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Five issues to avoid for accessible presentations

Learn how to duck them with these techniques.

You spent a lot of time creating and rehearsing your presentation. So why would you automatically exclude up to 20% of your audience by not ensuring that it’s accessible?

Five common accessibility presentation problems — the frustrating five — can thwart your attempts to enlighten your listeners. Rest easy. This article identifies these troublesome issues, then details the techniques you can use to avoid the issues, whether you are using IBM® Symphony® or Microsoft® PowerPoint®.

Identifying the ‘Frustrating Five’

These are the five accessibility issues you must be aware of when using presentation software:

Use the following techniques to avoid these “frustrating five.”

1. Grouping images

Sometimes an image may look like a single item on the page but it’s actually comprised of multiple items. To tell if an image is really many smaller items, focus on the image and press the Tab key. If the image is grouped properly, the focus will move to the next item on the page. And, you will see only one bounding rectangle for that image. An improperly grouped object shows multiple bounding rectangles and causes the focus to move to all the smaller items as you continue to press the Tab key.

To fix this problem in Symphony:

To fix this problem in PowerPoint:

Alternatively, you can save the image as a .jpg file and import or insert it in the presentation.

2. Adding alt text

Screen readers read text. They cannot “read” images. You can help your audience by providing a description (alt text) of the image that the screen reader can speak.

Add alt text if an image adds meaning to your presentation. Do not add alt text if the image is word art or if the image is used just for visual effect.

To add alt text in Symphony:

To add alt text in PowerPoint:

3. Creating accessible tables

Users must be able to understand the purpose of a table, and navigate the data within the table. Sighted users can see what data matches to column and row headers. But, because screen readers read in a certain order, someone using assistive technology may be confused if the table is not created correctly.


To create accessible tables in Symphony:

To create accessible tables in PowerPoint:

4. Avoiding using text formatting or color to convey meaning

Presentations that use text formatting or color alone to convey meaning can be inaccessible. Always provide a redundant way to get the same information.

Incorrect example: “Refer to my comments in bold.”
Accessible example: “Refer to my comments in bold, prefaced with my initials SK.”

Incorrect example: “Verify you have completed items in green.”
Accessible example: “Verify you have completed the items with the green asterisk.”

In these examples, a sighted user is able to use color as a cue. A person who has a vision impairment can use the redundant clue, whether it’s the initials or the asterisk.

Also, use high contrast between the page text and background in your document. For example, black text on a white background works well, but light gray text on a white background does not.

5. Setting the reading order

Objects on a presentation page are read by screen readers in the order in which they are added to the page. To see the reading order, go to a page in your presentation and start pressing the Tab key. Where the focus lands is what will be read.

To set the reading order in Symphony:

To set the reading order in PowerPoint:

Tab through your presentation to verify the reading order is correct once you’ve completed this process. Remember to set the order for page titles and sub-titles.

Summary of techniques

Here’s a little cheat sheet of techniques.

Feature Accessibility Technique
Grouping Images Use the Grouping-Group or Layout-Group menu option to group multiple objects into a single image
Images, Graphs, Charts Add alt text for important images; don’t for images used for visual effects
When alt text is not sufficient, add a description of the image in surrounding text
Data Tables Use the “Insert Table” or “Create Table” function to create accessible tables
Never use Tab to create data tables
Do not use patterned backgrounds in tables
Text Formats & Color Provide a redundant method when using text formatting to convey meaning
Use styles (lists) to create document structure
Provide a redundant method when using color to convey meaning
Reading order Explicitly specify the reading order of objects on the page using Order-Send to Back or Arrange-Send to Back. Another option is to create a new slide and add the objects in the correct order
Use unique titles for each slide or add “cont.” or “1 of n”

We also created the following quick reference cards for creating accessible Symphony and Office documents:

Testing the Presentation

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