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Software tool makes PowerPoint easier for disabled to use

Melissa Mitchell, News Editor
217333-5491; melissa@illinois.edu

12/11/2003


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Whether in the classroom or the boardroom, chalkboards have been replaced nearly universally by computer-aided audiovisual presentations that commonly involve a laptop computer and Microsoft PowerPoint software. And while that change has proved beneficial for most presenters and their audiences, a notable exception is for people with disabilities.

People with a variety of physical disabilities also experience difficulties using Web-based PowerPoint presentations –commonly used in online instruction or distance-learning – because content developers can’t easily add information required for accessibility. Recognizing such limitations for developers and users – and correcting the problems – is Jon Gunderson’s job. As coordinator of assistive communication and information technology in the Division of Rehabilitation-Education Services at the University of Illinois, Gunderson is always on the lookout for technological roadblocks that can trip up disabled university students and put them at an educational disadvantage.

To resolve the PowerPoint accessibility problem, Gunderson – with assistance from programmers Sid Cammeresi and Dan Linder – developed a software tool called the Accessible Web Publishing Wizard (Version 1.0). Gunderson said the tool "simplifies the task of converting PowerPoint presentations, Microsoft Word documents and – in the future – Excel spreadsheets to accessible HTML through an easy-to-use user interface and automation of many of the details of conversion.

The beauty of the product, he said, is that "it allows instructors and other content developers to create highly accessible HTML versions of PowerPoint presentations with little or no knowledge of accessibility or HTML coding techniques."

The Wizard also makes it easy for developers to conform to accessibility standards prescribed by the federal government as well as those documented in the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Gunderson said the tool is called a "wizard" because "in general, ‘wizard’ is part of the Microsoft jargon for a program that guides a user through a series of steps to accomplish a task. The wizard is smart and can modify the sequence of steps based on responses in previous steps.

"Our wizard hides the complexity of creating accessible HTML versions of Microsoft Office documents and only asks questions of the user related to information needed to create the accessible version."

Among the Wizard’s best features, according to those who have tested it, is its capability for allowing authors to prompt it to create text-only, text-mostly and graphical versions of content. The feature provides increased flexibility for all manner of users, Gunderson said. Even able-bodied users with slow modems benefit by selecting the
text-only option.

"It’s like a curb-cut into the sidewalk – with it, everyone has better accessibility."

"If you choose all three (text-only, text-mostly and graphical options), then you serve a broader range of students, browsers and devices," said Karen McCall, of Karlen Communications, an adaptive technology consulting and training practice based in Canada. McCall created workbook exercises on how to use the tool for a recent workshop on "building blocks to instructional design."

"Since conversion of word-processed documents and PowerPoint are messy and not consistent using the ‘on-board’ tools in these programs," she said, "I wanted to see what this new tool would do – to evaluate its potential for those who know nothing about accessibility coding, but want information to be accessible to a broader range of students, browsers and devices."

In her evaluation of the tool, McCall noted that while "you still have to look at usability and design issues for the native documents, if you know nothing about the W3C guidelines or how to create more accessible Web content, it is an easy to install and use tool."

Gunderson said he is working with the university’s Office of Technology Management on plans to market a commercial version of the tool. Meanwhile, a free download of the 1.0 version is available.