Creating Accessible Learning Materials — Microsoft Excel

Hey there! Ready to continue learning about how to make your course materials accessible? In keeping with our theme thus far, we’ll look at another program in the Microsoft Office Suite–Excel.  

As I’ve mentioned in the previous articles in the Creating Accessible Learning Materials series, each Microsoft Office program includes some overlap of accessibility features and best practices. So if you’re just joining us and haven’t read Creating Accessible Learning Materials – Microsoft Word or Creating Accessible Learning Materials – Microsoft PowerPoint, I encourage you to give those blog posts a read to gain a better understanding of how these features work.  

Accessible… Spreadsheets? 

Yes! Believe it or not, spreadsheets can—and should—be accessible. Individuals with disabilities will likely encounter times where they must view or edit a spreadsheet, so spreadsheet editing software that supports screen readers and keyboard-based navigation is crucial. Everyone should be able to make a quick table of data or manage their budgets no matter the method of interaction.  

In the context of online courses, classes like statistics require students to edit or create spreadsheets with large amounts of data to help them identify trends and make projections.   

Microsoft provides industry-leading support of those with disabilities and their needs when using their software. While the idea of navigating Microsoft Excel without a mouse seems daunting, many have become experts with it through patience and practice. 

If you are an instructor preparing an Excel spreadsheet for your students, you can take steps to verify they encounter as few barriers as possible. 

Keep Table Structure (Stupid) Simple 

When laying out the axis of your tables, organize your values and criteria into different sections. Avoid using a table within another table as the screen reader loses count of cells. The data loses meaning, and the student might get confused. 

Making sure to keep your data organized doesn’t just help those with screen readers of course, it helps everyone who is trying to read the data in your tables. It’s a win for everyone! 

Avoid Blank Cells 

Blank cells may not seem like a big issue, but they can confuse screen readers. When a screen reader reads through cells and comes across an empty one, it will just skip over it and read the next available cell. This creates problems for making a mental map of the data—the student will not know an entire row or column was just skipped.  

To solve this, fill any empty cells within your tables. If you have no data to put in cells, enter meaningful context as such like “N/A” or “Empty.”  

Start the table with the A1 cell as screen readers will typically start there. You can type in the title of the table, or some quick instructions on how to navigate your workbook. If the instructions are specific to those with a screen reader, you can make the text color match the background so it appears invisible to those without screen readers. 

Organize Worksheets Intentionally 

Just like keeping your tables organized, it’s important to keep them in an intentional order based on their contents when working with multiple worksheet tabs. Empty or disorganized worksheets makes it difficult to tab through and find information. If a worksheet references data from another worksheet, it should come after the referenced worksheet. This makes sure the user has the context to view the data.  

Ubiquitous Accessibility Tips 

You’ll find a few common tips for all Microsoft programs to maximize accessibility: 

  • Hyperlinks should appear as a descriptive title instead of the URL. Screen readers will spell out every single letter, which is a pain to listen to—especially with longer URLs.  
  • Any colors should be within the accessible threshold of contras, meaning all text should be easily readable. If you would like to check your background and foreground colors, WebAIM has a fantastic color contrast checking tool. When in doubt, the Microsoft Accessibility Checker will let you know if your colors aren’t right. Plain black and white is always best.  
  • If you include any images, include alt text.  
  • Use the built-in Accessibility Checker! It’s an extremely valuable, time-saving resource that Microsoft gives to you for free. Use it! 

Conclusion 

Hopefully these tips give you a better idea on how to make your Excel workbooks more accessible. You can find more information and best practices in the Microsoft articles listed in the Resources.  

And remember: any steps taken toward making your documents accessible is progress. Do what you realistically have time for and work to incorporate accessibility into the foundation of your processes so that it’s less work in the future. Learners will appreciate the work you do to make your instructional content more accessible. 

Resources

Make your Excel documents accessible to people with disabilities

Use a screen reader to explore and navigate Excel 

Author: Kyle Winchell, Instructional Media Support

Kyle enjoys working with various forms of media to help teach, tell stories, and bring experiences to those who may not have had the chance otherwise. Off time is usually spent learning new facts or skills, hanging out online with friends, or spending time with family.

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