powerpoint presentation with presenter wearing a mask

Designing Accessible Presentations in PowerPoint

Author: Nicholas Hoekstra

The PowerPoint presentation is ubiquitous in classrooms around the world, and for good reason. PowerPoint is a powerful multimedia software that allows teachers to present information in dynamic ways, using text, images, art, and videos. But as with any format, PowerPoint can be made more or less accessible depending on the choices made when building your presentation. Fortunately, the same elements that have made PowerPoint so popular –ready to use templates, an easy-to-read format, multimedia capabilities, flexibility to print, and emailing or recording a presentation – also make PowerPoint a perfect candidate for the application of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In this post, I will discuss ways to insure your PowerPoint Presentation is accessible and engaging. I will also provide links to resources where you can learn more.

Laying the Foundations: Picking the Right Template

Step one in designing a PowerPoint presentation is to insure you are using an Accessible template. You can find a series of accessible templates by searching “accessible template” from within the PowerPoint application under File > New > Search for Online Templates and Themes. Accessible templates have two important features, including:

  • There is high contrast between the background color and text.
  • The background design is simple, without distracting designs.

A high contrast between a slide’s text and background color can help people with reading difficulties better make out the writing. The Dyslexia Friendly Style Guide recommends dark lettering atop a cream or pastel-colored background. It is suggested to avoid using white, as this can be too dazzling, as well as green and red or pink, which can be difficult for individuals with color blindness.

Another, more mysterious factor to keep in mind is the presentation’s reading order. When a person reads a slide using a screen reader, they will typically use the tab key to move from one object in a slide to the next. The reading order helps direct assistive technology to make the jump to the appropriate next item on your slide. Accessible slides have a logical reading order set. But if you design your own slides, or move around the elements on an existing slide, the best practice is to double-check that everything is in good “reading” order. You can check a slide’s reading order under Review > Accessibility.

Picking the Fonts and Spacing

Now that you have an accessible template with high contrast, a simple background, and a logical reading order, let’s turn our attention to the text. To provide the best readability for people with print impairments, keep the following in mind:

  • Use a simple, or familiar, san serif font;
  • Use a minimum font size of 16 or 18pts – for presentations that will be shared – or 24pts when presenting to a classroom;
  • Avoid underlining or italics;
  • Avoid writing words in all-caps;
  • And use line spacing of 1.5.

In addition, it is important to ensure that each slide has a title. This will help people using a screen reader to more quickly navigate your presentation, especially if you decide to save it in another text format in the future.

Once you have chosen your font and spacing, it’s time to fill your presentation with information…

Oh! But wait!

Try not to overload your presentation with too much content:

  • Use short sentences that capture essential information;
  • Use numbered or bulleted lists to organize ideas;
  • Images, charts, and videos can also support learning and increase engagement, which brings us to our next point…

Tables, Images, and Videos, Oh My!

It’s the multimedia capabilities that really put the “power” into PowerPoint. Tables, images, sound, and video content can help provide multiple means of representation and engagement in a UDL presentation.

(1) Tables

Tables can be an organized and concise way to present data. The best first step in making sure your tables are accessible to people using assistive technology is to avoid inserting tables as images. Instead, you can create your tables directly in PowerPoint.

Some rules of thumb to follow when creating a table are:

  • Keep the table format simple, avoiding split or merged cells;
  • Make sure to provide each column and row with a “header” (name) so it’s clear what the data represents;
  • Follow the same rules regarding font types, text size, and color contrast as you would with other text.

Labeling each column and row with a header ensures that a screen reader will accurately describe the position of data to a visually impaired user. From inside a table in PowerPoint, look under the Table Tools > Table Design menu and ensure that “Header Rows” and “First Column” boxes are checked. This indicates to a screen reader that the first row of cells represents column names and that the first column of cells represents the row names.

(2) Charts and Images

Whenever presenting information in a chart or image, it is important to include alternative text (alt text) or image descriptions for blind or visually impaired readers who may not otherwise gain access to the information in your graphic. On their e-learning homepage, the Perkins School for the Blind provides some great advice on How to Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions for the Visually Impaired.

The key is to describe the essential details in a minimum of words while avoiding overly poetic language or obvious information. There is an art to it, much like:

A half-length portrait of a woman wearing a dark, simple dress with a pleated bodice standing against a natural background. Her hands rest in front of her, one atop the other, supported on something we cannot make out. The woman smiles enigmatically’. Her brown hair falls to her shoulders.

[A half-length portrait of a woman wearing a dark, simple dress with a pleated bodice standing against a natural background. Her hands rest in front of her, one atop the other, supported on something we cannot make out. The woman smiles enigmatically’. Her brown hair falls to her shoulders.]

(3) Audio/Visual media

Audio clips or short videos are an excellent way to increase engagement and add information to a PowerPoint. It’s important to remember, however, that these multimedia elements are not inherently accessible to all students.

  • Audio clips: Always include a transcript of any audio clip you use during your presentation, so that individuals with hearing impairments can gain access to the same information.
  • Videos: Whether they be clips from YouTube or videos uploaded from your own collection, videos require captioning or subtitles for individuals who may not be able to hear or understand the video’s message. In the case of a silent video, audio narration is similarly required for individuals who cannot see. This video about inclusive sports in Brazil provides an excellent example of audio narration and captioning that makes a Portuguese video accessible to an English-speaking audience.

Delivery or Take-Out

Finally, we cannot ignore the mode of presentation. It is always good practice to provide a copy of your PowerPoint to members of your audience. This will allow people to follow along while you speak. In addition, keep in mind these tips while presenting:

  • Speak clearly and at a moderate pace;
  • Do not turn your back to your audience;
  • Ask questions throughout your presentation to ensure your audience understands and is following along;
  • Make sure to describe any tables, charts or images that you refer to when speaking (even if these items include alt text in your shared presentation, some individuals may prefer to listen to you without also navigating a document);
  • And even if a graphic is intended as a joke and provides no substantive information, it’s nice to describe such images so that every member of the audience can enjoy the humor – whether they be visually impaired and unable to see the image, or not have the cultural context to understand the joke.

If your PowerPoint has been designed with accessibility features in mind, you can easily save your presentation as a PDF file that can be shared with students. This provides students the opportunity to follow along while you speak, increasing engagement, or refer back to your presentation at a later time.

Before you Go

This post has provided an overview of the important features to keep in mind when preparing a PowerPoint Presentation to ensure that it is both engaging as well as accessible. Microsoft PowerPoint offers an Accessibility Checker, which can be used to catch many common accessibility mistakes. There is no substitution for understanding, though, so if you would like to learn more about this topic, consider checking out these PowerPoint accessibility guides by WebAIM (Web-Accessibility in Mind) or Microsoft Office.