Making Accessible PDFs from PowerPoint

 In Articles, PDF Accessibility
Graphic showing computer monitors with slides on the left pointing to tagged and accessible PDF files on the right.

Last week you learned how to make accessible PDFs from Word. This week, we concentrate on PowerPoint.

If you reviewed last week’s article, you’ll notice many similarities between making accessible PDFs from Word and making them accessible from PowerPoint. The top reason for this is that they are both Microsoft programs and therefore have several commonalities. Still, there are other issues that are unique to PowerPoint. We will go over them now.

PowerPoint’s Built-In Functionality

Presentation Templates

Using a Microsoft PowerPoint theme or template will give you a solid base for creating a presentation now that will need little to no remediation later. The templates provided within PowerPoint have already been setup with some accessibility considerations in mind; therefore, using them could help you get an accessible PDF quicker when it’s time to save your presentation as a PDF.

Depending on your authoring decisions, you could break the template, but at least you’re starting out set up for success. This is especially useful for beginners. One nice thing, for example, is that your headings are more likely to be correctly structured when using a template.

Once you are more comfortable with accessibility functionality in PowerPoint, you can create your own branded templates that are fully accessible.

PRO DESIGNER TIP: If you create a branded PowerPoint template for your organization, include a section at the end for all of your brand’s logos and images, with the alt text already included.

Screenshot of PowerPoint presentation with slides on the left, slide in the middle with all variations of CommonLook's logos and seals and then an Alt Text sidebar on the right.


If you need to include lists in your slide content, use the functionality that PowerPoint provides. In fact, in most slide layouts, if you just start typing, PowerPoint will create the lists for you. This is important because when a screen reader is reading a document to someone, and it comes across a list that’s been created correctly, it will tell the person there’s a list there, how many items are in the list. When the screen reader is done reading the list it will say, “Out of list.” 

When it comes to visually formatting your lists, here is an important consideration to be aware of: don’t just hit “Enter” and leave an empty line between list items to increase the spacing between them. There may not be a bullet or other label at the beginning of the empty line but, behind the scenes, you are setting things up so that screen readers will tell people your list is longer than it really is. Instead, select the list on the slide and then, in the “Home” tab in the toolbar, open the Paragraph formatting dialog box in the “Paragraph” group. Then, use the functionality there to increase the spacing between list items.


Other great functionality that’s easy to use in PowerPoint is the ability to easily add tables to your slides. That being said, do not put a table on the slide just to help with formatting or layout. When screen readers and other assistive technologies encounter tables, they tell the user that there is a table in the present, how big it is (the number of columns and rows) and then tries to find headers and data cells and associate them with each other. Of course, when a table is used for formatting, that’s not accurate structural information!

When creating tables for data in your presentation try to keep them as simple as possible. Simple tables are easier for everyone to read, whether or not assistive technology is being used. It would be better to have two (or even three) simple tables in your presentation than one complex table.

From a design standpoint, be sure to use the cell borders (the lines) in your tables. The lines are helpful – and even crucial – for some people visually looking at the table. Be aware of the tabbing order too. Once your table is built, put your cursor in the top left cell and then navigate through the table with just the Tab key on the keyboard. If it’s not read logically, in the order that you want, you need to redesign your table.

Unlike MS Word, if you have a data table that’s so long that it needs to be divided into two slides, PowerPoint does not have the functionality to build it as one long table. Unfortunately, that will have to be fixed in the PDF. However, if you have a table spanning multiple slides, be sure to repeat the column headers at the top of each slide so that when people are looking at the second page (or slide), for example, people can make the right associations between headers and data without having to flip back and forth between pages.

Finally, don’t use Tables just for formatting or layout. Yep, it’s that important that I’m mentioning it again.

Other Considerations

Color and Contrast

While you are creating your presentation, make sure to avoid visual cues (color, font, size, style, location on the page, etc.) as the only way of conveying information. If you use color, for example, as the only way to indicate some numbers in a data table are negative, screen reader users, as well as people looking at the document who have certain types of color blindness, are going to miss the fact that some numbers are negative. The same goes for if you use bold or italics to indicate information. Screen readers won’t announce that the text is bold or italicized and, even if they did, people might not know what that formatting was intended to convey.

Along similar lines, make sure that you choose colors that provide sufficient contrast between foreground and background, surrounding text, etc. A great – and free – tool to help check for color contrast is the Colour Contrast Analyser (by the Paciello Group). I love this one because I don’t even have to know the hex codes for checking colors. I can just use the medicine dropper to sample and compare colors. When it comes to testing contrast, there are different ratios allowed for large text as opposed to “regular” sized text. Text that’s considered “Large” is when it’s bold *and* 14-point font or 18-point font (or larger).

Color Contrast Analyser analyzing foreground and background colors


When it comes to including graphical elements in your presentations, there are a few things to consider. First is “placement.”  When inserting an image or a chart, for example, in the “Text Wrapping” options, choose “In Line with Text.”  While this doesn’t necessarily lend itself to creating the most beautiful documents, it’s an important detail from an accessibility standpoint. Placing these items in line with text will help to assure that they get read in the proper reading order without having to go fix things in the PDF (a potentially more difficult task).

Second, group multiple images that are being used to convey one concept. We’ve seen this in PowerPoint slides where multiple lines, arrows, and etc., are used to put together a flow chart or some other “bigger picture” graphic. When these pieces are all grouped together it makes the next step easier and more accurate.

Finally, provide Alternative text. When a screen reader encounters a Figure tag in a PDF, it’ll tell the user that there’s a graphic on the page (it’ll literally say, “Graphic”). However, if there isn’t any Alternative text, people using screen readers won’t know what’s important about that graphic and why it’s there. Depending on your version of PowerPoint, where you do this might have recently changed. Either select the image and then, from its context menu choose “Format Picture,” go to “Layout and Properties,” and type in your description (in the “Description” field, not the “Title” field). In newer versions of PowerPoint, select the image, go to the “Format” tab on the toolbar, and choose “Alt Text” in the ribbon. (When images that should be grouped together are then it’s easier to provide one alternative text to the entire graphical concept.)

Reading Order

If you create your presentation using PowerPoint’s built-in design templates, having an accurate reading order is easier to achieve than “hand building” your slides. But the order can still go wrong if you start adding additional text boxes. Use the functionality in PowerPoint to check the reading order and fix it if needed. That said, it is a rather difficult and confusing process. It is easier, and more intuitive, to check and fix the reading order with CommonLook Office.

A couple of reading order “things to keep in mind” are to place your images “In Line with Text” and use the Column functionality to format text into columns on your slides. Also, avoid inserting additional Text Boxes and Sidebars. Sure, they can look nice, but they introduce a lot of accessibility pitfalls that are difficult to fix and most likely would need to be fixed in the PDF (a significantly more difficult task).

Creating the PDF

Once your work is done in PowerPoint, it’s time to convert your document to PDF format. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, people don’t have to have PowerPoint on their machines to be able to read your content if you convert it to PDF. All they would need is the free Adobe Reader. Also, PowerPoint itself has some accessibility issues (for example with tables and how they are read) but these issues can be fixed in the PDF.

Using the correct PDF creation choice can make all the difference. You can take a perfectly structured PowerPoint, choose “Print to PDF,” and end up with an untagged – and completely inaccessible – PDF. When assistive technologies are reading PDFs to people, they are reading from the Tags. So, if a document is not tagged, there is nothing there for the screen reader to read. Of course, this will never be an issue if you are using CommonLook Office. CommonLook Office is a plugin for PowerPoint (and Word) that will take you step by step through your presentation to address and fix any accessibility issues it finds and then, as the last step, it will create a fully tagged, 100% accessible PDF. And the beauty of it is you don’t have to know anything about tagging PDFs. Sure, MS PowerPoint has an accessibility checker but CommonLook goes much further. Check out this comparison between the two tools.