As a tool for sequencing information and illustrating the key points of a lecture, PowerPoint has become nearly ubiquitous in higher education. But for students and audience members with disabilities—especially those with blindness or vision impairments, or individuals with cognitive disability (learning disability, traumatic brain injury, etc.)—PowerPoint can present several barriers that educators need to keep in mind when creating presentations.

A universally designed PowerPoint presentation takes into account the various needs of your audience members, whether they are viewing the presentation on a laptop, a projector screen or a printed handout, or listening to it with text-to-speech software or a screen reader. The following pointers will help you create presentations that a beneficial to everyone.

Use Built-in Slide Layouts

Microsoft’s built-in slide layouts provide a correct reading order that screen reading software can detect.  Use layouts instead of drawing text boxes manually – the contents of text boxes will be ignored by software such as screen readers.

Choose a slide layout from Home > New Slide, or Home > Layout.

New slide menu on the Home ribbon

Select the layout that fits best with your content:

The slide layout selection options, with the comparison slide highlighted

Use the Fields Provided
  • Use only the fields included in the slide layout.
  • Avoid drawing your own text boxes to add more content. If you do add text boxes, make sure to check the slide reading order.
  • It’s OK to leave fields unused, except for the title field.
A Unique Title for Each Slide

Each slide should have a title, and it should be unique and descriptive so that you can get the gist of the presentation from the outline view.

  • Use the Click to add title field on every slide.
  • Other fields can be left empty, but not the title field.
  • Even if the entire slide is covered by an image, have a title behind it.

Click to add title field on slide layout

Reading order is important to consider for content that isn't linear. It applies to the more heavily visual layouts such as websites and PowerPoint presentations, as well as to PDF documents with columns, images, or forms. Setting the reading order allows text-to-speech or screen reading software to read the information in a logical order. It also ensures that links and form fields can be tabbed through sequentially for users who navigate with a keyboard or screen reader.

On the Home Ribbon, Select the Arrange drop-down menu.

Arrange dropdown menu on the Home Ribbon

Click on Selection Pane at the bottom of the Arrange menu.

Selection pane is the choice at the bottom of the drop-down menu

The Selection Pane will appear on the right side of the document. This lists each element on the slide and the order in which it will be read.

Important! The reading order starts at the bottom and moves upwards.

Click on an element in the Selection Pane to see the corresponding element highlighted in the slide.

In the following screenshot, the Title will not be read first, since it is not at the bottom of the list. Content Placeholder 2 will be read first.

Selection pane showing arrows for moving the elements into the correct order

To fix the reading order, Select Title 1 and Click the down arrow at the top right corner of the Selection pane to move it down to the bottom of the list.

Click on each item, going from bottom to top, and adjust the order as necessary. This process needs to be done on every slide.

Tip: Newer documents using slide layouts will be much less work than older documents that have been re-used and updated year after year. To save time on fixing the reading order, transfer your content to a new document made with a version 2013 template and slide layouts.

Images convey information quickly and powerfully—assuming they can been seen and understood. However, some readers may not understand the meaning of the image; others may not be able to see it due to visual impairment, personal viewing preferences (especially on the web), or technological limitations.

Alternate text (“alt text” or "alt tag") is added to an image to provide a textual alternative to visual information. Why is this important? Remember, some users won’t see your information; instead, they’ll hear it using text-to-speech or screen-reading software. By adding an alt text to an image, you make its meaning available to people who, for whatever reason, cannot see it.

Alternate text should be added to all non-text elements, including:

  • Pictures
  • Graphs
  • Charts
  • Tables
  • Microsoft Office SmartArt

Make alternate text meaningful to a listener:

  1. What is the context of the image? What meaning does it add to the page?
  2. Be concise. Describe only what you expect visual users to get out of the image.
  3. If the image is already described in the surrounding text, the alt text can be very short.
  4. Avoid redundant statements like “Image of” or “This is a picture of.” Simply state what it is.
  5. If an image is purely decorative, mark it as such (various methods depending on software).
Alternate Text: Office 2013 & Later

Note: Sometimes images that are downloaded from the web have “junk” alternate text (usually a long file name). Make sure to manually check every image.

Right-click on the image, then select Format Picture from the menu. (This menu option may be Format Shape on other types of graphics).

Format picture is the last choice in the image context menu

A Format Picture menu will open in the document pane to the right. Select the Layout and Properties tab, the third option in the Format Picture Pane.

Format picture sidebar showing the layout & properties tab

If it is not expanded already, open the Alt Text menu by clicking on the arrow.

Type the alt text in the Description box. Ignore the Title field, since it will not be read by a screen reader.

Alt text description field

Alternate Text: Office 2010 & Earlier

Right-click on the image to get the "Format Picture" menu option.
Image context menu. Format Picture is the last option.

Click on the "Alt Text" menu on the bottom left.

The text goes in the "Description" section on the right (not the "Title" section).

Format picture menu. Alt text is the last item.

To format links in Microsoft Office, Select the link text. On the Insert Ribbon, click Hyperlink.

Insert ribbon showing hyperlink option

Type the text that will actually be displayed in your document in the Text to Display field.

Type the actual link in the Address field. This is the link that will be followed.

Insert hyperlink window showing text to display

To set the header row on a table in PowerPoint, first Select the entire table.

Select the Design tab in the ribbon under Table Tools.

Check the checkbox titled Header Row at the top left of the Design ribbon.

Table Design ribbon with Header Row checkbox checked.

How do you know which colors will have enough contrast to be universally readable? One approach, of course, is to play it safe and stick to black and white, which are the default colors in applications like Microsoft Word. But color is an important—some would say essential—design element of slide presentations and the Web. So, which colors are best?

When text is placed against a solid color background, we recommend you use the Colour Contrast Analyser (CCA) by the Paciello Group to determine whether the contrast ratio passes the WCAG 2.0 standards. This free tool helps you “determine the legibility of text and the contrast of visual elements” using color contrast criteria established in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. The tool also simulates certain visual conditions, including dichromatic color-blindness and cataracts, to demonstrate how your web content appears to people with less than 20/20 vision. Use the CCA eyedropper tool to select foreground and background colors. The results display immediately below.

In the following example, we’ve run the CCA on a website designed with orange headings, gray text, and blue link text.

website with poor contrast between headings and background

For this website, the CCA reports insufficient contrast between orange text and the white background. You would want to select a darker orange color from the drop-down color palette.

Colour Contrast Analyser, showing insufficient contrast between orange headings and white background

When we check the gray text against white background, the CCA shows mixed results. This color combination passes at the "AA" standard, but not the more stringent "AAA" standard, which is the goal for most university and public websites. A darker gray would be better.

Colour Contrast Analyser showing mixed results with gray text on white background

Finally, we test the blue link text against the white background. This combination of colors fails both the “AA” and “AAA” standards for normal text sizes, as well as the “AAA” test for larger sizes. It passes only the “AA” standard for large text. A darker blue is required for universal readability.

Colour Contrast Analyser showing failure with blue colored link text on a white background

Microsoft Office has a built-in tool that generates a report on the accessibility of a document. The tool is available in both Word and PowerPoint.

Note: The checker will not recognize “junk” alternate text, so it is still important to check images manually. Double-check that the alternate text is meaningful.

The Accessibility Checker is located under File > Info > Check for Issues > Check Accessibility.

Check for issues dropdown menu