E-books and alternative formats
Many organisations subscribe to e-book collections (for example through Jisc Collections). These can be easy routes to alternative formats provided that the following have been considered:
- Accessibility was a feature in the procurement process (our blog post on checking the accessibility of your e-resources outlines the features to look out for)
- The titles are integrated with reading/resource lists
- Users are confident in accessing the accessibility options
If you have difficulties getting a textbook in an accessible digital format see guidance on obtaining alternative formats on the Learning Apps website.
In addition to a purely digital format, text can also be provided with synchronised, navigable audio (requiring no screenreader skills to access) or as a tactile format such as Braille.
Braille can exist in traditional print format or it can be delivered via small Braille displays. iOS devices such as iPads and iPhones have native support for Braille displays allowing text content on the screen to be read or written using a wirelessly connected refreshable Braille device
DAISY files consist of a highly-structured but highly flexible format that allows text to be navigated and read entirely by sight, entirely by listening or by a combination of the two
Producing small amounts of course material in either of these formats can be done with tools such as Robobraille but if a learner requires all their books in this format you’d be advised to get specialist tools and training or outsource to experience providers.
Working with specialist formats
As a general rule, the more mainstream a user's technology is, the more independent the user will be and the more sustainable their support will be. Nonetheless, for users with particular needs maximum benefit may require working with a specialist format.
These vary in the amount of commitment they require both from the user and the provider of support (public library, learning provider, or university). By definition, specialist formats will be more expensive to procure but they often provide a level of access and understanding which makes them very worthwhile.
Types of specialist formats
There are three main specialist formats in use:
Braille is a highly-specialised format requiring skill to create and to use. A small proportion of blind people are competent Braillers and for these users, Braille offers significant advantages over screen readers - the other main technology for blind users.
Braille allows users to skim a text by touch in a similar way a sighted person would skim a page by sight. It allows multi-tasking – for example speaking to someone on the phone whilst referring to notes. This is easily done with Braille in much the same way as a sighted user would read while speaking, but a screen reader user would listen to two sets of aural information – the phone call and the screen reader information.
Braille can be created in various ways – directly onto paper, via digital text to paper and via digital text to a Braille embosser. This is like a small keyboard with pins which dynamically pop up to create a Braille version of the digital text.
Braille works well for plain text, simple tables, music and simple maths but is much harder to use for complex tables or mathematical and engineering formulae. Learners wanting to progress to a higher level course may need to develop a deeper understanding of Braille to expand the range of their vocabulary.
Within educational settings, Braille works best as part of a hybrid solution. In some contexts, other formats will be more appropriate.
For some concepts eg, graphs, snowflakes, jellyfish and maps - a simple diagram is a very economical way of communicating knowledge, allowing a grasp of the whole image as well as the various parts. In these circumstances tactile diagrams come into their own.
There is a spectrum of complexity in how diagrammatic information should be presented - the skill for a presenter is working out the most appropriate approach for the given circumstance and the individual user. Individuals have different sensitivities of touch so one user may need bar charts illustrated using Lego bricks whereas another may be fine with a Microsoft Excel graph printed out on swell paper.
For instant graphics, you can use German Film which creates a raised ridge behind a ballpoint pen or Wikki Stix – semi adhesive pliable wax coated pipe cleaners which create instant tactile graphs or diagrams. For high stakes images (eg, those a learner needs to pass an exam) you can order professional tactile images combined with multiple layers of information on a talking tactile tablet.
The international DAISY format
If you have listened to podcasts and unintentionally lost your place, it is easy to appreciate the frustrations of disabled people who rely on audio files where often this navigation is non-existent. The current DAISY format addresses these issues. It consists of a highly flexible synthesis of:
- Structured text files (either the transcript of a human voiced talk or the original text of a text to speech mp3)
- Audio files synchronised to each of these structured text elements
Depending on the software/hardware the DAISY files are played on, the user can either browse by audio only (navigating aurally by headings, subheadings etc) or read using synchronised text and speech.
The DAISY format is associated with blind people - it offers them a sensible way to ‘skim’ the contents of long audio files as a sighted person might skim a table of contents.
DAISY books can also be great for dyslexic people. The combination of text highlighting and audio can reinforce reading speed and confidence.
A range of tools can create DAISY content and you can play DAISY books on the free AMIS player. The features of the DAISY format are currently becoming mainstream via the EPUB3 format which is increasingly adopted by commercial publishers.
For detailed technical guidance on Braille, DAISY and other formats see the UK Association for Accessible Formats website.
Detailed technical guidance from the Benetech Diagram Center is also available on creating accessible diagrams in maths.