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The Accessibility of Four Types of Electronic Documents

Accessibility of electronic files as supplements for online courses or lessons is an important issue for students with disabilities.  General education teachers, who actually do most of the electronic production for students, do not seem to understand the accessibility issues of these documents.  If a document is not made accessible, the user with disabilities can experience difficulties in: document navigation, clarity of content, searching for specific information, and user fatigue due to the complex document layout.  There are four major types of electronic files that are used for online or off line lessons.
The Four Types of Electronic Documents
Electronic documents are used for various reasons, such as: activities, reference material, supplemental information, worksheets, and other assignments.  Students get the documents through email, by downloading them from learning management systems or through a file sharing system. Depending on the author, accessibility of these files can vary greatly.  The electronic documents are:

  • Word Documents (.doc or .docx)

  • Portable File Documents (PDF)

  • Spreadsheet (.xls or .xlsx)

  • PowerPoint (.ppt or .pptx)

Accessible Word Documents
Word documents need to contain the styles formatting tags for it to be accessible to a screen reader.  The style tags are listed in the Styles Task Pane that is located as one of the many features offered by Microsoft Office products.  A document should at least contain: headings, bodytext (normal), lists, captions (for graphics) and titles.
Accessible PDF Documents
A PDF file needs to contain tags.  Tagging a PDF structures the file into chapters, headings, blocks of text, tables, and alt tags for graphics.  This makes for easier navigation with screen readers and magnification applications.  A scanned document into a picture PDF (bitmap) has no tags.  A PDF document converted from a Word document can contain tags.  This is depends, again, on the author.
Accessible Spreadsheet Documents
A spreadsheet documents (Microsoft Excel) needs to contain heading styles text in the top row and first column of the document.  This makes navigation with key commands (screen reader) much easier for the user.  There also needs to be a darkened border around the boundary of the body of information. All cells included in the document need to contain some information.
Accessible PowerPoint Documents
In order for a PowerPoint slide show to be accessible to the user, the slide layout features offered by the application should be the only ones used when laying out a PowerPoint slide.  This keeps an order and structure to the slides thus making it easier for key command navigation.  Use good color contrast between text and background.  Use simple language and place five or less bulleted points per slide. Avoid animated transitions between slides.
Website Resources

Accessible PowerPoint
Accessible Word
Accessible PDF
Accessible Spreadsheets

Tutorials on Digital Accessibility
Microsoft Accessibility Website

Patrick Van Geem, TVI
Assistive Technology Consultant
Outreach Department
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired

An Abundance of Training on the Web
Resource for Working on Listening Skills

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