X Close

Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'Accessibility' Category

Once more: Accessible documents from LaTeX

Jim R Tyson7 March 2021

This is blog outlines some changes to the advice I gave previously on how to produce accessible documents using LaTeX. The changes concern the production of PDFs for use digitally, and conversion from LaTeX to HTML.

ISD general guidance on producing accessible materials on its Accessibility Fundamentals pages still holds.

In that previous blog entry, I included as an aim to ‘get as close as possible to producing ‘tagged PDF’ or PDF/UA documents using LaTeX’. This is not currently doable. I replace it with the aim to ‘get as close as possible to producing reasonable accessible documents using LaTeX’. Given the long standing difficulties meeting accessibility requirements from LaTeX source in PDF the advice must be to produce HTML documents when accessibility is required.

In particular, I do not now recommend using the LaTeX package accessibility.sty to create tagged documents. Development of the package has been halted and the author no longer supports its use. If you are interested in the effort to produce tagged PDF from LaTeX source, then you should read this article from the TeX Usergroup newsletter, Tugboat. The author of the package mentioned in the article himself believes it is not yet ready for use in production. But, he writes, “with the tagpdf package it is already possible for adventurous users with a bit of knowledge in TEX programming to tag quite large documents”. I am not adventurous or knowledgeable enough to rise to that challenge.

With respect to mathematical content, I had previously recommended Pandoc which can convert to HTML with machine readable mathematical content. I have since looked more closely at this issue and I now prefer to use tex4ht which has some useful features, including the ability to include the LaTeX code for mathematical content in a page. It is also the package recommended by TUG. There is good documentation on the TUG website. However, tex4ht does not produce Microsoft Word documents from LaTeX, and so Pandoc is still the best tool if that is required. And Pandoc does still do the job if you don’t need extra features.

In the light of these and other issues, I have made the switch completely to using RMarkdown. This allows me to mix lightweight mark up, LaTeX mathematical code and HTML in one document. Using HTML to insert graphics allows me to include alt text which is not otherwise possible.

There is still to my knowledge no solution for presentations made with Beamer or similar packages. Whereas I previously suggested using the package pdfcomment to annotate images on slides made with LaTeX, I do not now since I have discovered that the comments are not well understood by screenreader software.

The current situation means that we can do very little to support colleagues with accessibility issues in LaTeX workflows and especially with respect to presentations and providing alternative text for images, beyond the advice we have already provided.

Accessible documents from LaTeX

Jim R Tyson22 July 2020

Some advice and information in this blog is superceded by this post.

Note: in this piece, many of the specific LaTeX examples are taken from package vignettes or documentation.  All packages mentioned have CTAN links.

ISD has published good general guidance on producing accessible materials on its Accessibility Fundamentals pages, with links to a host of useful resources.

While it is relatively straightforward to follow the guidelines and meet the standards set for users of Microsoft Office and for web developers, it is still not clear to many of us LaTeX (and I include markdown) users what we should and can (and maybe cannot) do.

I want to make a few points about the what, and then outline a few essential hows.

There are three aims here:

  1. get as close as possible to producing ‘tagged PDF’ or PDF/UA documents using LaTeX;
  2. produce HTML from LaTeX for screenreader software;
  3. produce Microsoft Word from LaTeX for consumers who need to modify a document themselves for accessibility purposes.

These aims are met by using the LaTeX package accessibility and the open source document conversion utility pandoc.

The package accessibility is found on this CTAN page.  To produced structured, tagged PDF include

\usepackage[[tagged, highstructure]]{accessibility}

in the document preamble.

I am not adressing using Beamer here: the same general considerations apply and ordinary LaTeX techniques can be used. Beamer cannot currently be used with the accessibility package mentioned above. To add alternative text to a Beamer presentation you can use the package pdfcomment from this CTAN archive page. At the moment, I can offer no good solution for dealing with existing Beamer presentations, but ISD is looking into what might be doable, including working on the compatibility of the accessibility package and Beamer. I am now using markdown to produce html presentations rather than PDF.

Before I get into specifics, I want to emphasize that where possible, we should try to provide people with documents that they can modify to suit their needs and that therefore in many cases a Microsoft Office or HTML document is more usefully accessible than a PDF. Pandoc makes conversion from LaTeX to HTML very simple and you can use LaTeX mathematics in your documents to be converted to HTML with either MathML or Mathjax options.


LaTeX users producing text documents are probably already covering the need for clearly structured text with headings by using the \section{} family of commands. It is worth considering use of the package hyperref.sty so that you can create clickable cross-references in your documents and a clickable table of contents. Screenreader users will find hyperlinked sections and a clickable table of contents very useful.  Hyperref can also take care of the language metadata of your PDF. Programs that access your PDF should be able to determine the language (or main language) of the document.  One way to do this is to include this hyperref command in the preamble:


Using a sans serif font, like computer modern sans serif will help make your document easier to read. LaTeX users who are typesetting mathematics should note that what research has been published has not – to my knowledge – addressed the issue of font choice for mathematics (or logic, or linguistics, chemistry and so on). Just as important is to use a good size for text. I try to use 12pt body text and 14pt and 16pt headers. The code to change font is as follows and should be in your preamble


You can use the package setspace to change linespacing in a document to 1.5, with the command


Many readers benefit from slightly wider than normal margins.  The default margins for LaTeX documents are already quite generous leading to a line-scan length that is comfortable for most readers.  If you do wish to change the margins, you should use the package geometry from this CTAN archive. There are a number of ways to use geometry.  You can use it with options in your preamble like this:



\usepackage[total={6.5in,8.75in},top=1.2in, left=0.9in, includefoot]{geometry}

Or you can use the command \geometry{} in your preamble like this:

\geometry{a4paper, margin=2in}

Use bold \textbf{} for emphasis and avoid italic. If you wish to modify an existing document that uses \emph{} (which we have conscientiously preferred for decades) you can include the following code

    \@nomath\em \if b\expandafter\@car\f@series\@nil
    \normalfont \else \bfseries \fi}

in the preamble of your document to change the default appearance of emphasis.

You can use the package xcolor available from this TeX archive page and command \pagecolor{Ivory} (for example) to change the background colour of a PDF for electronic use.


Make your hyperlinks clearly distinguishable from text; make them meaningful (don’t use the URL itself or text like ‘click here’; make sure that any colour contrast complies with the guidelines on this WCAG colour contrast guidance page.) If your document is likely to be disseminated in print form, then it is useful to add a short and easily typable URL for print format readers, eg https://tinyurl.com/contrastguidance.

To get a properly presented URL use code like this:

\href{http://www.ucl.ac.uk/isd}{ISD home page.}

To control the colours used with hyperlinks you can include something like the following in your preamble after calling the hyperref package:


Images and tables

The package accessibility mentioned earlier, provides a LaTeX command \alt{} which can be used to add alternative text in any float environment.  Unfortunately \alt{} from package accessibility cannot be used with the Beamer presenation package.

While good captioning for images and tables will enhance accessibility, where necessary alternative text should describe not just what data is in a table for example EU GDP by Country 2010 to 2018 but what its relevance is : EU GDP by Country 2018 to 2020 showing the trend of reduced growth over time. The reader may choose to skip the data table sometimes if the alternative text is clear enough. Also be sure to use \lable{} and \ref{} to enable screenreader software to quickly locate relevant data or images.

If you use images which are essentially decorative, then use \alt{} to let the screenreader software know that.

Mathematical content

LaTeX source code including mathematical content can produce screenreader friendly HTML via pandoc. The best result with most modern browsers (including Edge, Safari, Chrome and Firefox) is achieved using the MathJax option on conversion. The instructions to do this are on the pandoc demo page. In all examples so far tested (and we will test more, and more fully) the mathematical content was read semantically rather than typographically so that a fraction is read “fraction with denominator X and numerator y” (with some minor variation, ie sometimes reading “ratio” rather than “fraction”).


Matthew Towers has written a useful page about accessibility and pdf files, although it has been overtaken by events with respect to useful LaTeX packages.

The TeX User Group (tug) web page on PDF accessibility and PDF standards.

Minimise eye-strain with the BeeLine Reader alternative format

Eliot Hoving31 March 2020

The BeeLine Reader alternative format is now available on UCL Moodle for students and staff.

You and your students have almost certainly felt eye-strain from too many hours reading online, or confusion at staring at a wall of internet text and not knowing where to begin.

The BeeLine Reader provides an innovative solution. It works by adding a colour-gradient to text which allows the eye to focus and move along one line to the next. It designed to make reading online quicker and easier on the eyes. Here’s an example.

With the BeeLine Format:

Beeling alternative format. Font colour of text has a colour gradient to help with reading.


Text before Beeline format. Font colour is black.

Example Text: Aerogel by Dr Zoe Laughlin licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

I personally found that it took a while to get used to the BeeLine colours, but thereafter I was able to identify key headings and sentences much more effectively.

You can try out the BeeLine Reader on your UCL Moodle course now. Simply locate a Word or PDF document, click the Ally download icon net to the file name and select BeeLine Reader. Ally will convert the document to an HTML file for you to read in your browser with the BeeLine colour gradient.

Due to COVID-19, students are likely to be reading more content online now that they don’t have access to UCL printing services. BeeLine Reader and Ally’s other alternative formats can greatly assist all students, especially those with specific needs, to effectively engage with digital content whilst supporting their health and wellbeing, so please recommend Ally’s alternative formats to your students. You can learn more about Blackboard Ally by reading the staff guide or promote it to students using the student guide.

Teaching continuity: Accessibility and remote working for staff

Samantha Ahern27 March 2020

As most of us will not be working remotely, online collaboration tools and meetings will becoming an increasing part of our working pattern.

How do we ensure that all colleagues are able to participant in online meetings and collaborate effectively with others?

With regards to the documents and content we create and share with each other, these should follow the Accessibility Fundamentals guidance. The same as if you were creating documents and content to share with students.

But what about virtual meetings?

If you have colleagues with hearing or visual impariments there are a few things to consider:

  • Have you checked in advance if anyone needs communication support?
  • Make sure you say your name before speaking.
  • Use a meeting agenda to give a clear reference point for everyone to follow.
  • Make sure only one person is talking at a time.
  • Speak clearly, not too slowly, and use normal lip movements, facial expressions and gestures.
  • Have video enabled for those currently speaking and look directly at your webcam.
    • Use good lighting to help everybody see each other clearly, which is important for lipreading.
    • If you are using a headset with a microphone, please be mindful of the position of the microphone. Avoid covering your mouth.

A range of video calling services offer auto-captioning  or transcription services, however these cannot be guaranteed to be accurate:

When selecting tools please refer to the guidance from UCL’s Data Protection team: COVID-19 Data Protection FAQs


  • https://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/how-we-help/businesses-and-employers/employer-hub/supporting-employees-with-hearing-loss/communicating-with-staff-who-are-deaf-or-have-hearing-loss/

MS Teams live captions are here!

Samantha Ahern27 March 2020

We are pleased to announce that automatic captioning for MS Teams meetings is now available.

However, it is only available to those using the Desktop App version of Microsoft Teams and captions are only available in English US at present.

The automatic captions need to be enabled at an individual user level during the Teams meeting and are not saved, they are not available in a recording of the meeting.

Note: Captions cannot be activated or recorded when starting a call from a chat.

To clarify, you can and should be able to activate captions when you schedule a meeting that is associated to a calendar or someone creates a meeting associated to a calendar and invites you. Thus, in order to guarantee that you provide the accessibility (captions) to your colleagues, give preference to scheduling a meeting instead of starting just a call from a chat.
Teams Meeting control panel.

Meeting control panel

To turn on the automatic captioning whilst is a MS Teams meeting, click on the three dots in the meeting control panel.

Select Turn on Live Captions (preview, English US only). Live captions should now appear.

To turn of the live captions, click on the three dots and select Turn off Live Captions.

As the live captions are automatically generated there will be some inaccuracies. However, you can help improve the accuracy by:

  • Speaking clearly, slowly, and directly into the mic. As your distance from the mic increases, captions may become less accurate.
  • Avoiding locations with background noise.
  • Avoiding having multiple people speaking at the same time.

Things to note:

  • If someone is speaking with an accent, captions may be less accurate.
  • Obscenities will be starred out.
  • Teams may use a meeting’s subject, invitation, participant names, and attachments to improve caption accuracy.

More information about and how to use MS Teams is available in the UCL Teams Support Centre  including more information about live captions, in addition colleagues from the Digital Accessibility Hub have produced a Teams Accessibility Guide – Teams_AccessibilityToolsGuide_v3




Accessibility and teaching continuity

Samantha Ahern13 March 2020

With the need to move teaching online digital accessibility becomes ever more important. Your Moodle course may become the primary means of both being taught and accessing material, and there are therefore multiple considerations that will impact upon how you design your course and its content.

  • Are you aware of any reasonable adjustments students have in place? These will need to be continue to met even if the student isn’t currently on campus;
  • What tools and technologies are available to your students? Some may be accessing a course from an area with poor internet connectivity and thus unable to access material such as video;
  • Where are your students? They may be in different time zones, so you may want to consider use of asynchronous activities using forums, blogs, or wikis.

Developing additional material

Simple steps to make your content more accessible for everyone can be found on the Accessibility Fundamentals page. For more targeted guidance for specific kinds of content review the following sections.

Adding new or amending existing documents

Video and audio, such as pre-recorded lectures

Online seminars or group study sessions

Further support

Full guidance can be found on the UCL Creating accessible content webpages. Face-to-face Digital Accessibility drop-in sessions have been suspended, however we hope to offer remote sessions.