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Accessible Presentations: Digital and Live

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Canvas works to maintain accessibility, ensuring that menus and navigation are available to every student.  After that, it is up to the instructors to create accessible content.  You can begin by making the text you put inside description boxes accessible using the rich content editor.  In this article we go a bit deeper.  Any files you link to should also be accessible.  Slides, because we try to make them visually interesting, create some special difficulties for visually impaired students. You can make slides more accessible by starting out the right way, checking a few special things related to slides, and including descriptions of visuals when you speak.

Start in PowerPoint

It turns out that GoogleSlides doesn't have an accessibility checker, and if you use a website checker you get results that are not related to your slides but to other parts of the website.  So the easiest workflow is to create your slides in Microsoft PowerPoint.  Here are the other things you want to do as you build your PowerPoint:

  1. Turn on the Accessibility Checker from the start.  Review Tab > Accessibility Checker.  A side panel will open and review your work as you create it.  Check it after each slide and make the fixes right from the panel.
  2. Choose a preset layout for each slide.  This automatically sets the reading order and creates the headings that will let visually impaired readers navigate through the file with screen readers.  Home > Layout is where you to change layout for each slide.
  3. Give each slide a unique title.  Think of your slides as an outline.  The title is the heading that allows all your viewers to quickly scan through your slide deck and know the purpose of each slide.
  4. Keep your slides small.  Slides that are completely filled with text are difficult for all students to view, especially while you are lecturing to them.  Try the 1-6-6 rule: 1 topic, 6 bullets, each with 6 words.  If there is more you need to remember to say, add it to the presenter notes.

That is enough to get you started.  

Keep doing standard accessibility practices

Remember accessibility is just part of our work in this age of digital media.  These are things you should do for any digital work, regardless of what type of digital file you are creating.

  • Provide strong alt text for any images.  Right click image > edit alt text.  This gets easier with practice, which you can do at WebAIM: Alternative Text.
  • Convey meaning with more than font or color.  This means you do more than bold or red text color to indicate important topics.  Use words like "important note."
  • Use informative hyperlink text.  Add a hyperlink to a PowerPoint slide. Each link's text should be unique and clearly indicate where the link goes. If you are providing paper copies, you can include the actual url, but use a url shortening service if the url is long.

Check a few special things for slides

Because slides are a visual medium, we like to play with color, layout, and animations.  If you do this with your slides you have a few more things to check to ensure you don't compromise the accessibility.

  • Have text contrast at least 4.5:1 - you can put the Hex codes for background and text color into contrast checker to check the ratio.
  • Check reading order on complex slides. Home >Arrange > selection pane.  Rearrange the list to have the items read in the correct order.
  • Purposefully use animations to reveal content.  Use slow and simple appear/fade animations to reveal only the text students need when they need it.  Used effectively, animations can help focus students.

Presenting your slides

Making your slides accessible is only half the work; maintain that accessibility when you present.  Some of these suggestions are common speaking recommendations, but a few help you convey the visual meaning of your slides to visually impaired listeners while your are presenting.

  • Speak clearly, being careful not to speak too quickly.  Changes in pace and tone or volume can help maintain student interest, but be sure your words are always clearly heard.  Use the microphones available in lecture halls.
  • Describe graphics and visuals. When a slide with a image comes up describe to your class.  This can be immensely valuable to all your students as your description helps students see the image the way you see it.  Choose any images wisely; if it is truly just decorative, leave it out.
    • Pictures - Read the alt text.  Consider explaining why you chose that image.
    • Graphs - State the X and y axis of the graphs and describe the trend shown in the data line.
    • Figures - Read the title or caption and describe what you see and what is important.
  • Describe other visual cues.  Your visually impaired students cannot see what is happening in the room.  So tell them what is going on:
    • "I see confusion on your faces so let me try again."
    • "I see a few hands up with questions, so let's pause here."  Don't forget to repeat questions that are not being amplified by a microphone.
    • "About half the class choose answer C, with B coming in a close second."


Accessibility needs to be a part of the work we do every day.  Make a commitment to try a few of these the next time you make slides, or set aside an hour this week to make a practice PowerPoint while using the accessibility checker.  If you'd like more information or an example, the I've linked my best effort at an accessible PowerPoint below.  It even has a recording on one slide to demonstrate how to present your slides accessibly.