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How to Make an Accessible PowerPoint Presentation

December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This tutorial is part of a Envato Tuts+ effort designed to focus on including and accommodating those with disabilities as we create content.

According to the UN, one billion people worldwide (15% of the entire population) live with a disability. Using a computer is practically a necessity in modern society, but it can be significantly more difficult for those with disabilities. 

Luckily, there are applications that help the disabled make the most of content. Screen reader apps help bridge the gap for the visually impaired, for example. If we set up files like PowerPoint presentations correctly, the screen reader can deliver a better experience to those with disabilities.

What Does Accessibility Mean?

We all have a responsibility to consider the accessibility of the files we create.

To me, accessibility means that we do everything we can as creatives to help those with disabilities use and enjoy our content. In this tutorial, we’ll talk about making a PowerPoint presentation that’s accessible to persons with disabilities.

Accessibility means that you make your PowerPoint presentation usable for those with disabilities. You can incorporate tools to help everyone use and enjoy our PowerPoint presentation.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn more about how those with visual disabilities rely on screen readers to use apps like PowerPoint and what you can do to help make it as easy as possible.

Visual Accessibility for PowerPoint

Earlier, I mentioned the usefulness of apps like screen readers that narrate what’s on a computer screen for the visually impaired.

However, those apps need our help. They rely on reading the “alternative text” (commonly called alt text) for images, video, and other content. If we can provide alt text for key items, screen readers will read those descriptions. Someone using a screen reader will hear the alternative text to help them understand what’s on screen.

Let’s talk about two visual disabilities that we can accommodate in PowerPoint and the best features to make our content accessible.

Visual Impairment PowerPoint Presentation (Including Limited Vision)

PowerPoint is an inherently visual app, but that doesn’t mean that we can forget about the visually impaired. There are tools built into both Windows and macOS that read your content out loud for you.

VoiceOver in Mac, for example, helps the impaired by acting as a narrator for what’s on screen.

Voiceover for Mac
Voiceover is built into macOS Accessibility settings and helps the visually impaired understand what’s on-screen.

To accommodate blindness, we really need set up text for non-text objects. Let’s learn a bit more about how to do that in PowerPoint:

1. Add Alt Text for Images

Screen readers rely on having text to read to the visually impaired. For visual content like images, we need to add alt text to each object.

To add alt text to an image, right click on it and choose Edit Alt Text. PowerPoint will open a sidebar dedicated to adding a description to the image. Microsoft recommends adding one to two sentences to describe an image. This is the text that a screen reader will read out, so use plain English and full sentences:

Set alt text for image in PowerPoint
Right click on an image and set a description in the sidebar.

Taking a minimal step like this can really benefit the visually impaired. Setting alt text for all of the images leads to a more complete experience with a screen reader.

2. Add Alt Text for Other Objects

Images should be the focus of adding alt text, but don’t forget about other non-text elements that you may need to cue the screen reader on.

You can actually set alt text for practically any item inside a PowerPoint presentation. Let’s take a table, for example. I’m going to right click on the table and choose Format Shape. Then, in the sidebar, make sure to click on Shape Options, and scroll down to find the Alt Text box:

Alt Text for Tables in PowerPoint
You can set alt text for a variety of content, including tables.

Just as we did with the image, we can add a couple of sentences that explains the chart. It’s not necessary to totally replicate the data in the chart. The screen reader automatically reads the text in the chart, plus the alt text you’ve added in the sidebar.

You can repeat this same approach for other content in your slides. Make sure every non-text object has some description of what it contains.

3. Set the Reading Order

Screen reading apps also rely on knowing what order the items on a slide should be read. Your PowerPoint presentation likely has a variety of objects, and it helps to prompt the screen reader to know what order to read the content in.

To do this, we need to go to the Home tab on PowerPoint’s ribbon, find the Design section, click on Arrange, and choose Selection Pane:

Selection Pane PPTX Order and Sequence
To set the order that a screen reader will interpret the content, open the Selection Pane from the Arrange dropdown.

Now, you’ll see a new option on the right side of PowerPoint’s interface. This option has a line for each of the objects on your slide. Each chart, table, text box, and more will be on a line. Your goal is to put these in an order that matches the order that the audience would read the content:

Move up slide title
On the right side of window, I’m simply going to drag and drop the Slide Title above the Table so that a screen reader would read the title first.

To reorder them, simply drag and drop into the order that the screen reader should address the content.

Try to set these items in a natural reading order. The title should come first, then the supporting points in a natural order.

Color Blindness PowerPoint Presentation

Perhaps one of the most overlooked disabilities is color blindness. Research says that as much as 8% of men and 0.5% of all women are impacted by some form of color blindness.

Color blindness doesn’t simply mean that your audience sees your presentation in plain back and white. In fact, many types of color blindness still allow for perception of differences in color, just not in the same way that those with normal vision will.

To accommodate color blindness, it’s crucial to consider the color scheme and contrast of the presentation’s theme. To do that, it’s great to simulate how your presentations will appear for various forms of color blindness.

The NIH has a great read about the science behind how color blindness works, and the frequency that these occur at. Common types of color blindness include:

  • Red-green color blindness
  • Blue-yellow color blindness
  • Complete color blindness

Each of these types of color blindness causes the presentation to appear differently to the viewer. It’s important that you test the presentation under each of these versions to see how the slide will appear for others:

Sim Daltonism Preview in PowerPoint
In this screenshot, you can see how an app like Sim Daltonism can be used to preview color blindness to ensure that the presentation is easy to read.

In general, you want to make sure that you use contrasting and non-conflicting colors. Red and green pair poorly together, for example, for those with Deuteranopia (red-green color blindness.)

The example below is a great example of how challenging color blindness can be. While red text on a green background is “readable enough” (if not a bit ugly) for normal vision, a simulated version of Deuteranopia (red-green color blindness) illustrates how problematic this is:

Simulate Red-green Color Blindness
Deuteranopia should be previewed to ensure that your presentation is viewable even to those with red-green colorblindness. 

Here are the apps and services you can use to preview your presentation under various conditions:

  • On Mac, you can use the free Sim Daltonism to help you test your presentation with various color adjustments.
  • For Windows users, try out Color Oracle to preview content with color blindness simulated in the presentation.
  • If you don’t want to install an app on your computer, try out Coblis, a website where you can upload JPEG versions of your slides and preview them with several color styles that simulate color blindness.

Tip: Record Audio Narration for Full Vision Loss

A proportion of your audience may experience full vision loss. In those cases, it’s a challenge to adapt your PowerPoint presentation, but it’s still possible! You can use recorded audio narrating your presentation to help your audience.

PowerPoint supports recording and embedding narration right inside of the PPTX file. For those with complete visual disabilities, taking the time to record a narration for your presentation is a huge help.

Just remember: your audience may also have issues with hearing as well. If you go to the trouble of recording audio, make sure you also provide a written version of that narration.

For a full guide on adding audio narration to your presentation, check out the guide below.

How to Use the Accessibility Checker

PowerPoint actually has a built-in tool that can help us check a presentation’s accessibility. It’ll help us scan for content in the presentation that doesn’t have alt text, for example. This is the quickest way to review the presentation and find the gaps to fill when it comes to PowerPoint accessibility.

1. To check your PowerPoint presentation’s accessibility, jump over to the Review tab, and find the Check Accessibility button. Click on it to have PowerPoint scan your presentation for gaps to fill on accessibility:

PowerPoint Check Accessibility feature
Use the Check Accessibility option on the Review tab to automatically review the presentation for any accessibility issues.

2. On the right side, PowerPoint builds a list of all content that’s missing accessibility features. Click on each one of these to work your way through adding the missing PowerPoint accessibility features, like adding alt text or setting a reading order:

Check Accessibility Results shown in sidebar
After you run the Check Accessibility tool, PowerPoint returns a list of potential accessibility options and where they exist in your presentation in the sidebar.

Recap & Keep Learning

There’s no shortage of features and tools to learn in Microsoft PowerPoint. Balance each of these with the need for PowerPoint accessibility to ensure that your presentation can be enjoyed by all.

Check out these tutorials to learn more about PowerPoint, but don’t forget to use what you’ve learned about accessibility with each of these.

Need Help? Get the Guide to Making Great Presentations
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Making Great Presentations
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Complete Guide to Making Great Presentations

How do you accommodate persons with disabilities when giving a presentation? Let me know in the comments section below.