How do you read? A Reflection on Accessible Formats

Generalisation is not always a foible to be frowned at, but a a trait that makes it possible to standardise things and enables predictability in similar settings. The setback may only arise when we have to deal with those situations that do not fit in with the template we developed, cases otherwise known as outliers. We have outliers because the world is what it is due to diversity.

In this post, we are going to discuss one such scenario: that of managing the written word. One of humankind’s greatest invention is the writing system that has enabled it to pass on knowledge from one generation to the other.

The problem is that text from the beginning by its very nature had been stored in print and requires sight to be retrieved. Hence, every written word makes the following assumptions about the person to read it:

  • That the reader is able to understand the language used in the text;
  • That he or she can understand the language’s alphabet (including its numbers, punctuation Marks and related symbols); and
  • That he or she can see the print.

As you can see, the first and second assumptions have to do with the literacy of the reader. This literacy can be acquired through some level of education.

The last assumption has to do with sight: the person must not be print-disabled. A print-disabled person is one who is not able to read print, and this usually means blind and visually impaired readers.

Now with the dawn of the human rights-consciousness in the human race, all of these assumptions may not hold true. They leave others out. To address this, over the ages, alternative formats to provide accessibility to print-disabled people had been developed.

In the next sections, I will be looking at each of the formats, starting with large print which requires little effort for adjustment to the reader. This will be followed up by tactile reading, and finally the use of screen-readers.

Large Print

If someone is partially sighted, large print helps provide access to the written word. This is whereby the normal print is simply enlarged.

On a computer, use of the magnification programs also compensate for the standard font which may appear to be small. Hence, large print to some extent makes similar assumption to those of the standard print, except that the reader needs text presented in magnified form.

The Audio Format

Let us begin with the first assumption of being able to read the alphabet. Understanding the alphabet and numbers etc. requires that the person be literate and that he or she sees.

There are situations whereby a person may be literate, but may not see, or that he or she may see but not literate. People who fall into this category may both be served by having someone read to them. In fact, before the Gutenberg printing press, this is how most of the people read: some privileged scholar or monk would read out the written text to a number of people.

The audio format is perhaps the oldest alternative format that had been used. Audio is cheaper than production of other formats.

With the literature of blind people, there had been talking books, which inspired the audiobook as we know of it today.

The Tactile formats: Braille and Moon

Tactile means through touching. Totally blind people and some sighted people find that tactile reading is the only way they get to read the written word. There are two formats we can talk of: Braille1 and Moon.2

Although Braille is by far the most popular tactile reading format today, it was not always the case. Braille is successful on the basis that it had been cheap to produce as compared to other tactile formats.

The assumption that Braille makes is that the reader is not only literate, but that he or she understands the language and that he or she has got the hands to read the text.

Braille is effective for someone who never knew how print looks like. As a result, it is often used by people who had had blindness onset at childhood. Still, even for those people who became blind as adults, they can use it.

The other tactile reading format is the Moon. The Moon format is not widely used outside the United Kingdom. However, it is a system that uses raised shapes in the form of the print alphabet. It is suitable for those people who become blind later in life. As the symbols are like print, a person can easily carry on with his or her reading using their hands.

The setback with Moon is that it is expensive to produce, and many blindness agencies do not produce it.3 As a result, Braille remains the de facto alternative format to print for literate blind people.

DAISY

The Digital Access Information System (DAISY) format is also an specialised format that benefits students, researchers and other scholars who fall in-between. It combines the benefits of audio format and of a screen-reader to pack books in portable devices.

A DAISY text usually has speech accompany text on the screen. A person is able to navigate to any part of the text and review it.

Compared to screen-reading, DAISY is expensive to produce and to have the tools necessary to access the text. Because of that, the DAISY format is not popular outside the northern hemisphere.

Screen-readers

Screen-readers fall into their own category of audio. While sound is produced, we have another assumption to satisfy before one can use a screen-reader: that the person can hear the audio and that he or she is literate.

Screen-readers generally read digital text: any character that can be interpreted as text other than images. This is a large percentage of what the computer produces on the web, in documents, widgets and any window that communicates with the user. Thus, a screen-reader is perhaps the most preferred way to read text whether a person became blind at a tender age or not. The advantage is that it is does not need to be produced as we do audio or Braille. Instead, any text on a mobile or desktop platform can be read. This makes it possible to communicate with others in real-time.

The only setback with the screen-reader is that it is not suitable for reviewing text that relies on layout. For instance, tables and diagrams. This is where Braille will complement screen-readers.

Conclusion

Regardless of which way you use to read your books, it is interesting that the print remains the sole depository of the written word. The alternate formats we use for accessibility as blind people only serve to broaden the target readership and appeal of the message in print. This explains why the ultimate form of writing we have to strive to achieve is print: whether using a screen-reader, Braille or audio format, whatever you write, and as long as that has to be read outside the blind community, should be transcribed to print.

Accessibility of formats is often an issue when it comes to reading the text. This in my opinion explains why it does not make sense to have everyone in the society learn Braille or to use a screen-reader. Rather, the emphasis is on public agencies to produce accessible formats that can be used by different people.

The morale of this post? When dealing with accessible formats, remember that the most appropriate format in any situation is what the reader can comfortably read. His or her print disability is what determines how a person consumes the written word.


  1. Invented by Louis Braille in 1829 ↩︎

  2. Invented by William Moon in 1845. ↩︎

  3. Even the RNIB which used to produce Moon in the past no longer invests in its production as before. ↩︎

Ishe Chinyoka
Ishe Chinyoka
Access Technology Instructor

My research interests include operating systems, access technology, programming, and science fiction.

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