessibility of your presentation by making it easier to find.  Click on File, Properties and fill in the blanks.  Pay particular attention to keywords.  These are the words a search engine will use to find your presentation. Set up a handy reminder by clicking on Tools, Options, go to the Save tab and put a check next to "Prompt for file properties".  PowerPoint will automatically open the properties dialog window when you save a new presentation.

Check Readability

The content of your presentation should be clear and simple so that it’s easy to understand.  Using clear and simple language promotes effective communication.  Access to written information can be difficult for people who have cognitive or learning disabilities. Using clear and simple language also benefits people whose first language differs from your own, including those people who communicate primarily in sign language.  Avoid using abbreviations and acronyms, if possible.  Abbreviations and Acronyms are inconsistent.  One person’s Meeting (MTG) could be another person’s Mortgage (MTG).

Save your outline to a Word document and run a more extensive version of the Word spelling and grammar checker.  To set it up in Word, hit the F7 key, in the Spelling and Grammar window, click on Options, and check the check grammar with spelling box and the show readability statistics box.  Click ok and run the spelling and grammar checker.  When complete the readability statistics window opens.  By using short paragraphs, sentences and words, reading comprehension of your presentation can be greatly increased.  This isn’t “dumbing down” your presentation, it’s communicating effectively.  To learn more about readability statistics, visit this site: How To Write Plain English.

Apply The Design Style

Accessible Design Template choices are affected by two factors; color contrast and font selection.  Color blindness (color vision deficiency) is a condition in which certain colors cannot be distinguished.  Red/Green color blindness is the most common form and causes problems in distinguishing reds and greens.  Another color deficiency Blue/Yellow is rare.  Color blindness seems to occur in about 8% - 12% of males of European origin and about one-half of 1% of females.  Total color blindness (seeing in only shades of gray) is extremely rare.  There is no treatment for color blindness, nor is it usually the cause of any significant disability.  However, it can be very frustrating for individuals affected by it.  For more information visit the color vision deficiency site.

Fonts should be large and easy to read.  Avoid serif fonts such as Times New Roman.  Serif fonts look great on paper, but are difficult to read on screen.  Instead, stay with common sans serif fonts such Arial and Tahoma.

Change your presentation to Normal View by clicking on Normal View in the lower left corner of your PowerPoint® window.  Click on Format, Apply Design Template and choose a template with high contrast between the background and text.  I prefer to avoid light backgrounds because they enhance the effects of screen flicker.  Screen flicker at a high enough rate may trigger seizures in some individuals.  Check the contrast between the background and text on your presentation by printing a slide to a black and white printer with the grayscale box unchecked.  Change your design template and test again if needed.

To change the fonts of your presentation, click on View, Master.  Select all the placeholders and change the fonts to Arial or Tahoma.  Although later versions of PowerPoint® allow you to embed fonts, Arial and Tahoma are already on virtually all PCs.  Learn more about creating or customizing templates on the PowerPoint FAQ Site.

Non-Text Elements

Non-text elements such as images, charts, tables, AutoShapes, etc. require alternative text.  Alternative text (referred to as Alt-text) is text that is attached to the image but hidden from sight.  This Alt-text is typically used to provide a narrative description of the item for non-sighted individuals.  How to add Alt-text to objects is explained in the add Alt-text section of this tutorial.

Additionally, all items on a slide are read in the order they are added to a slide.  This is the text flow mentioned earlier.  By entering our titles and text in the outline, we made sure these items would be read first.

Add Graphics, Clip Art, etc.

Go through your presentation and enhance it with clip art, charts, etc.  Add the items in the order you want them to be seen and read on the slide.  Keep in mind that any non-text elements need a narrative description.  Resist the urge to add unnecessary images.  Be selective in your choice of non-text elements.  Choose images and items that enhance your slide and make the message clearer.  Analogies and metaphors increase the ability to absorb and retain your message, especially in a technical presentation.  They provide a “mental bridge” to the content of the presentation.  Images that reinforce metaphors of the slide message can be especially effective.  Take color contrast into consideration as you did with the presentation design.  Avoid animated gif images.  The rapid, repetitive motion of animated gif images can be distracting to persons with cognitive issues and may increase screen flicker.

Using Charts

When using charts, avoid having color as the only method to convey information.  Use PowerPoint’s fill feature to add texture to chart items.  This will help them stand out more for persons with visual deficiencies.  PPT2HTML’s accessibility tool bar has an invaluable tool for adding alt-text to charts. With a few clicks, PPT2HTML will apply the chart information in a linear format to the alt-text of the chart.

Using Tables

Excerpt from PDF Can Comply With Section 508. Now It's Your Move, by Duff Johnson, published 12-10-2003, www.planetpdf.com: “The Section 508 regulations include two separate provisions on tables - and for good reason. Conceived by and exclusively for sighted users, tables are one of the most difficult content delivery vehicles to make accessible. Imagine removing gridlines and cells to reduce a table to a stream of text, and you will understand why. The Section 508 regulation states that row and column headers be identified. To ensure usability (as opposed to mere compliance), document authors may wish to consider using narratives to deliver information that might otherwise have implied the use of a table.”

When using tables in your presentation, you must describe the contents in narrative detail.  After adding your table, select it by clicking on the outside border, right click and select ungroup, answer yes when prompted to convert the table to shapes.  Right click again and click on grouping, group.  Then add Alt Text to fully describe the table.  How to add Alt-text to objects is explained in the add Alt-text section of this tutorial.

Another alternative is to create your table in Word, apply formatting using Word’s Table AutoFormat feature (click on Table, Table AutoFormat and check the boxes to apply formatting to the Heading Row and First Column) then copy and paste the table into PowerPoint.  As long as you keep your table’s simple and not nested, most screen readers will read it correctly.

Using AutoShapes

While AutoShapes may appear to be images, they are actually text boxes.  AutoShapes include squares, rectangles, circles, stars, call-outs, etc.  Screen readers will read the text contained within the AutoShape.  They may or may not read the alt-text associated with the shape.  If you add text inside your AutoShapes, make sure the words are relevant and make sense.  See this Microsoft KB article: The screen reader tool does not read the web text of autoshapes.

Including Media

Avoid using media in a presentation to be posted on the web.  Most media files are not integrated into the presentation file and require a separate download.  Media files also do not convert well to other formats such as text-only and PDF.  If you are distributing your presentation on CD, media files are more acceptable and accessible.  See How to create a presentation for distribution on CD on the PPTFAQ site for more information about distributing presentations on CD.  If you do decide to use media in your presentation, follow these guidelines:

1.     For video only, add alt-text to describe the complete video.

2.     For audio only, include a text transcript of the audio and a readily accessible link to it.

3.     For audio and video together (multimedia), you must have the clip captioned.  Providing a transcript of the audio portion of a multimedia clip is not acceptable.  The reader must be able to read the caption as the video is playing.  Learn more about captioning multimedia at this site: Captioning Overview and Tutorial.

Add Alt-Text

Right click on the first non-text object, click on Format, click on the Web Tab (skip this step for PPT 97) and enter the alternative text for this object.  Imagine describing the object to someone over the telephone.  Enter how you would describe it.  Repeat this for all non-text objects in the entire presentation.

Check the Object Order

Items on a slide are read in the order that they are added to the slide.  If you have any slides that you’re unsure about the order, use the Tab key in the slide view.  Each press of the tab key selects the next shape in sequence.  The tile and text should be the first items listed.  If any of your objects are not in the desired order, use the Draw, Order commands to move them forward and backward in the stacking order.  For an even easier solution, the free PPT2HTML Demo includes a layer manager that allows you to easily redefine object layering.  See KB article: The screen reader tool does not read the text of objects that you created in a PowerPoint 2003 slide in a logical order.

Set Screen Tips for Links

PowerPoint® links give you the option of adding a descriptive caption.  This is much more effective than having the reader see a long URL.  To add screen tips to your links, highlight the link, hit the CTRL-K key, click on the screen tip button and enter a meaningful short description of the link.

Set Up the Slide Show

By default, PowerPoint® allows the reader to advance through slides using the enter key, space bar, mouse click, etc.  This is a boon for persons with mobility issues.  Avoid using the browsed by an individual mode when setting up your slide show.  This restricts the advancement of slides to links that you include in the slides.   Avoid modifying slide transitions in such a way that it will hamper someone with mobility or cognitive limitations.  Try not to automatically advance slides since some persons may not have enough time to absorb the information.

Size Matters

Bigger is not always better, especially when viewing files over the web.  PowerPoint® files can quickly “bloat” as you add and delete items.   Your presentation may not be accessible if it’s too large.  It may be difficult to download for persons with slower connections.  Images and sound files can add a lot of unnecessary weight to your files.  Use them prudently and only when they add value.  Visit the PPT FAQ Site for information about decreasing the size of your presentationNX PowerLite and RnR PPTools Optimizer are personal favorites for optimizing images in presentations.


Download the PPT2HTML converter.  Follow the directions to alter or expand the alt-text for your images.  Experiment with other features of the program to decide which work best for you.  The most important thing is to label all images appropriately and save at least a text only version.  When labeling the images, imagine describing them over the telephone to someone.  This is what you should enter for the alt-text.

Test the Presentation

Download PowerTalk.  PowerTalk provides a very good approximation of how the presentation will sound with a screen reader.  It is also an accessibility tool in it’s own right and it’s available for free.  Please note; PowerTalk requires PowerPointâ 2000 or higher to work properly.  Run the presentation using PowerTalk and listen carefully to the flow of your presentation.

If you’re fortunate enough to have Adobe Acrobat, convert the presentation to a PDF file.  Using Adobe, save the PDF file as an RTF (Rich Text Format) file and use the Read Aloud feature to verify text flow.  Find out more about Adobe Acrobat and Accessibility at http://access.adobe.com.

Sharing Accessible Presentations

Increase your presentation’s accessibility by making it available in multiple formats.  This allows the reader to choose the format that is most comfortable for him or her.  Always include a link to download the viewers for the posted formats.

The Formats


Save your file as PPT or PPS. Do not password protect the file. Some Screen Readers cannot access password-protected files. Include a link on the same page to the PowerPoint 2003 Viewer.  Include a link on the same page to PowerTalk.


Use PPT2HTML to create a text-only HTML page.  PPT2HTML allows you greater flexibility in creating your web pages.

Or using PowerPoint, save the PowerPoint presentation as a TXT file.  This will create the outline only.  You’ll need to modify the text file to include alternative text, etc.


Use Adobe Acrobat to create a PDF file.  Do not password protect the file.  Some Screen Readers cannot access password-protected files.  Include a link on the same page to the Adobe Reader.  Some alternative software for creating PDF files are listed on the How Do I Make A PDF? page of the PPT FAQ site.  If you choose alternative software for creating PDF files, make sure it will convert your slide titles to bookmarks and your alt-text to accessible tags.  If the software doesn’t do these things for you, you need to “retrofit” the PDF file.  See this Reflow The Contents Of Adobe PDF tutorial to learn more.  You need to register one time to access the Adobe tutorials.


Save the Adobe PDF file as a Rich Text Format (RTF).


Use the PowerPoint® Web Wizard to create XML web pages.  Go to the PowerPoint FAQ site.  This page lists a lot of information about PowerPoint’s “Save As Web Page” feature.  Be sure to check out the Optimize PowerPoint's HTML for Netscape Navigator page (PPT 2000 and higher).  This page tells you how to create the most accessible version.  It also lists the shortcomings.

WAI/508 Compliant HTML

HiSoftware Desktop Office Add-Ins will create either Section 508 or WAI Fully Compliant Web pages from a PowerPoint presentation.  Some knowledge of HTML code is required.

Captioned Multimedia

For the truest representation of your presentation, consider one of the following:

·       Camtasia

·       Impatica

Remember to close caption multimedia files and post viewers to match the media format.  For example, post links to Real Player, Windows Media Player, QuickTime, etc. for viewing the different multimedia files.

Microsoft Agents (Talking Characters)

And for a fun twist, consider using VoxProxy.  With VoxProxy, you easily program walking, talking, dancing, prancing characters to give your presentations for you.

The Delivery Methods


Posting files to the web is the easiest method of widely distributing your presentation in multiple formats.  On your web page, enter the name of your presentation and clearly identify the links to the different formats.  Don’t forget to include links to all the appropriate viewers.


CDs present more of a challenge for multiple formats.  One method is to create an autorun CD and include the additional formats on the CD as well. You can also create a menu in HTML with links to all the formats.  This would be the most accessible method.


When sharing files through email, it’s best if you know your recipient’s preferences.  Send only the format that works best for your recipient.  Or you can be even kinder and email the file links instead of the files themselves.

A Few More Thoughts

As technology advances, accessibility is likely to decrease as an issue.  Section 508 helps to ensure that vendors will consider accessibility in the creation of new products.  I’m whole-heartedly looking forward to the invention of Smell-O-Vision, but I really dread having to describe the all those chocolate scented presentations I’ll create.  I think a link that says, “drool here” should cover it.

Set It Free

I consider this a living document.  By that, I mean it isn’t finalized.  It will always be a work-in-progress and I will strive to keep it as current as possible.   Please feel free to send any information you might have about accessible PowerPoint® presentations to me via my web site.   

Speaking of Accessible

Join the PowerPoint NewsGroup.  They’re a group of friendly people who answer your questions and help solve your PowerPointâ problems. All you need to do is post a message.


Was this tutorial helpful?  Please feel free to share your comments &/or suggestions.

This article is translated to Serbo-Croatian language by Vera Djuraskovic from Webhostinggeeks.com.

Copyright, January 2005, Glenna R. Shaw

This document may be freely distributed “as is” for non-commercial purposes.