When I was in elementary, middle, and high school, I often struggled to read diagrams that my teacher would show in class or print on a worksheet or exam. It wasn’t until college that I learned about creating and adapting accessible diagrams for low vision in a science class, and I immediately noticed that my grades on assignments that featured diagrams were higher, because I was finally able to see all of the information that had been presented to me. While I can’t go back to my high school biology teacher and ask them if I can retake a test I failed years ago due to the diagrams being too small to see, I can share my tips for how to create accessible diagrams for low vision and how to adapt diagrams so that they are easier to see for students with vision loss.
What makes diagrams inaccessible for low vision?
There were many different factors that contributed to my difficulty with reading diagrams with low vision, some of which include:
- Labels not being in large print
- Images not being enlarged along with the rest of the text
- Low resolution graphics that were blurry when enlarged
- Poor contrast colors, i.e gray pictures on a white background
- Having difficulty with trying to figure out where the arrows/lines were pointing
- Text labels being close together, which would be difficult for me to identify with double vision- especially as my double vision would get worse later in the day.
The good news is there are many options for solving these accessibility problems and creating/adapting accessible diagrams for low vision, most of which can be done by a classroom teacher or paraprofessional.
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Elements of accessible diagrams for low vision
While it can be difficult for students to identify what makes a diagram inaccessible for them, many students can look at an accessible diagram and identify what makes it easy for them to read/interpret. Some of these elements that come to mind for my low vision condition include:
- Color-coded images that use saturated/vivid colors
- Print disability friendly fonts that are easy to read- I typically used Arial in the classroom
- Digital copies of diagrams that can be enlarged on a computer with the zoom function or screen magnification
- High resolution graphics that can be enlarged without the text or important visual details getting blurry
- When available, 3D models that can either be examined in the physical environment, or magnified on a computer
Some students with low vision benefit from tactile diagrams that contain raised lines and images/textures, though I do not have much experience with using this firsthand as I have a brain condition that limits the sensitivity in my hands.
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How to make diagram labels easier to read with low vision
When my college science professor provided accessible diagrams on exams, they would provide a bulleted list of all of the labels, listed clockwise with the corresponding color (if the diagram was color coded) or a brief description of the shape. This was incredibly helpful as I was unable to see the text labels on the original diagram since it was difficult to enlarge them without compromising image quality. In a different class, my professor provided a link to the original diagram so that students could read the diagram directly on the school website, instead of taking a screenshot of the image and adding it to the assignment.
For assignments where I had to label a diagram on my own, my science professor allowed students to write out the labels and a brief definition/description instead of writing the labels directly on the diagram. While it is helpful to know where an item is located, my professor wanted to provide multiple options for students and I was grateful to have this option.
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Writing alt text and image descriptions for accessible diagrams
What is alt text? What is an image description?
Alt text is a short, written description that displays in place of an image if the image fails to load that tells people what is in an image, such as text, colors, or basic essential details. Screen readers will read alt text aloud so that users who are blind or that have low vision can understand what is in an image. If someone fails to add alt text for an image, the screen reader will either simply say “image” or ignore the image entirely, which means that users miss potentially valuable visual content. If an image loads correctly, alt text is invisible to users that do not use assistive technology.
An image description is a longer description that is typically exposed, meaning anyone can see it whether they are using assistive technology or not, though users can also insert image descriptions in a similar manner to alt text that remain hidden. An image description serves as a descriptive caption, which is great for people with vision loss, language learners, or people with cognitive or processing disabilities. I recommend keeping image descriptions exposed or having a link to image descriptions in content so that users can benefit from the additional description.
What to include in alt text/image descriptions
The alt text for an accessible diagram should provide a basic description of what is in a diagram. For example, if I was writing alt text for a diagram of a frog, I might use the description “a diagram that shows the anatomy of a lime green frog with color-coded sections across the body.” If this was for an assignment or exam with multiple diagrams, I would also include the question number so that students can easily jump between graphics while using a screen reader.
The image description or extended description should include the following information:
- A list of labels in clockwise order, with a visual description of what they are pointing to. For example, with the frog diagram, one of the labels is for the web located between the toes
- Color shade names can be used when writing image descriptions for color-coded graphics, i.e ear drum, colored maroon red
- Do not add additional information that is not included on the diagram, such as the function of a body part
- The list of labels can be structured as a bulleted list, which is helpful for students who use a screen reader
- How To Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions for the Visually Impaired
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Presenting diagrams in audio/video format
Another option for creating accessible diagrams is to present them in an audio/video format where a description of the diagram is read out loud, and additional labels can be drawn/typed over the diagram. My favorite free apps for recording audio/video descriptions for diagrams are Clarisketch and Shadow Puppet, though users can also create recordings with Microsoft PowerPoint if they prefer to use a desktop app.
- Clarisketch App For Low Vision Review
- Creating Video Tutorials With The Free Shadow Puppet App
- Creating Inclusive and Accessible Video Lectures For Visually Impaired Audiences
- Record your screen in PowerPoint (microsoft.com)
Getting accessible diagrams through AEM services
Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) services provide physical and digital accessible copies of a variety of educational materials including textbooks, exams, classroom assignments, and diagrams at no cost to the teacher. In Virginia, AEM services are provided through AIM-VA and can create custom accessible materials to fit a student’s personal accessibility needs. Teachers can submit copies of educational materials for their student(s) with print disabilities, and the AEM services will take care of the rest and send the accessible copies of materials back to the teacher.
More tips for creating accessible diagrams for low vision
- While it’s helpful to use color-coded charts, color alone should not be used to communicate information as this can be difficult for students that are colorblind or have color deficiencies.
- If information is color coded by category, it helps to mention the color names that are attached to each category, and to include the color name when writing out a list of the labels.
- Students may prefer to enlarge diagrams on an iPad/tablet instead of a computer because it is easier to hold the device close to their face or in line with their bifocal.
- Accessible materials from an outside source should be requested as soon as the teacher knows they will be using them
- Teachers can find free tactile graphic templates with the Tactile Library website- Tactile Library Web Site