University of Reading cookie policy

We use cookies on to improve your experience, monitor site performance and tailor content to you.

Read our cookie policy to find out how to manage your cookie settings.

Guest Blog By Prof Richard Mitchell

Accessibility Issues in Mathematics using Office and Ally

By Prof Richard Mitchell

It is well known that there are difficulties as regards making mathematics accessible when presented in documents or presentations. Colleagues have tried to work in LaTex with some success, but many problems remain. I use MS Office, and although there are tools in both Word and Powerpoint, as well as Ally in Blackboard, there remain various barriers. This blog explains these, and I hope that the writers of these programs take note and address their failures.


For many years I used MathType for entering equations. Generally, I was happy with it, its interface was pretty good, but it did not have accessibility as regards screen readers. As a result, I moved (reluctantly) to Office’s Equation Editor. Whilst it does have some accessibiity features, it suffers from having a very poor user interface, and it constrains the user to using just one font (it does allow you to say you want to use a different font, so as to match the rest of the PowerPoint presentation for instance, but then does not make the change. In the transition from MathType to Equation Editor I used the auto convert facility which worked, but not always, which was also annoying.

In advice, such as that from Sheffield[1], for equations or formulae in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint the inbuilt equation editor should be used. Standard text with superscripts or special characters should not be used (e.g. using superscripts as powers or using the Pi symbol), as they will not be recognised as equations and will be read incorrectly by assistive technologies. However, this is a) awkward, upsets formatting, and b) is incompatible with Ally.

Example issues

The image below shows the result of using the auto convert facility from a powerpoint slide which was generated using MathType. Note, as is good practice, the background is offwhite and the font is dark blue not black.

Image shows the result of using the auto convert facility from a powerpoint slide which was generated using MathType. The symbol lambda is changed and appears in a differnt font to other text

It is an example where I have a symbol in the text, a lambda, which is poor for screen readers, but the equations have been changed correctly, albeit using a different font to that used in the slides, which looks unprofessional.

I uploaded the PowerPoint to Blackboard and used Ally’s facility to download the presentation as a PDF document. The equivalent slide appears as follows.

Image shows the conversion of PowerPoint by Blackboard Ally. The lambda symbol is correctly converted but the mathematical equations are lost in the translation. They are not displayed at all.

It has correctly handled the greek character in the sentence but has failed to show the two main equations. The issue as regards Ally is that they can translate an equation on its own, but if there are say many equations in a text box, nothing is shown.

So, I replaced the lambda with an equation, and converted the text box which included equations into a series of equations, the slide looking as follows.

The image shows the conversion of PowerPoint equations. Each equation in separate PowerPoint equation.

I re-uploaded the PowerPoint and used Ally to download the slides as PDF and I got the following.

When equations are used in PowerPoint and this is converted to PDF by Ally the lambda symbol is missing but the equations display correctly but with a different font to other content

As can be seen, the lambda no longer appears, though the equations are there. However, the different font makes it look unprofessional.

If instead, I ask Ally to download the presentation in html, it is even worse.

When the PowerPoint equation slide downloaded with Ally conversion to HTML gives an error message "converting existing slides poor mix of font looks poor. This is an example of putting a symbol rather than an equation. Also there are multiple equations in a text box.

Ally has not even attempted to convert the equations.

Other problems with Ally


I often add notes to PowerPoints, but when you use Ally to convert the powerpoint, those notes do not appear.

To address this, you can separately ask PowerPoint to generate a Word document with the notes. However, that document has severe accessibility issues. It generates a table with no header. The table includes images of the slides, but there is no Alt text description of the image. One use of the notes section is to include URLs to web pages for further reading, but you cannot add a ‘link tip’ to these URLs.

Sizing issues

When Ally converts a PowerPoint, it often uses a different font size. This can mean that text which appears at one point on the slide, appears at a different point. A consequence of this is that the text so generated is now on top of something else on the slide. Then, when Ally gives its verdict of a presentation or complains about contrast issues, which are only an issue because of their error in conversion.

Ally’s verdict of presentation

Having generated some of these, I uploaded them to Blackboard and let Ally assess the result.

PowerPoint generated notes as a Word document has many accessibility issues. Blackboar ally results for different files uploaded.

The issues reported by Ally are:

  • Notes doc – poor score - no Headings – images have no Alt Text
  • Ally PDF – complains does not have language set
  • My pptx and PDF generated by Office are ‘perfect’


I want to make my documents accessible and have been trying to do it right when using Office. My task has been made more difficult due to Office’s own equation editor being poorer than MathType. Screen readers are ok with the equations, so I am told. Ally can generate documents and slides in alternative formats, but there are bugs in Ally. For material with equations, it is probably better to generate PDFs from the source, rather than letting Ally do so. Microsoft and Ally could do much better.


About the author

Richard Mitchell is a Professor of Cybernetics at University of Reading. He has been involved in research and industry projects worth nearly £2m, many of these being Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) projects. Professor Mitchell was awarded a University Teaching Fellowship in 2011 for his contribution to Teaching and Learning across the University. He was made Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) in 2014.