Dr Amanda Louise Brunton, Researcher Development Associate, Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Cambridge
This Thing addresses some of the ways in which you might consider adapting the presentation of your research to ensure that it is accessible to as wide a range of people as possible. Scope, the disability equality charity in England and Wales, estimates that 21% of working age adults are disabled. You can assume that about 1 in 5 people who might wish to access your research – be it through publications, presentations, or posters - have some kind of disability which may potentially impact on their ability to access your material. Being mindful of accessibility also often makes it easier and more comfortable to access your work even for those without a specific access requirement. So what can you do to make sure you’re not leaving behind almost a fifth of your audience?
There are a few key ways in which you can make your written communication easy to access – some of these will seem a bit more obvious than others!
Firstly, make sure that your font is something simple, familiar, and clear, and use that font consistently. Don’t change around! Users rely on familiarity of the ‘shapes’ of words to read rapidly and comfortably, so the more complicated or unfamiliar the font, the harder it is to read the text. Your font should also be at an appropriate size for the format it appears in – at least 20 point size is recommended for a presentation, but smaller is fine for a document meant to be read up close.
It’s also important to make sure that your work is accessible for those with visual impairments who may rely on screen reader technology to access digital content. Screen readers will read text from the screen out loud, including any key navigation points around a website or document. Using correctly formatted headings will allow a screen reader to tell the listener when a new title or heading has been used. Microsoft Word has a set of styles that allow you to do this easily, and it makes navigating long documents easier for everyone – not just those with visual impairments.
It is also important to make sure that there is adequate contrast between your text colour and your background colour so that your text is visually distinct. Black text on a white background is the default for web content in particular, but a slightly lower contrast – dark grey text on white, for example, can reduce visual fatigue for all users, and can be particularly helpful for readers with dyslexia. WebAIM’s contrast checker is a great way to make sure your text and background have a good level of contrast.
Screen reader technology can offer assistance to readers with visual impairments when it comes to images, but only if you take the time to offer alternative text describing the images. In Microsoft Word, the alt-text menu is under the ‘Format Picture’ menu, and prompts you to give the image a title, as well as a brief description. Make sure that your description makes it clear not just what the picture is of, but any details that will help the reader understand the image in its context. A chart or graph should have the relevant information briefly summarised in the context of the document it is presented in. An image should be described with as much detail as is required for a visually impaired user to get the same sense of what is on the page as anyone else. Dr Amy Kavanagh, a disability advocacy campaigner, has a great twitter thread here on how to write good alt text. She (and her guide dog Ava!) is fabulous, and I strongly recommend following her on Twitter to see more of her amazing work. You can see more of Amy’s work here.
I’d also really encourage you to download the NVDA Screen Reader. It’s a free screen reader programme that is extremely reliable, and can be used to test out your document or website to make sure that it’s working smoothly.
The same rules apply for your presentation slides as for any other written communication – make sure that you’re using a nice clear font, with appropriate contrast, and at a size that can be easily seen. It’s still good practice to add alt-text to any images or charts you are using if you’re going to distribute your slides digitally, but in the presentation itself, the alt-text is not beneficial. Instead, make sure to briefly describe any images or charts to your audience so that they are aware of any images you’re showing – people sitting at a distance or without a clear line of sight will thank you too!
The way you speak as you present your work is also really important. It’s important to speak at a pace where people can follow, and try to project your voice at a good volume if you can. It’s also really important to use a microphone if one is provided. This rests your voice (not everyone can speak at a loud volume for 20 minutes for a conference paper!) but it also helps your audience. It’s especially important if your room is fitted with a hearing loop (sometimes also called an induction loop). This is a system that will take the audio input from a microphone, and make it available as an audio channel that hearing aids can be tuned into. Make sure you stay close enough to the microphone that it’s picking you up nice and clearly!
Lastly, if your presentation involves a Q&A session, it can be really helpful to repeat the question you’ve just been asked back to your audience. It’s possible some people weren’t able to hear the question, and it has the added benefit of giving you a little bit of breathing space to think about the question that you’ve just been asked.
In-person presentations feel like something from a distant past for many of us, and a lot of conference presentations and meetings are now online. There are a few things you can do to make sure that your presentation is well-designed for accessibility.
If there is a lot of visual distraction in your background (for example, if there are people moving around behind you, or you can’t clearly be visually distinguished from your background) consider either adding a background filter, or blurring your background so that you are the only thing that is in focus.
It’s also helpful to be mindful of how you use the text chat feature! It’s really good to use it as not everyone can speak on the microphone. However, attendees using a screen reader will struggle if it’s being used for idle chit-chat! Don’t fill up the chat to @everyone with off-topic remarks.
This is by no means an exclusive list of ways that research can be made more accessible, but should provide you with a great place to start if accessible design is new to you. Take some time to review some of your research output – whether it’s a website, your thesis, or a conference paper and consider how you might review it for accessibility.
Webaim has some great guides on how you can make your digital content more accessible, and it’s well worth browsing through these articles.
Rebecca Mallett, Katherine Runswick-cole and Tabitha Collingbourne, ‘Guide for accessible research dissemination: presenting research for everyone’, Disability and Society 22.2 (2007) 205-207.
This is an extremely comprehensive guide to making presentations accessible, both for speakers and organisers of events.
Webaim’s contrast checker – a very easy-to-use tool for checking your work has adequate contrast to be read comfortable.
Download the NVDA screenreader.