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Tips for Making Documents Accessible for All Students

By Jennifer Snelling
February 2, 2022
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Imagine spending hours on a PowerPoint presentation for your class, adding all the pretty colors that will make it pop. You spend extra time squeezing in all the text details and editing to ensure all the information is there for your students. Now, imagine that someone in your class can’t see the presentation.

“The most common mistake I see is that people dont understand how accessibility translates for documents,” says Julie Johnson, assistive technology specialist for Special School District of St. Louis County in Missouri. “Visually impaired people get hit hardest by documents.”

Johnson has worked in accessibility for 16 years in public schools. She also designs instruction for nonprofits and other organizations. She says people forget to apply what they know about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to documents.

“If someone is left out of a document, what are we communicating about who we value?” she asks. “I have first-hand experience seeing what it does to people not to have what they need to participate. There’s grief behind it. It’s a lonely experience when they can’t see what everyone else can see.”

To make your documents accessible for all, here are some of Johnson’s top tips.

1. Organize for everyone

Formatting your content in a logical way makes it more readable for everyone, not just those who are visually impaired. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Put things in logical order.

For example, put a description before the link. This simple change makes things easier for anyone navigating the document using a screen reader.

Write descriptive headlines.

Readers should be able to quickly scan a page and easily find what they are looking for. Make sure sections are clearly and concisely labeled. 

Break content into lists.

Using bulleted and numbered lists also helps readers scan and find the sections they are interested in. 

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2. Present for Readability

If any of these suggestions offend your design sensibility, consider making a separate accessible version.

Font matters.

Use Arial or sans-serif fonts, which are easiest to read.

Consider text size.

The size of your text should be readable with a magnifier, ideally12-14 points or larger.

Go for contrast.

Don’t use yellow, green, reds and oranges for text or backgrounds because those colors provide less contrast, making them harder to see.

“When people put yellow text on an orange background or yellow text on a cream background, users with low vision or any acuity needs report back that this impacts their contrast sensitivity of a digital document or presentation,” Johnson says.

In addition, these colors can disorder photos on an iPad in dark mode (an accessibility feature on the iPad). This also happens in the invert option on Chromebook. 

3. Use accessible formats

Many visually impaired people use a screen reader, such as JAWS, to read with a text-to-speech output.

Choose the best platform.

When creating documents that a visually impaired person will need to use a screen reader for, Microsoft Word is preferable because it has the most reliable navigation response to keyboard commands. Other programs tend to jump around. Even when Johnson creates a document in another format, she takes the time to create another version in Word. “It’s totally worth that extra effort to make someone feel welcome and seen,” she says.

Stick with PDFs.

Only share original PDFs. A screen reader does not read screenshots or scanned copies.

4. Get a second opinion

Use an accessibility checker.

Always run your presentation through an accessibility checker, such as Wave. This will tell you, for instance, if the color from your slides passes the ADA accessibility standards. Be sure to run the check on various devices – computer, phone, tablet – since the reading might change depending on the device.

Used pre-installed screen readers.

Mac users should run documents through VoiceOver, a pre-installed screen-reader. Narrator is a screen-reading app that's built into Windows 10.

Ask the target audience.

If feasible, have people with disabilities test your documents. If you don’t know any visually impaired people, look to a rehab institute that may have people who can read through your docs or presentation and give you tips. It’s also a good opportunity for people with visual imparities to practice self-advocacy, Johnson says.

Solicit feedback.

Offer a space on your website, feedback forms or event marketing for people with disabilities to advocate for themselves. “Accessibility and usability are relational,” Johnson says. “This relational approach to accessibility can help us create that culture of belonging all while creating a simple Google Slide.”

ISTE members interested in learning more can watch the recording of the ISTE Expert Webinar Creating for All: The Accessible Document.

Bright ideas delivered in 30 minutes! Watch ISTE Member webinars now!

Jennifer Snelling (@jdsnelljennifer) is a blogger from Eugene, Oregon, who writes about educators using technology to empower students and change the way we learn.