Creating Accessible Content

Creating accessible content is foundational in having a learning environment that offers equal education to all students. Along with the following eight ways to make your content more accessible, you can refer to more specific instructions for creating accessible Word documents, PDFs, PDFs with fillable forms, PowerPoint presentations, and Microsoft Forms.

Eight Steps to Make Your Content More Accessible

Structure Headings and Lists Using Built-In Features

When creating documents and other digital materials, consider accessibility from the beginning. Use the built-in heading and list styles within the editor instead of changing the size of normal text or adding dashes to a list of items. If you use PowerPoint, use the built-in slide layouts and their content placeholders in the order in which you want the content to be read. For instructors, Blackboard Ally is a useful tool for checking the accessibility of uploaded documents (but does not check content within the editor).

Refer to the Creating Accessible Electronic Content cheat sheets from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education for tips on making accessible documents in a variety of programs.

When adding links to your materials, make sure the linked text is contextual and descriptive. For example, instead of typing “click here for more information about how to make accessible PDFs”, it would be better for all readers to say something like “Learn more about how to make PDFs accessible.” This approach provides context for each link using assistive technology versus the repeated call of a non-unique “click here” and provides the ability to scan a document for a specific reference. To add a link to text in your document, highlight the text you would like to link, right-click anywhere in the highlighted text and choose the “Hyperlink” option. From there, you can add a link to a web page, email address, or somewhere within the same document.

Provide Concise Text Descriptions of Content Within Images

Add appropriate alternative text to the important graphics in your documents and other online materials. The alternative text should be an objective summary of what’s shown in the graphic. Anything more complex than one or two sentences (approximately 150 characters) – such as a complex chart or diagram – should have a more detailed description directly before or after the image, not in the alternative text but as regular text in the document. Do not use the word "image" or "graphic" in the alternative text, since assistive technology will give the user that information. If the image is purely decorative, it can be marked as such in the alternative text editor in all Microsoft Office products. To add alternative text to a graphic in Word or PowerPoint, right-click on the item and choose "Edit Alt Text".

Refer to the NWEA Image Description Guidelines for Assessments document for examples of many different types of images that you might have in your assessments and documents.

Be Mindful of Tables

In order to convey the proper meaning, Tables need to have headers to clearly label the information being displayed. When editing a table, use the Table Design tab in the toolbar and make sure that the Header Row checkbox is checked. This correctly tags the first row in the table as the header row. Similarly, if the first column of cells also acts as a header for every row, the First Column checkbox should be checked. If only the top row contains headers, the First Column checkbox should not be checked. If your table is large and runs on multiple pages, select the Repeat Header Rows option on the Table Layout tab of the Ribbon.

Similar to headings and lists, you should always avoid creating table headers through visual styling alone. While it might look correct to a sighted user, it wouldn't have any semantic meaning and a screen reader would not be able to tell the user how it differentiates from regular text. Table design should also be kept as simple as possible to allow assistive technology to properly present the information to the user. Tables that present multiple headers or cells that span multiple rows and/or columns present accessibility barriers.

Document Title and Language

The document’s title is the first piece of information the user will hear when opening a document while using assistive technology. It is important to use clear and descriptive titles. To add a title to a Word or PowerPoint document on a Windows computer, go to File, followed by Info and add a title under the Properties section on the right side of the page. On a Mac, go to File, followed by Properties, then in the Summary tab you can fill in the Title field and any other relevant information such as the Language of the document’s content.

Use the Built-in Accessibility Checkers

Microsoft Office has an Accessibility Checker for identifying and repairing many accessibility issues. The checker's Inspection Results classifies accessibility issues into three categories:

  • Errors: content that makes a document very difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to access. Example: an image with no alt text.
  • Warnings: content that in most—but not all—cases makes the document difficult for people with disabilities to access. Example: a link with text that is not descriptive of its function.
  • Tips: content that people with disabilities can access, but that might be better organized or presented. Example: skipping from a first-level heading to a third-level heading.

Clicking an item in the results highlights the corresponding item in the document and displays the Additional Information section:

  • Why Fix: explains why the issue impacts accessibility.
  • How to Fix: suggestions for repairing the issue.

Caption Video and Transcribe Audio Content

When creating videos or audio digital materials, consider writing the script before recording or filming. For audio-only materials such as a podcast, a transcript is needed for those with hearing difficulties. Having a script prepared will make the process of creating the transcript simple. When making synchronized multimedia (audio and video together), think about describing what’s being shown visually while speaking. This provides an audio description – which is required along with subtitles for an accessible video – and will make the transcript descriptive for students who prefer or require a text-only version of the video.

Avoid creating PDF documents

Post most instructor-created content within LMS content pages and, if a PDF is desired, link to it only as a secondary source of the information. The most accessible course content is that presented in a text-based and structured format within the content pages in Blackboard. The next most accessible option is a well-structured Word document. PDFs are the most difficult to make accessible - even small errors in the logical structure can make the document incomprehensible to assistive technology users.