Lesson Plan: Making Documents Accessible for Screen Reader Software

In an earlier blog post, the DWRL offered various free resources and tips for creating visual content that is accessible to people with visual impairments. For example, The WAVE Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool helps pinpoint errors on a webpage interface that may be difficult for screen readers — software that converts visual information to auditory — to process. Common errors that confuse screen readers include include missing alt-text on images and missing headings. For example, a webpage or PDF document must be formatted correctly for a screenreader to read aloud sequentially. Screenreaders also “spatially” organize information using “headers” to narrate changes in paragraphs, lines, and columns. For visually impaired screenreader users, a poorly formatted document is like an unfamiliar room with unknown proportions and non-intuitively placed furniture: difficult to navigate. “Alt-text” is a description of an image embedded into the image itself. If the “Description” function of a screenreader is activated, the screenreader reads aloud the alt-text description to the user. Without alt-text, a screenreader user cannot access information in the image.

However, digital troubleshooting tools like WAVE do not always spot errors.  Fortunately, it is not difficult to make your files accessible if you incorporate accessibility from the beginning of your project. Sharon Rush, the founder of Knowability, a nonprofit accessible information technology organization based in Austin, Texas, writes: “accessible design will never be fully implemented as long as it is considered a separate discipline and is not seamlessly integrated into the professional development of every designer, developer, and product manager working in technology”[x].

This lesson plan walks through the process of making your own documents accessible for screenreader software. It shows how to format documents on Google docs and Microsoft Word while you are writing a project; making your work accessible before you finish the project and download the file as a PDF. The purpose of this exercise is to create a PDF that a screenreader can read aloud sequentially and “spatially” organize information for the visually impaired user. This lesson plan also demonstrates how to insert alt-text into images in your documents. 

This lesson aims to:

  • Introduce students to the concept of inclusive design.
  • Familiarize students with Mac OS X: Voice Over for Mac.
  • Teach students and instructors how to make PDF documents accessible to screenreaders.

Assignment Length

Reserve one class session for the assignment

Required Tools

Access to an individual computer and internet. Optional headphones for students.

No prior experience necessary. Instructors are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the software before the class session.

If the class includes students with hearing or seeing disabilities, instructors are encouraged to structure the assignment as a group project so as to distribute the work according to ability. This assignment can get quite loud, so it is recommended that students easily distracted by audio stimuli bring headphones if necessary. Students with ADHD can request headphones through Disability Services and most media labs, libraries, and other institutions also provide headphones upon request. 

Assignment Description

This assignment consists of two sections. First, the instructor and students will become familiar with the screen reader software OS X Voice Over. In the second part of this assignment, they will then learn how to format their own projects so as to be accessible to screen reader software. While screenreader software is also designed to read webpages, because almost all students write essays on word processing software like Google docs while not all students are web designers, this assignment focuses on creating documents that are accessible when downloaded as PDFs. Web designers are encouraged to explore the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines for designing accessible online interfaces.

Instructor Preparation

Obtain access to a computer classroom for the lesson. If not possible, request each student bring a personal computer.Obtain access to a computer classroom for the lesson. If not possible, request each student bring a personal computer.Inform your students that they may wish to bring headphones at their own discretion. Headphones may be requested by the media lab at your institution if available.

Reviewing the Skills Workshop video prior to class is recommended.

Come with a pre-prepared word processing document to format. It is recommended that students bring an assignment written for a class.Arrive a few minutes early to allow time for technology issues, such as stalling computers or slow internet connection, if necessary.

Headphones are optional.

In-Class or Assignment Instructions

First, students and the instructors should enable the VoiceOver on their individual computers. Headphones may be used.

Open Google docs or Microsoft word and select the document you wish to convert to an accessible PDF. Consider dividing longer documents into smaller sections. Referring to the Skills Workshop video if necessary, change the first line of each large section from “Normal Text” to “Headings” or “Headings 1.” Change the first line or title of sub-sections to “Headings 2,” “Heading 3,” and so forth. Because the purpose of this activity is to allow screen readers to group sections sequentially and distinguish from one “section” to another, it is left to your discretion how many sections and sub-headings are necessary. This will differ depending on the length, thematic complexity, and organization of the document.

Now add alt-text to any images in the document. If there are no pre-existing images, either insert an image for the purpose of this activity or select a different document with an image. Follow the instructions in the workshop video to add alt-text to an image. The detail of description will vary depending on what information the image is intended to convey. Remember: describe this image as if explaining it to a blind person, neither omitting nor over-embellishing detail.

Assessment Suggestion

This activity is intended to teach a skill set to be incorporated into other projects. It is recommended that the activity factor into the participation grade. 

Suggestions for Portfolio-Style Assessment

The instructor has the option of requiring that all assignments uploaded to final student portfolios be formatted accessibly.  

The instructor has the option of requiring all written assignments for the class to be formatted accessibly as part of the participation grade. 

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