Universal Access to Information

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.

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  1. Thanks Malavika – I enjoyed this post. The talk was fascinating and one thing that really hit home for me was Tedesco’s point that many of the technologies used to help visually impaired and blind students are actually very useful for all students — for example, highlighting a section of a text, converting it to an mp3 file and then listening to it on an iPod could be great for studying for exams.

    It also made me realize that we all have a role to play in making the web more accessible to everyone – from now on I will always include the description of an image when I embed one in a website. And, of course, it makes us think of how we as teachers can think about the differing abilities of our students and find innovative ways to reach students of all learning styles.

    Thanks for this food for thought!

  2. Thanks for this post. It was a real eye opener for me just a year ago when I read the issues that many visually impaired web users have with web sites. It as a web designer these things are so easy to change to make the website more accessible. I’ve been doing the simple things like adding alt text to images so that software can explain to the user what the image on the page is. Thanks for your post, more web developers thinking of access when designing websites.

  3. This was one of those talks that makes you stop and be thankful for the simple things in life you take for granted.

    Tedesco’s compassionate and solution-oriented viewpoint on web accessibility and the examples he gave of lives being changed by a few simple technologies that could have just as easily been developed years ago, was not only inspiring but informative for even those who see the whole web. I now see opportunities for accessing web content quicker and when I’m not on the computer than before this meeting.

    And although when I first tried The PDF Equalizer to create my own audio book from an ebook, I was annoyed by the lack of inflection, tonality and respect for punctuation the digital voice reading it to me delivered, I instantly thought about how much of a blessing this would be for someone who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access important information from the web and felt myself blessed. It also seems to me that this is just the beginning of the beginning for the breaking of the web landscape into something usable by all, as is the intention of DAISY.

    It’s wonderful to see just how much attention the Association of American Publishers founded AccessText Network in the media lately and the monumental bridges they’ve erected between the print impaired and the major textbook publishers in such a short period.

    You make an incisive point about our text based information sharing tradition Malavika. A written history exists in every culture and to this day all the wealthiest people in the world have libraries in their homes that are larger than most other people’s entire home. As we become more linguistically minimalized by modern technologies (i.e. texting words like LOL and OMG) and sites like youtube.com gives us less and less of a reason to read to be informed or entertained, it looks like our reliance “on the written word for communication and the exchange of information,” is falling by the wayside.

  4. After hearing about Tedesco’s talk from an atendee, I can’t help but think it’s a bit of shame that the web went and made the same mistake (or perhaps willful oversight) that the book industry made by not establishing an open source framework of standards for the production of its content.

    Converting something into an accessible format (as you astutely underscored Malavika) is a lot more difficult when the format it exists in had no designs for the print-disabled upon its creation.

    The value of assistive technologies, such as screen readers and refreshable braille displays, to print-disabled persons is largely predicated on whether electronic content contains a structure which can be “marked up” as to delineate layout.

    A PDF, for instance, can be tagged to signify reading order and denote content flow and structure.

    One company that appears to making some effort to use modern technologies to afford the print-impaired access to a technology as ancient as the book, is Amazon. Although its Kindle book reader doesn’t allow one TTS access to all of the over 600,000 books it makes available (due to the protests of copyright holders and publishers), it still offers a fair few and its voice-enabled navigation feature seems to improve with every version.

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