It’s a familiar scene that takes place every day in classrooms around the world. A teacher shares an assignment with her students, providing informational handouts, a reading list, and a list of recommended resources. The students then form study groups where they collaborate and advise each other on their individual projects, share drafts, and edit one another’s work. From time to time, the teacher checks in with her students to assess their progress and offer guidance. Finally, the students complete their final papers and turn them in.
But what if one or more of the students has a disability that makes it difficult or impossible for them to access information in the same way as the others?
Reading, writing and collaboration are fundamental components of education –always have been, always will be. Yet in a world where technology has transformed the way people learn, many of the documents, texts and other resources used by students and their teachers are digital. They are written, read, edited and shared on computers and mobile devices, which can be a problem for people with disabilities if they are unable to access the content .
Assistive technology can be a big help. People who are blind or have visual impairments might rely on screen readers. Screen readers speak text on the screen out loud, and also read out additional visual information on the screen. But accessibility really begins with the document itself and the software you use to create it.
Microsoft Office offers tools to help you make your documents, spreadsheets and presentations easier to see, hear and use, and more accessible to people with disabilities. If a person who is blind is using a screen reader, there are things you can do when you create your documents in Microsoft Office that will make it easier for the screen reader to interpret what is on the page. Writing alternative text for all graphics, shapes, photos, tables and other visual elements—essentially, providing a clear description of that content—will help people who are blind “see” what other users are seeing.
Screen readers also must be able to determine whether the text is in another language. For example, if a student is in Canada and is reading a document that has both French and English text, the screen reader needs to understand that there are two languages involved so that it doesn’t try to read the French text as if it were English. Accessible Office documents provide the information that enables screen readers to move seamlessly from one language to another. Also, setting proper language in your document enables spell check and grammar check to work.
When collaborating, users export Office documents to PDF format. Office allows you to transfer the accessibility features within the Office document to the PDF. For example, alternative text for all graphics, shapes, photos, tables and other visual elements that are in an Office document remain intact when exported to PDF format.
The Accessibility Checker in Microsoft Office is also a great tool to help you create more accessible content. With just the click of a button, you can scan a document, spreadsheet or presentation to identify areas that may be problematic for users with disabilities and to highlight and explain accessibility issues so you can fix them before the content is final. And once you have made your Office documents, spreadsheets and presentation accessible, that won’t change.
Making documents, spreadsheets and presentations more accessible can be a great help to students and teachers everywhere, but the benefits don’t stop there. Accessible content is also vital for people of all ages and in many different professions, including aging baby boomers and other workers who are experiencing age-related difficulties.
Education is often compared to a light that banishes the darkness of ignorance, serves as a beacon of hope and opportunity, and illuminates the path to a richer life. Accessibility is the spark that can ignite that flame and make it shine equally bright for people with disabilities.