Universal Design: PowerPoint Accessibility

Years ago I learned to avoid red, green, and yellow on PowerPoint presentations because these colors are difficult to distinguish for color-blind viewers. And, let’s be real, yellow font should never be used on a presentation and green and red are often hard to see on a presentation even for those of us who can see the full color spectrum. This is just good advice all around. Actually, this fits right into the idea of universal design.


I attended the 2013 ASA Section on Teaching and Learning Pre-Conference Workshop, “Universal Design: Interrogating Inequality in Learning.” The theme of the workshop was centered on moving from accommodating students with disabilities to making the classroom accessible to all. For example, avoiding red, green, and yellow on PowerPoints isn’t just accommodating color-blind students, but makes the PowerPoint presentation accessible to all. I don’t have to work so hard at reading your yellow font and can instead focus on your message. The goal is to move beyond accommodations by focusing on accessibility and therefore, reaching more students almost by default.


Universal design emerged from architecture. My favorite example from architecture has to be drinking fountain placement. By placing drinking fountains at an appropriate height for someone in a wheelchair, children also benefit because they can now more easily reach the drinking fountain, too. The original intent may have been to accomodate one type of person, but the unintended benefit is that other groups are also better able to reach the drinking fountain.


So, back to the PowerPoints. I must admit, that my PowerPoints are only accessible based on color-scheme. That’s it. I didn’t realize that there is more to having accessible PowerPoints until I attended this workshop. In my notes, I scribbled “black & white/high contrast” and “test access in ppt.” So, I found information on how to Check for Accessibility Issues. The PowerPoint presentation I made on Friday fails the test. I have an image on every slide without alternative text and no titles. To be fair, this presentation should actually be a screencast video, but I have not figured out how to do that on my Android tablet (which students are using in the class). The PowerPoint presentation was a compromise. I took screenshots of each step and then typed out what I would have said in the video. It isn’t perfect, but it will do for now. I know what I need to do to fix it, and that is now on my to-do list. (The alternative text will be an easy fix. The titles are trickier on this particular presentation or this would be done already because I almost always use titles. I might even just do an audio recording over a slideshow of the photos.) Of course, some will say that I should just do away with PowerPoint altogether. I disagree. PowerPoint can be useful, though most often PowerPoint is just misused.


While using the Check for Accessibility Issues feature is useful, this is after the presentation has been created. I’m all about doing things right the first time. So, Creating Accessible PowerPoint Presentations (also PowerPoint tips from Penn State) is helpful reading to make beneficial adjustments from the start.


Why is universal design important? I have students (and you do to) who may not realize they have a disability. Or, they know they do and do not want to be treated differently so refuse some or all of the accommodations they have a right to. Making the classroom accessible to all helps you reach these students. Moreover, it makes you better able to reach those students without disabilities, too. Think about it. Titles on PowerPoints not only help you reach those students who are having the slides read to them, but also those who are reading the slides themselves. Titles help the listener/viewer to follow the logic of the presentation. I really like the idea of making the classroom accessible from the start rather than layering in accommodations after the fact.