Understanding accessibility

By Glenna Shaw, Microsoft MVP and owner of the PowerPoint Magician web site.

Applies to
Microsoft Office PowerPoint® 2003
Microsoft PowerPoint® 2000 and 2002

In July 2003, the United States Census Bureau released an announcement on the anniversary of the American Disabilities Act, reporting that 19 percent (49.7 million) of Americans over the age of five have some form of disability. This number will continue to increase because people are living longer lives.

As people age, their vision, hearing, and cognitive abilities decline. Ten years ago I could see clearly and type more than 60 words a minute. Today, I need reading glasses and suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome.

For many persons with disabilities, the advent of computers was like receiving the keys to the world. Unfortunately, with the rise of the graphical user interface, many of the locks were changed. We, as members of a civilized society, have a responsibility to avoid discrimination, even if it is unintentional.

ShowDefining accessibility

You can learn more about accessibility at Web Accessibility for Older Adults.

Definitions     Each of these definitions, taken from WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University, can be a goal for accessibility of information. My personal favorite is number four, "easy to get along with and friendly".

  1. Capable of being reached; "a town accessible by rail"
  2. Capable of being read with comprehension; "readily accessible to the nonprofessional reader"; "the tales seem more accessible than his more difficult novels"
  3. Easily obtained; "most students now have computers accessible"; "accessible money"
  4. Easy to get along with or talk to; friendly; "an accessible and genial man"

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)     The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) commitment to lead the Web to its full potential includes promoting a high degree of usability for people with disabilities. WAI, in coordination with organizations around the world, pursues accessibility of the Web through five primary areas of work: technology, guidelines, tools, education and outreach, and research and development. Learn more at Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

The law     In 1998, US President Clinton signed Section 508 of the American Disabilities Act into law. Section 508 requires that Federal agencies' electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. Section 508 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, to make available new opportunities for people with disabilities, and to encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals. The law applies to all Federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Learn more at Section 508: The Roadmap to Accessibility.

ShowAssistive and adaptive technology

Assistive or adaptive technology is innovative software and hardware solutions for people with special needs. There are five main categories of assistive technology, as listed on the Microsoft Accessibility Web Site:


Visual impairments include low vision, color blindness, and blindness. People who are blind cannot use a computer monitor and must receive information from their computers via another sense—hearing or touch. People with low vision can also receive information through sound or touch, or they can modify their computer displays so the screen is more legible.

People who have visual impairments may be interested in the following assistive technology:

  • Screen enlargers
  • Screen readers
  • Speech recognition systems
  • Speech synthesizers
  • Refreshable braille displays
  • Braille embossers
  • Talking word processors
  • Large-print word processors


Hearing impairments encompass a range of conditions—from slight hearing loss to deafness. People who have hearing impairments might be able to hear some sound, but might not be able to distinguish words. People with this type of hearing impairment can use an amplifying device to provide functional hearing. Other people might not be able to hear sound at all. People who have hearing impairments need closed captioning for multimedia and/or narration.


Mobility impairments can be caused by a wide range of common illnesses and accidents such as arthritis, stroke, cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, loss of limbs or digits, spinal cord injuries, and repetitive stress injury, among others. As a result of these accidents or conditions, individuals might be unable to use (or be without) arms or fingers to interact with their computers using the standard keyboard or mouse.

People who have mobility impairments may be interested in the following assistive technology:

  • Speech recognition systems
  • On-screen keyboard programs
  • Keyboard filters
  • Touch screens
  • Alternative input devices

Language and speech

Language impairments include conditions such as aphasia (loss or impairment of the power to use or comprehend words, often as a result of brain damage), delayed speech (a symptom of cognitive impairment), and other conditions resulting in difficulties remembering, solving problems, or perceiving sensory information.

For people who have these impairments, complex or inconsistent visual displays or word choices can make using computers more difficult. This category can include persons for whom English is a second language. People who have language impairments may be interested in the following:

  • Keyboard filters
  • Speech recognition systems
  • Screen review utilities
  • Touch screens
  • Speech synthesizers

Learning or cognitive

Learning impairments can range from conditions such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder to retardation. Processing problems are the most common and have the most impact on a person's ability to use computer applications. These conditions interfere with the learning process.

Many people with these impairments are perfectly capable of learning if information is presented to them in a form and at a pace that is appropriate to them individually. During the learning process, many individuals with learning difficulties benefit from having a multi-sensory experience of audio speech paired with a visual representation. People who have learning impairments may be interested in the following:

  • Word prediction programs
  • Reading comprehension programs
  • Reading tools and learning disability programs
  • Speech synthesizers
  • Speech recognition programs

Accessibility is a celebration of diversity. Everyone has limitations and everyone gains from assistive technology. Examples include wheelchair ramps (curb cuts), closed-captioned TVs, and speech recognition software. Accessibility is also about respect for other’s abilities.

About the author: Glenna Shaw is a Certified Project Management Professional with the federal government and an active member of the PowerPoint Community. She is Microsoft Certified in PowerPoint and Word and holds a Certificate in Accessible Information Technology.

Applies to:
PowerPoint 2003