Adventures In Accessibility

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to lead a 90-minute workshop on Digital Equity at the CAST's Annual Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Symposium. In preparation for the event, CAST held a presenter’s webinar to explain how to ensure that our presentations would be accessible to ALL participants. In addition to reviewing the UDL Guidelines for Expert Learners, CAST explained the myriad considerations for accessibility.
 
I have long considered myself an advocate for UDL and an adherent to the guidelines. However, as the webinar progressed, I realized that the presentations and workshops that I have given over the past several years were highly UN-accessible and overly reliant on visuals - both images and animation - to communicate complex ideas. By the end of the webinar, I felt both more informed and somewhat panicked.
 
In addition to rethinking the structure of my workshop to encourage more goal setting and reflection while relying less on visual activities, I also realized that I needed to accomplish these five things:
  1. A screen reader should be able to read all slides and materials
  2. Any images should have Alt Text (text that describes the image and can be read by a person using a screen reader)
  3. All videos should be closed captioned
  4. Use high contrast colors on all digital and print materials
  5. When presenting, use live closed captioning
 
From the start, this proved more difficult than expected. Typically, I develop my presentation materials using Keynote - part of the iWork suite for Mac/iPad - and then upload a PDF version to SlideShare so that I can embed them on my website. While my website might be accessible, none of materials posted using this method can be read by a screen reader! First, Keynote does not allow for Alt Text, so I could not make an accessible PDF. Second, even if I could properly format my slides in Keynote, Slideshare apparently is not a good platform from an accessibility perspective as it does not work with audio tools.
 
Realizing that I would have to pick a new presentation program, I started exploring Google Slides and PowerPoint. Both programs include most of the required features. However, I then learned that a screen reader does not naturally read the text inside of a text box if it is not also defined with Alt Text. While PowerPoint lets you add Alt Text to text boxes, Google Slides does not. And since I had several diagrams that relied on text boxes, I decided to go with PowerPoint for my presentation materials.
 
With my slides sketched out and program chosen, now I had to make sure that I could make PowerPoint do what I wanted it to do. To add Alt Text to my images and text boxes, I just had to open the Alt Text pane from either the Picture Format or Shape Format ribbon. From there, I could write descriptions of the images or the text.
 
Though a bit time consuming, that was not a difficult task to accomplish. Additionally, since I often reuse images across presentations, when I copy and paste them in the future, the Alt Text will already be there.
 
Next, I found the Slide Show menu option to turn on captioning. With the correct options selected, PowerPoint would automatically caption my slides as I spoke. However, I did learn that this feature requires the use of a microphone, that you stay relatively close to your computer, and that you have an Internet connection.
 
At this point, I had accounted for just about everything and only needed to add my slides to my web page so that I could share the resources. Easier said than done… While there may have been a way to embed PowerPoint slides on the web via Office365, I had the file saved in Dropbox. I typed a description of my slides on my web page and then linked to the PowerPoint slides, but I knew that not everyone would be able to access my slides that way. Therefore, I uploaded my PowerPoint to Google Slides to generate an embed code. However, Google Slides removed ALL of my Alt Text when I uploaded the file. In the end, I created a web page with a link to an accessible presentation in Dropbox and an un-accessible presentation embedded.
 
On the day of the workshop, I desperately hoped that I had accounted for everything. I had not. One participant attempted to access my materials via her iPad with a screen reader and a braille keyboard. She did not have the Dropbox app or the PowerPoint app. Turns out that the Dropbox viewer in the web removed all of the Alt Text! Additionally, the Google Slides link launched her Slides app but then did not have any Alt Text because I had not re-done everything. Further, while presenting, the WiFi was a bit spotty at times and the PowerPoint captioning proved to be less reliable than the Google version.
 
The participants in the workshop appreciated the effort even if I did not succeed in creating a fully accessible set of presentation materials. However, in reflecting on the experience, I realize that ensuring equitable access to information can and should become a regular part of my workshop and presentation planning process. If I really believe that everyone should have equitable access to learning, then I need to begin with what I create for my own students and participants.