The second article in a series by my guest blogger, Melissa Giles, about text, editing, and media accessibility.
Imagine if you were blind and were frequently emailed invoices as PDF files that your screen reader could not access, or if you were repeatedly mailed unusable hard-copy magazines because the sender said they could not provide an accessible digital version. These things happened to Jonathan Craig, a writer and editor from Brisbane. What surprises him the most is that the senders were disability service providers.
These kinds of experiences are commonplace for people with vision impairment, but can largely be prevented or solved with improved awareness and motivation of the document creators.
Many other accessibility problems for people with vision impairment have been solved with the internet, screen readers and devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets. But these solutions are not universally available and do not replace the need for good communication design.
Craig points out that these technology solutions are not available to all Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) members, the main readers of Blind Citizens News, the magazine he edits. The magazine is available in a wide range of formats that take into account the equally wide range of readers’ skills, internet access and device hardware and software.
One assumption about skills that was questioned to cater for the publication’s readers is the idea that all blind people can read braille, Craig says. It takes some time to learn braille after acquiring or developing vision impairment and, for various reasons, including other disabilities, some people never do.
After Craig produces each issue of Blind Citizens News as a Word document, it is sent to other specialised contractors to reformat in braille, audio and large print. ‘There is great infrastructure available already to allow for alternative formatting,’ he says, ‘so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.’
BCA members can elect to receive one of these formats in the mail or, like non-members, can read the magazine online. Each article is published as text on its own web page and has a linked audio file. The web page text and the downloadable Word documents of the whole magazine can be read by screen readers, transformed into braille or enlarged as text.
Of course, BCA goes to this effort because of its readers’ particular requirements. But these readers also want – and need – to access other publications that are not aimed specifically at people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, due to inadequate consideration of communication design, many publishers exclude such readers.
Craig emphasises that sighted audiences can also be served when publications use formats designed for people with vision impairment, such as spoken versions of text. Audio books were originally created for people who couldn’t read print, Craig says, but others enjoy listening to them too.
By learning from the multi-format approach of magazines such as Blind Citizens News, Craig argues that other publications can serve people with a range of disabilities and reach unexpected non-disabled audiences – for instance, those who want to access content on the go, while commuting or exercising.
Many accessibility factors must be considered beyond a publication’s file type or format. One factor is how the content will be read. When designing a publication that is inclusive of audiences with vision impairment, the way that screen readers will interpret the content becomes an important consideration. This is a common way that many of these people access content online, both as downloadable documents and as web pages.
‘There are a surprising number of people who still believe that we can’t access computers,’ Craig says. ‘As a result of this awareness problem, a lot of people never think about how they create their documents, apps or even memes, because they don’t know what a screen reader is or how it works.’
The easiest way to experience a screen reader is through activating the technology built in to many touchscreen devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Another way is through the basic demonstration version provided in Vision Australia’s free Document Accessibility Toolbar for Microsoft Word (available for PC only). This toolbar includes a range of other functions designed to make it easier to create accessible content.
For a fully functional computer-based program, you could install a free screen reader called NVDA (non-visual desktop access) and use it to experience the web and digital documents and preview your own content. Be warned that the basic NVDA download comes with a harsh, robotic-sounding voice, but the program can be customised with purchased voices that are easier to listen to.
If you have more detailed knowledge about web design and programming, a webinar by Smashing TV called ‘How a screen reader user accesses the web’ might help you to gain a better understanding of website navigation from a blind person’s point of view.
Much online content is more accessible now via screen readers, Craig says, but this positive trend means that ‘the ongoing habits which render documents unreadable by screen readers are more frustrating than ever’.
PDF files are one of the culprits. As illustrated by Craig’s invoice problems, PDFs are often inaccessible if screen readers cannot interpret them as text. Some PDFs are interpreted as images and are therefore unreadable, as are actual images, including infographics and other visual objects.
One important step in creating accessible content is ensuring that every image in documents, on web pages and on other platforms has ‘alternative text’ (or ‘alt text’). The World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines recommend that alternative text be used to reproduce the meaning of all non-text content because this allows users, including users of screen readers, to access the same information in other formats.
For sighted users, correctly formatted alternative text becomes visible in a box that appears when holding the mouse over an image. But for users of screen readers, the text will be spoken or, additionally, transformed into braille if the user has connected a refreshable braille display to their screen reader.
Craig has noticed, on Twitter especially, that more people are using alternative text. ‘Though I believe accessibility is a right, I am still absurdly grateful every time someone describes a photo they’ve posted,’ he says. One side effect of this increased use of alternative text is Craig’s developing sense of appreciation for ‘exactly why people’s cats and dogs are cute’.
Alternative text should include the equivalent essential details needed to make sense of an image, given the reading context. So instead of inserting alternative text saying ‘My dog at the park being cute’ on your next social media post, describe what the dog is doing that makes it look so cute.
Once researched, some basic accessibility principles, such as always including alternative text for meaningful (not decorative) images, are relatively straightforward to understand and remember. But there is much more to know about creating accessible content, including PDF documents, and communicating with people who use different forms of technology and have different disabilities.
To help make this process easier, various organisations offer training, in addition to services, including checking and amending existing content and providing accessible document templates.
About Jonathan Craig
Jonathan Craig has been the editor of Blind Citizens News for the last year. He extends the idea of accessibility to include access to his publication for writers who may never have had anything published before.
‘Whenever I can, I work very closely with them, to show them what I’ve learned about the mechanics of storytelling,’ Craig says. ‘It would be easier just to rewrite (their stories) where necessary, but I love seeing their confidence grow as they create drafts which look more and more like what they wanted to put on the page, but couldn’t produce alone.’
Recently, Craig replaced his magazine editor ‘hat’ with his broadcaster headphones and worked at the BCA national convention, assisting with live streaming of the event and co-presenting a daily podcast – both efforts by BCA to include as many non-attendees as possible in the proceedings.
Being part of a minority community and having to work hard for social change can be an ‘agonisingly slow’ process, Craig says. But he is proud of how his fellow BCA members unite in their struggle to be included in everyday activities.
BCA is currently campaigning to have audio description on Australian television and raising awareness about specific touchscreen EFTPOS terminals that prevent blind and vision-impaired users from independently typing their PIN. Find out more at www.bca.org.au/campaigns.
Contact Jonathan Craig via firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Att: Jonathan Craig’ in the subject line, or via the BCA office on 1800 033 660.
About the author
Melissa Giles is a copyeditor from Brisbane. She would like to advance the understanding of communication accessibility and related professional practices. This includes encouraging diversity within the editing profession and highlighting ways that editors and organisations can incorporate people who are often overlooked in the communication process.
This article was first published in the Editors Queensland April 2019 newsletter OffPress. Editors Queensland is a branch of the Institute of Professional Editors Ltd (IPEd) in Australia.