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Towards a corporate policy on Accessible Format Materials

by Chloe Biscoe | Aug 06, 2015

Since December 2006, there has been a legal duty on all Public Sector Organisations to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people, the Disability Equality Duty or DED. This brings an obligation to produce a Disability Equality Scheme or DES. Your DES will usually say that you will make written information available in alternative accessible formats for those with reading difficulties.

 Private Sector Organisations do not have such a specific duty. However you do have certain obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act and it makes good Corporate Social Responsibility policy to think proactively about how information is made available to those with reading impairments, such as visual impairments, dyslexia or other cognitive or physical difficulty.

 This article discusses the steps you should take to:

  • Communicate your organisation’s messages effectively
  • to reading impaired staff, customers and other stakeholders;
  • whilst minimising costs in origination, administration and distribution of accessible format materials.

What are reasonable adjustments to help with reading? What formats are accessible to people with reading impairments?

Many dyslexic people also suffer from Visual Stress, also known as Meares-Irlen syndrome. They have difficulty focussing and moving their eyes in coordinated jumps to track words (”saccades”), such that the print may appear to move, swim or blur. Their needs are similar to those of partially sighted people. They may benefit from:

  1. Changing font size and style;
  2. Changing foreground and background colours;
  3. Changing the spacing between characters, words and lines;
  4. Being able to listen to the text using a screen reader with a Text-to-Speech (TTS) synthesiser.

Dyslexic people who have difficulties decoding the words of the text and blind people who cannot see it at all will also benefit from being able to listen to the text.

 You can easily provide for all these needs with a suitable electronic version of the text. Where people have the appropriate technology, they can use it to change the text to suit them, or to listen to it.

 Longer electronic documents will need to have structure - e.g. a table of contents where you can click on a chapter to go there. This is useful for anyone, but particularly important for blind people who can’t skim a document and look at page numbers easily.

 In addition, you may need to provide easy-read versions (abbreviated and simplified) of some documents for people with general learning difficulties. You should always make sure that documents are in Plain English which is easier and clearer for everyone to read and usually shorter.

 You will then only rarely be asked to provide documents in Braille, hard copy for large print etc, or audio files. People will usually prefer a document that they can get to now, e.g. over the web or intranet, rather than having to wait for someone to send it.

1) Avoid as far as possible having to provide documents in alternative formats: make them accessible in the first place as routine.

Try to avoid having to make documents accessible after they are finished.  “Post-Hoc Accessifying” (PHA) of documents is almost always:

  • Time-consuming;
  • Expensive;
  • Inefficient;
  • Too late;
  • So inconvenient that people mostly won’t ask for them (thank heavens, given the expense!);
  • and liable to be wrong as the accessifier doesn’t know the subject as well as the author does.

So:

2) Try to work accessibility into your document creation process.

This is not as easy as it could be. A start is to use Microsoft Word’s more efficient Styles rather than using the typical hodgepodge of ad hoc formatting that many of us do. Styles should be a normal part of enforcing corporate presentation standards. By using styles for headings, bullets etc you have already built basic navigation into your document, because you can automatically generate a table of contents that links back to each section.

 Authors need some (not much!) training to produce accessible documents. It would be better if word processors like Word provided Incidental Obligatory Accessibility, if they always asked the right questions and discouraged the wrong type of formatting, so that you wrote accessibly without trying and without needing to be skilful. 

 For example, to meet the needs of blind people all images need to have “alt text” with them, to describe the image if it is meaningful, or to remain empty if the image is purely decorative. Tables need rows and columns labelling, so that people relying on screen readers can hear to identify each cell.

 If authors can learn to do these things for themselves, then it takes little extra time - even less when the software prompts properly - and the author controls the content themselves.

3) If possible use Microsoft Word or html as your output format, rather than PDF.

Publishers and designers like PDF (Portable Document Format) because they can make an electronic document for people to read on a computer, but which looks exactly like it did on paper. They have full and detailed control of what can be quite complex formatting. They also have control of copying and printing and even apply sophisticated Digital Rights Management (DRM) to it if they wish. Many of these controls can make it difficult or impossible for the computer to read the text out loud - depending on the sophistication and expense of the screenreader software on the one hand and the skill of the user on the other.

 Above all publishers like PDFs because they probably sent the document to the printer as a PDF, so they can publish an electronic version extremely easily, on the web for example, almost as a by-product.

 It is possible to make PDFs accessible, but it is not easy. Typesetting is often subcontracted to people who are not concerned about the accessibility of the electronic version, so accessibility is often dire unless it is expressly demanded. We won’t go into detail here as to how to make a PDF accessible. Adobe publish a series of  documentstelling you how to do it. You can produce accessible PDFs with Adobe’s own InDesign publishing progam, but it is impossible with the rival Quark Express. Even accessible PDFs are very difficult to read on mobile phones, where the reading software is less well developed. As mobile phones increasingly become the universal device of choice, people will increasingly expect to be able to do this.

 Word, on the other hand produces accessible documents comparatively easily and you can read them with a screen reader without problems. Web pages in html are also comparatively easy to produce accessibly and to read with assistive technology. There are free tools that check your pages automatically and help guide you as to how accessible they are. (But you still need a human tester as well).

4) If you have to use PDFs - some things to check.

You can create three types of PDF file, which at first sight all look the same:

  • Image;
  • Searchable image;
  • Formatted text and graphics.

Image PDFs are rare on the web - fortunately so, because they are a pain. They are usually created by scanning pages of text and just contain an image of the text not the separate characters and words of the text itself. So most screen readers cannot read them as they are.

Searchable image files are better because they have a copy of the actual text behind the image. So screen readers can read the text and search engines like Google can index these files.

 But it is formatted text and graphics that you need if the file is to be truly accessible.

 In addition to navigation structure and image labels, PDFs, which can have complex formatting and boxes, need tagging to show a reading order for screen readers to follow.

Finally, avoid restricting the use that people can make of your documents - see the attached illustration of Adobe Reader’s Properties/Security tab. Some people may like to do so for copyright and other reasons. But whilst some of the more expensive screen readers can read practically anything, many readers will be locked out if you impose copying restrictions.  Mobiles, Macs and cheaper and free assistive technology may not be able to read PDFs if copying is not allowed.

Ian Litterick is Executive Chairman of iansyst Ltd (www.iansyst.co.uk), a member of the B.D.A. New Technologies Committee and an associate member of the Right to Read Campaign.