The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) has several guides on our Toolkit Shelf that are grounded in best practices toward making an equitable and accessible learning environment. We also have an entire page devoted to the (minimum) Expectations of our Faculty. And the Johns Hopkins University Office of Institutional Equity's Electronic and Information Technology site offers a bit more in terms of technical guidance (with linked resources) regarding comprehending and implementing digital accessibility. Yet, inevitably, there are still more questions when it comes to creating universally accessible artifacts. This page provides guidelines that will address some of these questions for people who are not web developers. In addition, external resources are provided for further assistance.
You're encouraged to familiarize yourself with all the guidelines on this page, however if you prefer to jump between topics please use the anchor menus below. (Use the floating "return to top" button to get back to these menus.)
Begin by Embracing These Techniques as Habits
All documents should be saved with DOCUMENT PROPERTIES. At a minimum, take a moment to enter an appropriate and logical title and keywords (tags). The document properties are descriptive metadata used to categorize files and make searching and working with documents easier for all users and all capable programs, including assistive technologies (ATs). When the document properties are set to include an accurate title and keyword tags, a lot can be determined about a file without ever opening it. This is especially important for users whose individual circumstances—from technology to physical limitations—make seemingly simple tasks into complex ones.
Structure and Formatting
Consider how difficult it would be to read a book that was written in only plain text with no title page, chapters, page numbers, nor even paragraph breaks. This level of effort, and inevitable confusion, is avoided by properly formatting a document to give it STRUCTURE. Document structure is the scaffolding that organizes the parts of a document (sections, paragraphs, bulleted lists, etc.) so that it appears a certain way and is easier to understand and navigate. When a document is structured and formatted correctly, its clarity is maintained across different platforms and technologies. As one example, a PowerPoint file that is structured and formatted correctly will still make sense whether it is saved as a PDF or exported as a rich text file.
Beyond effecting the appearance, navigation, and clarity of a document, formatting also allows ATs to define similar elements and understand relationships between elements. For instance, with a properly structured document, someone who cannot see the document but can have ATs read it aloud to them will know where a list of items ends and a separate, new paragraph begins. This also allows a person to use ATs to easily skip over a section, just as someone who is taking a quick glance without AT assistance might.
To properly format a document and build its structure, simply use a program's built-in tools, instead of trying to laboriously format elements from scratch. For example, use placeholders from layouts in a PowerPoint slide master (from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health or another accessible template, which can always be customized). And in a Word file, use Styles to insert properly nested section headings to emphasize separate parts of the document. Use the toolbar or menu shortcuts for bullets and numbered lists, increased/decreased indents, columns, etc., in all editors—even CoursePlus' Rich Text Editors. Do not use empty lines to space paragraphs or other blocks of text; instead, use Line Spacing Options (e.g., "Add Space Before Paragraph"). And use the built-in shortcuts to insert true headers and footers instead of typing in something you might need to creatively edit to look like one of these elements.
Learn about headings and how to use them correctly (the linked page is written about web pages, but is applicable to all documents).
Learn about slide layouts and placeholders in Microsoft PowerPoint.
Learn to add heading styles, lists, and headers and footers in Microsoft Word.
A concept closely related to a document’s structure is its READING ORDER. This is the order in which a document would be "read" (or translated) by any technologies, including screen readers. By default, the reading order for a Word document (tagged as English) is top to bottom, left to right, and is shaped by its headings. This same order is followed by all Microsoft Table objects. If you are creating a form, you will need to verify its "tab order." If you are working in Microsoft PowerPoint, you should start with slide layouts whose placeholders are already in the correct reading order, but you should also always verify the reading order after editing any slide.
Learn to set and verify the reading order in Microsoft PowerPoint.
Note: The Bloomberg School of Public Health PowerPoint templates provided by CTL already have the objects on the various slide layouts (from the slide master) in a logical reading order.
Any time you include an image, graph, chart, complex table, or other nontext object that is not purely decorative, take a moment to format the object and enter the alternative text (ALT TEXT). The alternative text is a brief statement that describes, in summary, the nontext object to someone who cannot see nor otherwise understand the object. It is important to include this information so that the item can be understood by more individuals, including those who may not be able to download an image and those who rely on ATs to perceive the media’s information.
Learn to add alternative text in Adobe Acrobat.
Learn to add alt text to images and other objects in Microsoft Office.
The alternative text should be a concise description that considers the purpose of the object, the intended audience, and the most important information that is conveyed by the object in relation to its context, that is, the document where it is presented. If the description is longer than about 160 characters, consider including the long description (and referencing it in the alt text) as separate text near the nontext object or as a footnote, or referencing a source (e.g., with a digital object identifier, or DOI) that includes original data and will translate the information more thoroughly. Ideally, this description would be written by the author of the original document or at least someone familiar with the subject so the terminology and level of complexity are appropriate in relation to the entire artifact. See the section on Images, below, to learn more about alternative text for images.
Any text that is linked should be meaningful, indicating the linked resource even out of context. Do not use a URL (web address) as the HYPERLINK text unless this URL is the meaningful text, for instance, in a full citation. This is important for a few reasons. First, no one should ever need to navigate away from a page or document to learn where the link takes them; a long web address is not always going to clearly indicate what/where the resources is. Second, if someone "skips" through a document from link to link -- which is possible with some AT navigation as well as visually, when looking for the different font styles -- they should know exactly what is linked even if they do not take the surrounding text into consideration. (For this "skipping" reason, it is also advised that the same link is not repeated several times in a single section of a resource.) And third, many ATs will translate (e.g., read) the linked web address to the end user in addition to the text that serves as the link; meaningful hyperlinks avoid redundancy.
A good test for "meaningful” hyperlink text would be to imagine the linked text as the only text on a webpage. Is the hyperlink clear? Would a person understand where or what they would navigate to if they clicked on the link? Cryptic words and phrases such as "Click here" or "Download" are not appropriate; “access the registration” or “download the full report” might be good alternatives.
Learn some tips for writing meaningful links.
Text Properties: Font and Color
When you edit a document, consider the clarity of the font and the methods you choose for emphasizing any text to keep your text readable by as many people as possible. Avoid "fancy" fonts that may be difficult to discern and may not translate well across technologies. In addition, limit the variation of font families in a single document. Both decorative fonts and switching between font families make a document unnecessarily difficult for some people to read. (Arial, Tahoma, and Calibri are common sans-serif fonts; Times New Roman is a safe, standard serif font.) No matter the font family you select, try to keep the font size to at least 12 points (16 pixels) in a standard text document or web page; aim for 24 points in a presentation. (There are exceptions, for instance, footers. However, try not make any font less than 10 points.)
The color of your text against its background should have a contrast ratio (bright to dark) of at least 4.5 to 1. There are tools to help find appropriate contrast ratios, but in general, avoid using combinations that are hard for most sighted individuals to discern, such as yellow or purple on a green or blue background, red on a black or green background, or light colors on a white background. In addition, do not use color alone to convey meaning, such as using color to emphasize a word or phrase, since some people have color vision deficiency. Instead, consider combining color with a different font size or text decoration such as italics, bold, and/or underline. However, as with font families, you should limit the amount of text variation in a document.
Learn more about font accessibility.
Check the contrast ratio of your text to its background color.
More Ways to Make Documents Accessible
Once you have embraced those techniques as your norm, it is time to do even more. Each time you practice any of these methods, you are operating in an increasingly universally inclusive mode.
Do not include any printing, copying, or editing restrictions. And if you are working with a preexisting document, make sure to remove the restrictions before saving your changes. These security measures may interfere with ATs’ ability to translate the full document for the end user.
Including page (or slide) numbers on any document is an important aspect to navigation. And when the page numbers are included, they must be consistent in their placement and appearance. This is part of consistent navigation—an important part of making a document accessible for individuals with low vision, cognitive limitations, and more. (It also makes it easier for anyone to reference a point in your document!) Make sure to use the built-in features of your editor to automatically insert page or slide numbers in your document.
Learn to add page numbers in Microsoft Word.
Learn to add page numbers to in Microsoft PowerPoint, ideally in the slide master so they automatically appear on all the slides.
Note: The PowerPoint templates provided by CTL have slide numbers already included in the master slide layout.
Tables should be used to logically present data and not to format the layout of a document. (Instead of tables to control layout, you should use built-in authoring tools such as paragraph spacing, columns, placeholders, etc.) When including a table, it is important that the table’s organization can be translated across different technologies, including ATs, so take the time to set properties that affect its structure. The easiest way to do this is to use the built-in editor tools or, in PowerPoint, the table placeholder to insert a table.
Tables are usually read top to bottom and left to right by default. This sequence is important to someone relying on ATs. Always include a header row (which contains header cells) as the topmost row in your table. Repeat the header row across multiple pages. In addition, to help with structure and navigation, avoid merged and split data cells if possible. Often, merged or split cells are included when a separate table or an explanatory note would be a better option.
It is also important that the table can be understood by someone who cannot see or otherwise interpret the entire table at once. Make sure to set the properties that affect its appearance. Avoid empty or blank cells. Instead, include at least a dash or "N/A" inside the cell so an end user will not get confused or think something was missed. Be mindful of the color contrast between the text of a cell and its background, or "fill." Always include text in a header cell that serves to label the column. Always make the cell borders (grid lines) of a table visible. And do not allow a table to exceed the width of a page. Finally, for any complex table, take the time to include alternative text or a caption with a descriptive summary.
Any image that is not purely decorative should be formatted to include alt text. When you create or select images to use inside a document, try to avoid having text as part of an image. If it is necessary to include text in an image, make certain to repeat or summarize the information in the alt text or near the image so that its equivalent meaning is conveyed in context.
Learn more about writing alt text for images using DIAGRAM Center’s Image Description Guidelines.
Colorful imagery can make a document exciting or beautiful; however, understand that not everyone will have the same experience. Be aware of color in your images: do not use color alone to convey meaning, and be mindful of color contrast ratios inside of images. For instance, if you have a map where the different territories are distinguished by color, make certain to have visible borders. In a map or any other image, such as a bar chart or infographic, where there is a legend, have something other than color to identify an area, such as a pattern. And if two objects or areas of an image are next to or overlaying each other, such as a label over part of an image, make sure there is sufficient contrast so the objects can be distinguished.
Check the contrast ratio of overlapping objects.
Find an appropriate color palette to use in your image, providing sufficient contrast between colors.
There are many techniques, scientific and otherwise, that go into appropriately and accurately representing data collections. The challenge we want to address here is toward making the visualization universally accessible. Foremost, you should try to avoid using only images of a chart, graph, or table. Original data sets attached to the data display (for instance, a spreadsheet embedded in a Microsoft Office document that is the source for a scatter graph) make it easier to edit the data, provide alternate representations, and translate the data for anyone using ATs. If you cannot embed or link the original data directly, or if you must use an image of the data visualization, then you should properly cite (including any DOI) the original source to allow the end user to obtain the data directly as well as access any long descriptions. Provide a link to the source if possible. Be mindful of copyright, which extends to the organized display of the data.
Whether you use an image of the data visualization or include the actual element (chart, graph, table, etc.) in your document, make sure to include appropriate alt text for the object summarizing its content, especially if the object is complex. The alt text, or text in proximity, should highlight key points that are demonstrated in the data visualization. In other words, if there are advantages to viewing the visualization, such as easily identifying patterns in the values, then these same discoveries should also be relayed in the alt text. In addition, when selecting or creating your data visualization, keep the same tips in mind that you should use for any image: do not use color alone to identify an object or area, and be mindful of color contrast ratios.
“In the case of mathematical content, the best format for universally designed math is MathML.” MathML is “a low-level format for describing mathematics as a basis for machine-to-machine communication. MathML is not intended for editing by hand, but is for handling by specialized authoring tools such as equation editors, or for export to and from other math packages.” (World Wide Web Consortium, 2019) In Microsoft Office documents, there is no way to tag an equation inside a block of text, and you cannot include MathML formatting (which is basically a programming language). However, “[W]hen authors are careful to use math formats that can easily be converted to MathML, like LaTeX, MathType, or Equation Editor formats, further accessible transformation is much easier.” (DO-IT, 2021)
The Microsoft Equation Editor, built into Microsoft Office, is readily available and is one such editor that makes for "easier" accessible transformation. While it may not convert directly to MathML, many other equation editors will convert Microsoft Equation Editor objects into a format that, in turn, will convert to MathML.
Learn to write an equation in Microsoft Office.
The MathType equation editor is a popular authoring tool whose equations can be directly converted to MathML. MathType integrates with most, though not all, versions of the Microsoft Office program suite. It is not free, though it is a very common tool in science and mathematics disciplines. And LaTeX is formatting code (“markup”) written in plain text that translates to mathematical and scientific notations in some editors. The Equation Editor in Microsoft software accepts some LaTeX markup.
In general, we recommend that equations included in-line as nonstandard text in a Microsoft document (e.g., in a PowerPoint text box) be entered using MathType if it is available and the Microsoft Equation Editor otherwise. If an equation cannot be entered directly and instead an image of an equation is necessary, the image should include alternate text and reference the original data source. All equations, whether images or entered directly as objects, should have an alternate representation (e.g., accompanying narration or text "talking through" or summarizing the equation).
Many screen readers will not read a document's background or secondary information, such as a header or footer. This includes the any watermarks or background images and text. Therefore, it is important to make certain to duplicate any important information from a document's header, footer, watermark, or background in the document's main content. For instance, if your organization's name (or logo with alt text) is on the master slide layout of PowerPoint, you should repeat this on at least one slide's text box placeholder. Or, if your document has a "Draft" watermark, include "Draft" in the metadata as well as in the text of the title page/slide.
World Wide Web Consortium. (May 2019.). What is MathML? Retrieved April 12, 2022, from http://www.w3.org/Math/whatIsMathML.html
DO-IT, University of Washington. (2021, April 9). How can publishers create accessible math textbooks? http://www.washington.edu/doit/how-can-publishers-create-accessible-math-textbooks