2006 Conference General Sessions

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Jason Morningstar
UNC Chapel Hill Information Technology Services
406 Hanes Hall
Chapel Hill NC 27599
Day Phone: 919-843-5192
Fax: 919-962-0784
Email: jason_morningstar@unc.edu

Presenter #2
Saroj Primlani
NC State University
Campus Box 7109
Raleigh NC 27695
Day Phone: 919 513 4087
Fax: 919 962 0784
Email: saroj_primlani@ncsu.edu

Overview of the accessibility challenges of classroom presentation applications and tools and a discussion on guidelines and strategies need to accommodate students with a disability when designing and presenting materials.

PowerPoint is a widely used academic tool, and provides faculty with a straightforward way of presenting and preserving lecture information. This convenience comes with a hidden cost, however - the end product is often inaccessible to students with disabilities, or anyone trying to access the material from mobile devices or legacy platforms.

Ensuring that content can degrade gracefully to a form accessible to all is a critical concern, and PowerPoint is not well suited for this task.  The built-in conversion tools that allow PowerPoint to be published on the Web are clumsy and inexact.  Happily, a wide variety of alternate tools and techniques exist for making and sharing presentations.

The most obvious and fruitful avenue of exploration is the World Wide Web, where well-established standards (HTML, XHTML, and CSS) provide a lingua franca for an already well developed visual presentation medium. Numerous tools exist, both for porting PowerPoint content to the Web and developing stand-alone Web presentations.  Among the latter are Eric Meyer's S5 (using CSS almost exclusively) and Philip Greenspun's Wimpypoint, which is a direct response to PowerPoint's "bloatware". Third-party applications also exist, including CourseGenie, which is designed to convert Microsoft Word documents into standards-compliant HMTL.  

Microsoft PowerPoint

PowerPoint viewer


Common accessibility problems associated with PowerPoint presentations:

* Images (graphics, figures, flow-charts) are not accessible via assistive technologies.
* Unstructured text renders content inaccessible.  
* Design flexibility leads to poor usability, with low contrast, inappropriate sizing of elements, and other accessibility ramifications.
* Multimedia elements are incorporated without alternate formats.
* Web conversion is difficult and imprecise


Centra and other synchronous tools interoperate with PowerPoint, but do so from a remove - the content is often simply a static screen-grab image of the original presentation, functionally  inaccessible.  Similarly, Microsoft's PowerPoint Viewer does not provide the end user with the tools to manipulate the underlying presentation if they choose to modify it to meet their access needs.  

As a stand-alone application, PowerPoint also suffers from portability issues - the presentation typically resides on a local machine, and the display relies on specific hardware and software configurations.  When contrasted with the ubiquity and ease of use of the Web, it becomes less attractive.


Limiting design elements and providing alternative formats for otherwise-inaccessible objects can allow designers to use PowerPoint accessibly.  However, once the application is "stripped down" to make this feasible, other possibilities become more viable.  

We would suggest that the restrictions placed on a designer by using the Web, rather than PowerPoint's rich and dynamic interface, are beneficial rather than harmful.  The Web is a logical, semantically-precise medium, and working within its confines forces the designer to clearly organize and present his or her material.  The end result may be less visually exciting (although this is far from a given), but the content will likely take precedence as it should.


Standards-based solutions are a logical and effective departure from PowerPoint.  The majority of PowerPoint's functionality can be effectively replicated on the Web, and those items that cannot are, honestly, no great loss from an instructional design perspective.  In the presentation we'll discuss these tools and applications in detail:


Developed as a Web-based slide-show alternative, S5 is built exclusively with XHTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It is easy to mark up presentations, and the final product degrades gracefully in browsers lacking CSS, JavaScript, or both.  As a simple, standards-driven solution, S5 is an excellent tool, and it's Web-based nature makes it both portable and efficient.  S5 requires the author or developer to be comfortable editing HTML, since the "presentation" is contained within a single HTML file using CSS to provide the look and feel of a slide show.


Wimpypoint was developed as a free, database-driven Web alternative to PowerPoint.  It uses a set of very basic HTML tools to allow content authoring, and leverages the Web's capacity for easy collaboration.  Although it lacks many of PowerPoint's advanced features, those are precisely the features that frequently cause accessibility problems in the first place.  

CITA's HTML converter

CITA, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign provides an alternative to the less-than-perfect Web publishing features built into Microsoft Office.  The markup it generates is designed to exceed Section 508 and W3C WCAG 1.0 AA disability standards, and it validates to HTML 4.01 loose and current CSS standards.  A note on this product - it cannot convert PowerPoint scripts, so some additional work is necessary if you need to include scripts.  We'd suggest that this is largely unnecessary, and that, as a rule, simpler is better anyway.  



CourseGenie is a product developed in the UK that is designed to convert Microsoft Word documents into accessible HTML.  It does a good job and meets a variety of standards, including SENDA, WCAG AAA, and Section 508.  It has presentation possibilities, although it is not intended as a PowerPoint competitor.  Key advantages are Web platform and ease of use.  CourseGenie's key disadvantage is that it is a closed-source product that requires purchase and licensing to use.  


W3C slidemaker


The W3C Slidemaker is a PERL script that can be used to generate HTML slides, using CSS that can be easily overridden by the end user. While there is a learning curve associated with this free tool, it is widely used internally by the W3C staff and is a simple and effective Web presentation option.

OpenOffice Impress

OpenOffice is an open source competitor to the Microsoft Office suite, and includes a presentation application similar to PowerPoint.

As a suite, OpenOffice uses the Sun Java Access Bridge for Windows to provide a modicum of accessibility.  OpenOffice interoperates with ZoomText 7.11+ as well as several open source accessibility tools, including Gnopernicus and the Gnome On-screen Keyboard.  While not completely accessible, OpenOffice offers a competitive presentation solution that is still developing.  As OpenOffice begins to integrate the MSAA API, accessibility should continue to improve.  


The "least common denominator" of data interchange is ASCII text, and both 8-bit ASCII and Rich Text Format (RTF) present good opportunities for ensuring a base level of comprehensibility for all users.  It shouldn't be discounted as an option.  RTF provides enough flexibility to character and paragraph formatting to allow some presentational flexibility - while still being easily parsed by almost any assistive technology.  

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