Hours of browsing the web for information or entertainment have made us savvy clickers on the Internet highways. We intuitively know the most efficient way to navigate a page using colors, images, and hyperlinks as visual cues. Stop and think for a moment though. What if you cannot see or find it difficult to process the text on a web page? What if all those brightly colored words and pictures on the screen did not make sense, and all you had before your eyes was a blank screen which contained the information you were seeking, but you did not have access to it? How does someone who is blind or print-disabled navigate the visually coded web when he or she cannot see or cannot easily process the text on a page? How does someone who cannot see those hyperlinks that enable most users to bounce across the web, moving effortlessly from one topic to another, navigate the web?
Joe Tedesco, the Outreach and Assistive Technology Manager at the Alternative Media Access Center (AMAC) http://www.amacusg.org/ was at Georgia Tech’s Library East Commons Performance Space, talking about some of these issues faced by students who have print-related disabilities. His talk entitled, “Universal Access to Information: Influence of Alternative Media Production on Textbook Usability” was about, among other things, on how to make access to information universal. Tedesco talked about how the Center has been providing textbooks in Braille to students who are visually impaired (some Braille versions of textbooks can cost more than $20,000 each!). Talk attendees had a chance to look at and feel some of those carefully created Braille textbooks, complete with intricate embossed graphs and diagrams.
The Center has also been at the forefront in providing print-disabled students with access to software that enables users to navigate information that has been visually laid out. Converting a text book into an audio book is one way the information in the textbook could be made available to a print-disabled student. As Tedesco pointed out, however, converting a printed text to an audio one is not a straightforward task. How, for example, can you describe a complicated graph to someone who cannot see it and who has never seen a graph in his or her life? How does one tell someone who cannot see and who has never seen a bar diagram, the difference between a bar diagram and a pie chart? Unless a text is specifically created keeping in mind the needs of those who will not be able to access it visually, translating a printed text onto a non-print format, might leave a lot of information still inaccessible.
Tedesco talked about how progress is being made to bridge the information gap with the help of software that use voice tools to read information on electronic pages. The PDF Equalizer http://www.readingmadeez.com/products/PDFEqualizer.html, for example, has a built-in text-to-audio converter that converts a single page or a range of pages into MP3 files. The JAWS Screen reader http://www.freedomscientific.com/products/fs/jaws-product-page.asp reads aloud the contents of a PC screen. Software from ClaroRead http://www.claroread.com/ can scan and convert printed text to an on-screen PDF and read it aloud in “a human-sounding voice”. ClaroRead can also read the content of web pages. Students who have trouble reading, for example, can scan in the books that they need to read, and the software reads the books aloud for them in the dialect (American-English, for example) they choose.
Tedesco also spoke about the DAISY consortium http://www.daisy.org/about_us , an international association working towards achieving Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) standards. One of the consortium’s goals, according to its website, is that “all published information is available to people with print disabilities, at the same time and at no greater cost, in an accessible, feature-rich, navigable format.”
I found the talk fascinating and provocative. We read and hear so much about how the Internet is making us more efficient, and about how it is opening up the world to so many new possibilities. Few people, however, talk about how the great emphasis the Internet places upon textual communication is leaving a lot of people behind. We are a society that increasingly relies on the written word for communication and the exchange of information (see for example, reports about how the number of text messages sent has increased over the years, but the number of phone calls and the duration of those calls has decreased http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/07/AR2010080702848.html). There is, however, very little acknowledgement that this written word might not be universally accessible. Tedesco’s talk was a reminder that there is a lot of work to be done before the digital revolution can become a part of every individual’s life.