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Accessible Course Materials

What are Accessible Course Materials?

From the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for Learning: Accessible educational materials (AEM) are print- and technology-based educational materials, including printed and electronic textbooks and related core materials that are designed or enhanced in a way that makes them usable across the widest range of learner variability, regardless of format (e.g., print, digital, graphic, audio, video).

Accessibility Standards at UVM

From UVM’s Accessibility Policy [PDF] Statement: The University has adopted federally recognized accessibility standards for information and communication technology (ICT), including WCAG 2.0 AA for web accessibility. Read about WCAG 2.0 AA standards (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). From the UVM AAOE: UVM is committed to providing an educational atmosphere and experience that is accessible to all qualified students, including students with disabilities.

Blackboard Ally

If you are using Blackboard, you will have access to Ally, a built-in tool that analyzes all the files in your course. Ally then,

Ally will let you know if your files will be accessible and it allows you to see an overall percentage of accessibility for your entire course.

How to Improve Accessibility of
PDFs, Word documents, PowerPoints, and images

Below is a list of tips and resources to guide you in improving the accessibility of your course content.

PDF Accessibility Tips

1. PDF: Make Sure Your File is Readable Text (not an image of text).

PDF documents are technically, quite complex. The document itself can have two layers; the layer that you see and, if it is a searchable PDF file, the layer that contains the text that will be searched. Since the visible layer is just an image, a screen reader cannot read it—it can only read the searchable layer.At the very least a document should be OCR’d and preferably, Tagged.

One way to OCR a document is to upload it to Blackboard then choose the Ally Alternative Format feature to create an OCR’d document. Once OCR’d, you can also use the “Tagged PDF” alternative format to so some basic tagging.

Additionally, the Center for Academic Success offers a conversion service for image based materials to text based materials. Submit the form here for this conversion:

OCR Conversion Form

2. PDF: Add Headings and Other Tags

Headings and other tags are best edited through Adobe Acrobat Pro. Copies of Acrobat Pro are available on certain library computers. The multimedia lab on the first floor of Howe library has computers that will have Acrobat Pro on them.

The article here from Adobe will guide you through the adding and repairing of tags.

4. PAVE PDF Checker

The PAVE PDF Checker will check your PDF for accessibility issues and attempt to correct some of them. PAVE stands for PDF Accessibility Validation Engine.

Here are the steps for using PAVE as excerpted from their website:
Please note: The maximal allowed file size is 5 megabytes.

  1. Upload your PDF document to PAVE.
  2. PAVE will make the automatic corrections.
  3. Simply make the remaining corrections yourself in PAVE.
  4. Now you can download the accessible PDF document. The PDF document will remain on the PAVE server for a maximum of three weeks, unless you delete it manually beforehand.

Word Document Accessibility Tips

1. Word: Use Styles, Especially Headings

Word automatically applies a style to every segment of text in your document. A style is an editable collection of formatting commands. By default, Word applies the style it calls “Normal” to everything, but to improve accessibility, styles should be added. (This will enable a visually impaired person using a screen reader to toggle through topic headings and choose what to read. Otherwise, with no headings, if they want to review something at the end of a document, the screen reader can’t skip to that subsection but has to read everything from the beginning.)

It is easy to apply the correct headings or other styles provided by Word. If you want to change how any style appears, you can easily modify it.

Typically, the H1 style is applied to the document’s title, so it will appear once in the document. All main topic subheadings can be assigned the H2 style. If there is a third level of subheadings, they would be assigned H3, and so on.

Type and leave your cursor in the main heading. Go to the Styles pane (Mac: far right of the Home tab; Windows: the tiny drop-down arrow below the pre-set Styles on the Home tab), click the drop-down menu for the Heading 1 (or appropriate) style and choose Modify.

In the window that opens up, choose your font, font size, font weight, alignment, etc. If you want to set space before or after the Heading, click the Format button, choose Paragraph, and set space before/space after. (Note: the size is measured in points, 72 pts = 1 inch high)

2. Word: Give Images Alternate Text Descriptions

Ally looks for Alt-text for any image in a document or web page. However, Word provides two boxes for alt-text: Title and Description. Most screen readers only pay attention to the Alt-text: Description box, so Ally does not require that you add text to the Alt-text: Title box.

To find it, double-click the picture to find the Format Picture menu (or right-click, or ctrl-click) the picture and look for Format Picture. Find the Alt-text area (on a Mac it’s under the icon with a 4-headed arrow) and fill in a Description.

Descriptions should be short, contextual, and do not repeat information that is already in a caption—in other words, imaging a screen reader reading the description: is it unnecessarily repeating information that it has already read? Is it reading a description that really has nothing to do with why the image is there or what function it serves?

3. Word: Add a Document Title in the 'Secret' Title Location

Mac desktop client: Go to File: Properties, click the Summary tab, add your Title
Windows desktop client: Go to File: Info, look at the Properties area to the right. Click and edit the existing title. Or click the drop-down menu for Properties, choose Advanced Properties: Summary and type the title in the Title box.
Word for the web: Document properties are not supported online, however, when settings are entered in the Word desktop client, when students’ download the file from Teams (Sharepoint), the accessibility settings will be preserved.

4. Word: Add Headers to Tables

If your document has tables and the top row is meant to be a header row, you can tell Word to mark it as such. It is a two-step process:

  • Click inside the table’s header row and choose the Table Layout tab, then “Repeat Header Rows”
  • Click anywhere in the table and in the Table Design tab, check the box for “Header Row”

If you paste in a link and don’t change the link ‘title’ the screen reader will read out the entire URL. Here are two examples:
Smart way: Read this article, “Fragonard painting ‘forgotten’ by its owners sells for $9 million.”
Wrong way: Read this article, http://www.cnn.com/style/article/fragonard-philosopher-reading-auction-scli-intl/index.html
The latter example is wrong because screen readers will often scan a document for links and read them aloud. Some URLs are very long and also don’t necessarily explain what is on the page, so it’s better to use a smart link.

PowerPoint Accessibility Tips

1. Powerpoint: Choose the Right Template

Powerpoint comes with themes and templates that have been approved as accessible. You can find these by searching on “accessible” when choosing from the templates library.

Click here to access accessible templates Microsoft offers for Powerpoint and other Office products

2. Powerpoint: Choose the Right Slide Layout

When you use “New Slide” and choose a “Title and Content” or “Title Only” format, Powerpoint will create a special title box. This is not the same as double clicking on a slide and typing your title into a regular testbox. The Title box has special functions and will be treated differently when using the Accessibility Checker. Titles are treated like by screenreaders as a Table of Contents so the person reading the PPT can skim through several slides without having to read each one. Titles also designate to the screenreader which object on the slide should be read first (see reading order for reference).

3. Powerpoint: Check Reading Order of Slides

You may think that a screenreader reads a slide from top to bottom. It doesn’t. As you may have seen, you can put objects on a slide and then ask Powerpoint to move some objects “forward” or “backward. This is because slides are built in layers—the first thing you put on a slide becomes the base layer, then each successive object is layered one on top of that. In most slides, we create the title first, then add text boxes and images after that. So, a screenreader will end up reading the title last because it is the first layer that was created—hence it is on the bottom of the stack.

4. Powerpoint: Add Alternative Text for Images

Descriptions should be short, contextual, and do not repeat information that is already in a caption—in other words, imagine a screenreader reading the description aloud: is it unnecessarily repeating information that it has already read? Is it reading a description that really has nothing to do with why the image is there or what function it serves?
If you have graphical images that are only there for decoration, there should be a “Mark as Decorative” checkbox in the Alt Text panel.

Image Accessibility Tips

1. Images: Add descriptions, or 'Alt Tags'

Add Alternative Text (descriptions) for Images:

  • For Mac: Right-click the picture and look for Format Picture. Find Alt-text area under the icon with a 4-headed arrow and fill in a description.
  • For Windows: Ctrl-click the picture and look for Format Picture. Enter description in the Alt-text area.

Read more about why we need alt text

2. Distinguish Decorative Images

Any decorative images in any type of document need to be marked as such. There often is a “Mark as decorative” button to check off in order to do this.Decorative Images: When can you skip writing alt text?


Accessibility: UVM Academic Support Programs:


www.webaim.org: information, training, resources, guidelines and standards for Web accessibility

Microsoft Accessibility Articles

Cheat Sheet

A one-page Cheat Sheet PDF on creating accessible content from National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE)

Updated on August 17, 2021
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