STORM OR SEA-CHANGE: Meeting
the Challenges of Providing Tertiary Materials in Accessible Formats For
Students with Print Disabilities
A Discussion Paper produced by the Australian Human Rights and Equal
2 University Perspectives
2.2 Outsourcing and In-house Production
2.3 Environmental Factors Affecting Timely Delivery
2.4 Specific Factors Affecting Delivery of Accessible-format
In February 2002, Dr Sev Ozdowski, Australia's Acting Disability Discrimination
Commissioner, announced that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
(HREOC) intended to convene a one-day national forum on the availability
of tertiary study materials for students who are blind or vision-impaired,
or who have another print disability.
The forum will be held on May 29, 2002. In addition, a session focusing
on copyright issues as they impact on students with print disabilities
will be held on May 28.
The key issues to be discussed at the forum would include:
- financial implications for universities in providing material in accessible
- resource implications for producers of material in accessible formats;
- factors such as copyright restrictions, encryption, and image-based
distribution of material, which may prevent equal and independent access;
- strategies for ensuring efficient, effective and timely access to
tertiary study materials for students who require them in alternative
The forum is aimed at groups and individuals with interest and expertise
in the area to develop solutions to the problems that are being experienced.
The Commission decided to convene the forum after recent media coverage
highlighted problems for tertiary students who are blind or vision-impaired
in obtaining study materials at the same time as other students, and in
formats that they can access, including braille, large print, electronic
formats such as HTML, and audio.
The forum will consider the complex access and equity issues facing universities,
producers, publishers, and students with print disabilities in the rapidly-changing
educational and information environment. Unless these issues are addressed
speedily, students who cannot use standard print may find increasing barriers
to their tertiary education.
This discussion paper provides a summary of what the Commission believes
are the most important issues that must be addressed as part of a sector-wide
strategic framework for improving the availability of tertiary study materials
in formats that are accessible to students who have a print disability.
The issues are presented from three perspectives: university, student,
and producer. To some extent, this presentation is just a convenient way
of conceptualising and discussing the issues. In practice, issues seldom
fall neatly into one category, and there is usually interaction between
different issues. For example, copyright issues affect the timeliness
with which material can be produced, and timeliness is, in turn, a crucial
determinant of a student's ability to study effectively.
This discussion paper is being released prior to the national forum,
and is intended as a stimulus for debate and discussion of the issues
that affect the availability of curricular materials for students with
print disabilities. We hope that this debate and discussion will inform
the process of strategic development that will begin with the forum.
If you have any comments, ideas or suggestions about any of the issues
outlined in this paper, please contact:
Policy and Project Officer, Disability Rights Unit
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
GPO Box 5218
Sydney NSW 1042
Telephone: 02 9284 9613
There have been a number of developments over the past decade that have
illustrated increasing recognition that people with disabilities have
the same rights to participate in the cultural, economic, and community
life. The passage of the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992
provided a uniform legislative framework within which to promote these
Much ongoing work is being done on the development of regulatory and
voluntary best-practice standards designed to increase access for people
with disabilities in areas including public transport, premises, and banking
services. These developments both support and are supported by the ethos
of access and equity; at the same time, they represent an awareness that
a growing proportion of the population has a disability.
Higher education is one area where people with disabilities have increased
their participation: between 1996 and 2000, the total number of students
with disabilities enrolled in Australian universities increased from 12,000
to 19,000, which represents a 60% increase in the share of domestic student
The Commonwealth Government has identified a number of purposes for higher
"The Government regards higher education as contributing to the
fulfilment of human and societal potential, the advancement of knowledge
and social and economic progress. The main purposes of Australian higher
education are to:
- inspire and enable individuals to develop their capabilities to the
highest potential throughout their lives (for personal growth and fulfilment,
for effective participation in the workforce and for constructive contributions
- advance knowledge and understanding;
- aid the application of knowledge and understanding to the benefit
of the economy and society;
- enable individuals to adapt and learn, consistent with the needs of
an adaptable knowledge-based economy at local, regional and national
- enable individuals to contribute to a democratic, civilised society
and promote the tolerance and debate that underpins it." (Kemp
It is clear that equitable participation by people with disabilities
in higher education is an important part of promoting these objectives,
both in terms of advancing society as a whole, and in also providing opportunities
for people with disabilities to develop their potential and contribute
to the advancement of knowledge and debate.
It is important to locate developments in access and equity within a
broader context. The past decade has been one of unprecedented change-much
of it brought about by what has become known as the "information
superhighway". The convergence of publishing, broadcasting, telecommunications
and computing has provided new opportunities for innovation and creativity
in the way information is gathered, processed and distributed. Within
the higher education sector, new methods of course delivery are being
implemented, emphasising online and multimedia components; academic libraries
are rapidly evolving into "information portholes" that provide
users with access to vast amounts of data and information; publishers
are exploring ways of making products available in electronic formats;
and students are now required to have an array of skills to deal with
the many changes that are occurring.
One group of students with disabilities has been especially affected-both
positively -and negatively-by the changing information environment. Students
with print disabilities, including those who are blind or vision impaired,
are benefiting from developments such as the Internet, online library
catalogues, and searachable electronic databases, provided that the designers
of these resources follow recognised principles of accessible design.
Advances in optical character recognition (OCR) technology have made it
possible to produce certain types of printed material more quickly in
alternative formats such as braille; and the application of computerised
methods to the production of braille, large print and E-text formats has
led to radical changes in the way such materials can be produced.
But with these opportunities have come a number of challenges for students
with print disabilities, universities, producers and publishers, and others
who are involved in the provision of study materials that are accessible.
There is a growing recognition that if prompt action is not taken to apply
innovative approaches to the provision of accessible materials, then the
opportunities will quickly turn into insurmountable barriers, and people
with print disabilities will have significantly decreased access to higher
These challenges are of three basic types:
- economic, for example, how to fund the production of accessible-format
materials for an increasing number of students studying a greater diversity
- technological, for example, how to provide access to a wide array
of online resources, as well as the traditional paper-based ones; and
- process, for example, how to secure original materials in time for
their production in an environment where there is casualisation and
contractualisation of the academic workforce.
The following sections of this discussion paper expand on these challenges,
and raise a number of questions concerning possible solutions.
In essence, the traditional approaches that have been used to provide
study material for university students with print disabilities have started
to fail: costs are increasing dramatically; demand is rising exponentially;
and changes in study methods, text presentation, and course requirements,
are proving extremely difficult to accommodate within the existing paradigm
that has evolved to provide students who have print disabilities with
the study materials that they need in order to participate fully in higher
These challenges arise at a time when Australian society has made legislative
commitments to promoting the right of people with disabilities to live
free from discrimination. The Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act
1992 (DDA), and anti-discrimination legislation in most States and Territories,
makes it unlawful to discriminate against people on the ground of their
The DDA is administered by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
(HREOC) and sets out specific areas in which it is unlawful to discriminate.
These areas include accommodation, employment, access to premises, and
the provision of goods, services and facilities. Section 22 of the DDA
specifically makes it unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate
against a person on the grounds of disability.
The DDA recognises, however, that in certain circumstances, providing
equitable access for people with disabilities could cause "unjustifiable
hardship" for an individual or organisations. Where a person with
a disability believes they have been discriminated against they can complain
to the Commission who will investigate the complaint and, where appropriate,
attempt to conciliate a solution between the two parties. Where conciliation
is not possible the complainant may take their complaint to the Federal
Court or Federal Magistrates Service who have the authority to determine
whether unlawful discrimination has occurred and what constitutes "unjustifiable
Along with other sections of the community, universities thus have responsibilities
under disability discrimination legislation, and the recent increase in
the number of disability discrimination complaints against universities
is an indication that students with disabilities are prepared to hold
them to account if they do not meet them. In the context of the provision
of accessible-format materials, the consequences of failing to act now
will be increasing amounts of time lost due to defending disability discrimination
complaints, legal and administrative costs, and adverse media attention
and community criticism.
Throughout the paper, the term "accessible format material"
is used to describe alternatives that are required by people who have
a disability that prevents them from using standard (10- or 12-point)
print. Accessible formats include
" audio cassette,
" Electronic text (E-text) distributed via disk or on the Worldwide
Web in a variety of formats including ASCII, HTML and Microsoft Word,
" large print.
Some electronic file formats such as PDF are not considered "accessible"
in general, even though certain pdf files may be usable in some circumstances
by some people, notwithstanding that pdf is a format that is commonly
used for publishing material on the Worldwide Web.
Appendix A provides useful background information about accessible formats
and the technology used to produce and use them.
The Round Table on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities
Inc estimated in 1995 that there were over 1 million Australians who have
a print disability. The Round Table definition of print disability was
incorporated into the Copyright Amendment Act 1998, and is as follows:
"A person with a print disability is:
a) a person without sight;
b) a person whose sight is severely impaired;
c) a person unable to hold or manipulate books or to focus or move his
or her eyes; or
d) a person with a perceptual disability."
While blindness and vision impairment have traditionally received most
attention in considering the impact of print disability, it is clear from
the above definition that other groups experience disadvantage if material
is provided only in print. For example, people with physical disabilities
may not be able to hold or manipulate printed material, and people with
cognitive disabilities may find it difficult or impossible to follow a
line of print. These other groups will often require material in accessible
formats if they are to have equal access to information. Universities,
governments and producers should not assume that only students who are
blind or vision-impaired will need curricular materials in accessible
While the definition of "print disability" is clear, there
are few reliable statistics that can be used to make firm predictions
about increasing numbers. This in itself indicates that there is scope
for research. However, all the anecdotal and extrapolated evidence suggests
that the number of people in the general population who have a print disability
is increasing, and that the number of students with print disabilities
who are enrolled at universities is also increasing.
It is fair to say that all Australian universities have a philosophical
commitment to the principles of access and equity, and that people with
print disabilities are regarded as having the same right to a higher education
of their choice as the rest of society. However, the most recent research
shows that "throughout the country, most tertiary institutions are
struggling in their attempts to provide efficient and effective transcription
services to meet the needs of increasing numbers of students entering
the sector." (Barrett 2002: 3). The research concludes that "It
is evident that service provision is adhoc, diverse in nature and that
there is a lack of coordination across the sector and nationally."
(Barrett 2002: 4).
Because there has been no national strategic direction or policy framework,
universities have developed a variety of approaches to dealing with the
economic, technological and process challenges that they face in providing
accessible-format materials. Probably the most significant decision that
they have had to make is whether to outsource the production of accessible-format
materials, or whether to handle most or all production requirements within
the university by establishing in-house production capacity. There have
been a number of historical, resourcing, and staff-related factors that
have influenced this decision, but once made, the decision has had far-reaching
Most universities rely on outsourcing to provide students with materials
in accessible formats, particularly braille and audio. The material is
almost always outsourced to "blindness agencies" who operate
primarily as charity organisations providing services to people who are
blind or vision-impaired. The Royal Blind Society of NSW, the Royal Victorian
Institute for the Blind, the Royal Society for the Blind of SA, and the
Association for the Blind of WA, are the agencies that have mainly been
used as providers of braille, audio, large print, and (more recently)
The Royal Blind Society of NSW and the Royal Victorian Institute for
the Blind have recently merged their library and transcription services
to form the National Information and Library Service (NILS), and NILS
is now the main agency used for outsourcing by the higher education sector.
Until the early 1990s, blindness agencies provided universities with accessible-format
material at no charge, relying on public donations to meet the significant
From about 1992, universities were asked to pay a notional amount per
student per year (or per semester). This amount was in the order of $1250.
This "registration fee" was never designed as a method for cost
recovery, although some staff within university administrations may have
thought so. The production of material in accessible formats involves
significant costs, especially in the case of tertiary material where a
high degree of expertise and quality-control are needed. As an example,
$1250 would not cover the production costs of even an average-sized novel
Not surprisingly, NILS has reached the conclusion that its high levels
of subsidy for tertiary education production is no longer justified or
sustainable, both philosophically and in practice. Greater emphasis on
"user pays" approaches at all levels of government and industry,
growing demand for accessible-format material, and an increasingly competitive
fundraising environment were factors that militated against a continuation
of the highly-subsidised pricing structure.
It is true that developments in computerised production methods have
made some aspects of the production process more efficient than was the
case, say, 10 years ago. But offsetting this has been a trend towards
a greater level of complexity in the nature of materials required, and
the formats of those materials. In general, curricular materials are presented
to print-using students in more visually appealing ways, for example,
through greater use of cartoons, boxed inserts, pictures, diagrams, and
the like, even in subjects such as Philosophy and Psychology that might
traditionally have been regarded as text-based. Translating these highly
visual and complex layouts into formats that are meaningful and useful
to readers with print disabilities is a time-consuming process that requires
considerable expertise if it is to be done well.
While the decision to move to cost recovery is understandable-indeed,
inevitable-it has created significant problems for those universities
that have relied on NILS as their main or exclusive source for accessible-format
materials. They are now faced with cost increases of 1500% or more, yet
budgets have not expanded to absorb these increases. Some institutions
are already finding these costs prohibitive, and as student numbers continue
to grow, the negative effect on the provision of accessible-format material
is likely to become ever more severe unless effective strategies are devised.
Some universities, such as the University of Newcastle and Deakin University,
chose to develop in-house capacity to produce materials in accessible
formats for their students with print disabilities. In some cases, they
supplement this capacity with limited use of outsourcing, but in other
cases, they are apparently completely self-sufficient. These universities
have been largely unaffected by the scale of the recent NILS price increases.
On the other hand, universities relying on in-house production have rarely
involved themselves with the broader accessible-format production sector,
thus limiting their ability to participate in or benefit from collaborative
projects or initiatives such as the development of standards or training
workshops. Nor are they able to assess the quality of the material they
produce against industry best practice.
Staff including Disability Liaison Officers, who have responsibility
for supporting students with print disabilities (and students with disabilities
in general) have frequently expressed that they feel like "the meat
in the sandwich". They are responsible for providing the material
to producers such as NILS, which entails liaison with course co-ordinators
and academic staff. If the material is not provided far enough in advance,
then it cannot be produced quickly enough to meet the needs of the students
who are required to use it. So, on the one hand, DLOs may feel that academic
staff have little understanding of the importance of advance planning,
and on the other, they feel that management and production staff have
little appreciation of the constraints and expectations that apply in
a university environment.
Perhaps this partially explains one observation that the Commission found
of concern: the dissatisfaction that is being expressed by university
staff towards NILS. It seems that some universities will not outsource
material to NILS at all, despite the lack of alternative strategies. In
other cases, material is outsourced to NILS with little optimism that
it will be delivered in a timely way.
The Commission believes that there is considerable scope for the development
of a greater mutual understanding between universities and producers of
accessible-format material, regardless of other strategies that might
Although universities generally make provision on the enrolment form
for prospective students to identify themselves as having a disability
that requires support, such disclosure is voluntary. There is a significant
impact on the ability of the university to provide accessible-format material
if a prospective student does not indicate their need for such material
at (and, ideally, before) the time of enrolment. This impact is due to
the long lead-times required to produce accessible formats, and the need
for arrangements to be made with academic staff and producers well in
advance. In many cases, however, a prospective student may not be aware
of the complex chain of interactions that will be needed if the material
that they need for study is to be provided in a timely way. Students coming
to university straight from school will, in many cases, be accustomed
to having arrangements handled by an itinerant teacher. With no previous
experience of university culture, they are often unaware of the significant
amount and breadth of reading that is usually involved, and, like many
mature-age students, they will have little understanding of the production
If they are unable to be certain (or, at least, reasonably certain) of
the numbers of students who may require material to be provided in accessible
formats, then Disability Liaison Officers will continue to face substantial
difficulties in their attempts to provide support to students with print
The privacy of students must be respected, and students may not wish
to disclose their disability for a number of reasons. However, students
need to be able to make an informed decision whether to disclose their
disability, and there may be scope for awareness-raising campaigns to
be conducted, for example, in schools and disability consumer organisations.
It is essential for study guides, reading lists, and other core curricular
materials to be provided to producers well in advance if they are to be
produced in accessible formats for use by students. In practice, "well
in advance" implies a variety of time factors depending on the nature
of the material (Mathematics, Music, and other subjects involving complex
coding and formatting issues generally take much longer to produce than
literary text), the amount of material, and whether the material is being
produced in-house or outsourced (in-house production is usually more flexible
in dealing with materials required at short notice). Disability Liaison
Officers and related staff rely on course co-ordinators and lecturers
to prepare and provide material far enough in advance for them to make
the necessary arrangements. Where there is a formal process in place to
ensure that such co-operation is forthcoming, it appears that there is
a much greater likelihood that students will receive their material on
time. Where it is not, then delays will almost inevitably be experienced.
There are a number of reasons why material may not be prepared and provided
in advance, including uncertainties about who will be teaching the particular
course, difficulties in contacting teaching staff during semester breaks
(particularly prior to the start of first semester), uncertainties about
the availability of recently-published or forthcoming texts, and a lack
of awareness on the part of teaching staff of the importance of advance
preparation of material.
Some of these factors should be addressed directly, but there are external
constraints such as the increasing casualisation and contractualisation
of the academic teaching environment that are largely beyond the influence
of any one university, and so ways need to be found of allowing accessible-format
materials to be produced in a timely manner, notwithstanding that the
original print is often only available at short notice.
Disability Liaison Officers often have to make choices about which materials
they can reasonably provide in accessible formats to students, and there
are currently no guidelines about how choices should be made. Tertiary
courses require that students read widely, often beyond the prescribed
textbook or book of readings. As students progress through their higher
education, they are expected to read more widely and more independently.
There is virtually no limit to what a student may wish to read, for example,
when completing an essay assignment or Masters thesis, but there are certainly
a number of real constraints that limit what can be provided in accessible
formats. Some universities will undertake to provide study guides and
"required reading" in accessible formats, but are generally
not able to provide "non-core" materials such as additional
readings; others have no guidelines in this area because they are unsure
how best to address the issue. There is clearly a need for some sector-wide
discussion and consultation to clarify the situation and establish some
In discussions with universities, it is clear that staff believe that
many students with print disabilities, especially those coming straight
from school to university, lack many of the skills that will allow them
to take advantage of technology and increase their access to resources,
including study material. Many cannot use the Internet to search a library
catalogue, or use a screen reader program to read email attachments and
perform basic word-processing. Many have had no experience in using a
scanner and associated software, which can often provide usable access
to printed material by converting it into text. Universities cannot deny
access to students because they may lack computer skills (students without
disabilities are not denied access on the basis of their level of computer
literacy); on the other hand, students with print disabilities who have
been taught or who have acquired skills in using computers and associated
equipment are almost always more able to increase their access to curricular
resources. There has, as yet, been no attempt to develop a set of suggested
technological competencies for students with print disabilities embarking
on a higher education, and the Commission encourages the sector to undertake
work in this area.
Many courses now use a number of complementary modes for delivering information.
In addition to the traditional printed study guide, book of readings,
and so on, there is now widespread use of online resources. Journal articles
and even whole compilations of materials are digitised and made available
for students to download from the Worldwide Web.
Such materials may or may not be initially accessible to students with
print disabilities, depending on how they are digitised. There are no
national guidelines for ensuring that online curricular materials are
accessible, and most institutions do not have in-house policies or technical
requirements for ensuring accessibility.
University staff are thus faced with an increasing and often bewildering
array of factors that affect the accessibility of online material, and
most disability support staff lack the technical expertise (not to mention
the time) to liaise with the different groups involved (teaching staff,
IT staff, web designers, etc.). In practice, it is often easier for material
to be outsourced for production in an accessible format, even though it
may be quite usable in its online form if only someone had all the fragments
of knowledge to assess it. The development of national standards for the
accessibility of online curricular resources is urgently needed, and would
improve the accessibility of such materials for students with print disabilities.
Regardless of whether they outsource material or produce accessible formats
in-house, disability support staff endeavour to locate an existing accessible-format
version of a document to avoid unnecessary duplication, and to comply
with requirements under the Copyright Act. These efforts are time-consuming,
and are hampered by the lack of a single national database of accessible
tertiary materials. To some extent, the Kinetica database maintained by
the National Library of Australia (and used by all Australian university
libraries) is useful because most producers of accessible-format material
list their braille and audio books on it; however, Kinetica does not include
book extracts and journal articles. It is highly likely that considerable
duplication is occurring in the production of non-book material, and much
time and effort could be saved by the development of an effective national
database of such material.
The Commission has had some discussions with the Copyright Agency Limited
(CAL) about this issue, and as a result, CAL is now undertaking development
of a database of material produced under the Statutory Licence provisions
of the Copyright Act. We congratulate CAL on the leadership role that
they are showing, and urge the sector to co-operate fully in the development
of this important resource.
Copyright is a confusing aspect of law for many people, and the confusion
is increasing as a result of the development of new distribution mechanisms
such as the Internet that are competing with, and in some cases replacing,
traditional print. It has long been recognised that people with print
disabilities have extremely limited access to the vast amount of printed
information in books, magazines, newspaper, and the like, and a number
of special arrangements have been incorporated into copyright legislation
aimed at making it easier for organisations assisting people with print
disabilities to produce material in accessible formats.
The Statutory Licence provisions of the Copyright Act are the most important
of these, because they allow eligible organisations to produce several
categories of material in accessible formats without the need for prior
approval from the copyright holder. Organisations using these provision
must comply with a range of record-keeping requirements, and it is arguable
whether the Statutory Licence provisions have made substantial practical
difference. In any event, there is currently considerable confusion about
what the law permits and does not permit, and about how the Statutory
Licence regime is administered and applied.
There are a number of issues that, in one way or another, flow from the
existence of copyright regimes, and have an impact on the availability
of accessible-format material. For example, greater access to electronic
versions of published works would make it easier to produce braille, large
print and E-text formats. The Commission believes that a combination of
legislative change and the development of voluntary codes of practice
and industry best-practice guidelines offer the most effective approach
for making progress in the areas of copyright and publishing. Discussions
have been held with the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL), the body that
administers copyright legislation, and it is anticipated that an ongoing
mechanism will be set up to allow representatives of the publishing industry,
producers of accessible-format material, education institutions, and other
stakeholders, to work collaboratively on issues that affect people with
print disabilities. Since this work will have significant benefits for
the tertiary sector, it is important that resources be allocated to allow
effective sector participation.
The philosophy of inclusive education, the principles of access and equity,
and the fulfilment of obligations under disability discrimination legislation
form a prism through which the experiences of students with disabilities
are reflected and refracted. In the case of students who are blind, vision-impaired,
or who have another print disability, their experience of university,
and the extent to which they are able to benefit from a higher education,
are in large part dependent on the provision to them of study materials
in formats that they can access.
Many students with disabilities see a university degree as one way of
helping to minimise the disadvantages that they are almost certain to
experience in a fiercely-competitive labour market that is yet to integrate
the principles of access and equity. But in some cases, students with
print disabilities are not able to obtain a degree in their chosen field
because they cannot get study materials in a format that they can access;
in other cases, students feel frustrated, despairing or betrayed because
they are constantly behind the rest of the class as a result of insufficient
accessible material. Students frequently report high levels of stress
and anxiety, and it is not uncommon for students with print disabilities
to be spending double the amount of time on a subject because their material
is arriving late (or not at all) and so they are always having to catch
However, it would be highly misleading to imply that all students find
university unrewarding or unduly stressful. What does seem to be true,
though, is that those students who have been able to benefit the most
from their time at university are the ones who have been provided with
adequate study materials in accessible formats.
Simon is a mature-aged blind student who has just commenced an undergraduate
degree. He is enrolled at a university that has been attended by quite
a few blind and vision-impaired students for over 25 years. His choice
of university was largely dictated by its relative proximity to where
he lives. Simon is enrolled in Sociology and Philosophy subjects.
"This is the first time I've done any study since I left school
almost 30 years ago. I want to improve my knowledge of ideas and learn
how to analyse concepts. I've spent the last few years learning how
to use Jaws [a screen reader program] on my computer, getting to grips
with the Internet and email, and figuring out how to use a scanner so
that I can read the books that I want to read instead of what the talking
book libraries want to give me. I've bought all my own equipment, and
although I don't claim to be a computer expert, I thought I had done
all the right things to prepare myself for uni.
Well, I went to enrol at the university and I got the textbooks. Everything
was in print, and they couldn't even give me the study guides as a Word
file. So I thought I'd just scan everything myself. I spent three days
trying to scan the sociology book, but for some reason it just won't
scan. I found that the philosophy study guide had all these diagrams
in it, and so I couldn't read it after it had been scanned. So when
I went to the residential school, I had nothing, whereas all the other
students had their books and study guides. Most of them did the first
assignment while they were there, but I'm still struggling with mine
three weeks later. The university doesn't seem to know what to do about
the diagrams, which I need to have for the philosophy assignment: they
suggested that I find someone who has already done the course and ask
them to help me with them. They say they don't use NILS, but they don't
seem to have any other ideas for getting things put on disk or in braille.
They have scanned some of the sociology book for me, but no editing
was done, and some of it is a real mess that makes it impossible for
me to actually read it.
I reckon I'm spending at least twice as much time on my study as the
other students (we exchange emails so I have a fair idea what they are
doing), and at the same time I'm trying to set up a business so I can
make some money to pay for everything. I don't know whether I'll be
able to keep going with the university course if I can't get material
more easily. It's a pity that the philosophy uses all these diagrams,
because I know I'd enjoy it, and I know that it's possible to make raised
diagrams, but I can't do it myself and the university don't seem to
be able to help.
But, all I can do is give it my best shot. I'm just glad I'm not going
there straight from school, because it must be really tough when you've
put all your hopes into it and then find that you can't get the stuff
to study with."
Angus is a Masters student who uses braille and who is studying part-time.
He has good computer skills, and until this year, has had a very positive
experience of post-graduate study.
"For me, the most important thing is to have material in braille,
both in hardcopy or 'refreshable' form. I'm very fortunate in that I
have a refreshable braille display [a device that is connected to a
computer and displays the contents of the computer screen in braille].
Without braille I would not be able to study at this level. I remember
doing one assignment where I had 30 books: I can't possibly imagine
how I'd flick backwards and forwards through that number if they were
only on tape.
Because I'm not studying graphical subjects like Maths, Statistics
or Music, I have been able to scan the books that I need, and convert
them into braille myself. This has taken a lot of extra time, which
is one reason why I am taking twice as long to finish the course as
most other students. I have had very good co-operation from teaching
staff, and study guides have always been provided in electronic format
such as a Word file that I can then read in braille. I think that at
post-graduate level, you get more consideration and are treated with
more respect than is often the case when you're one of hundreds of under-graduates.
Things haven't been as good this year: the subject that I had hoped
to do was rescheduled at the last minute (the first day of semester)
and due to other commitments I wasn't able to attend at the new time.
I had already made a start on scanning the reading material, but I now
had to pick a new subject. The book of readings isn't scanning very
well because it is a bunch of photocopies (generally reduced so that
two pages from the original are photocopied onto one page); also, not
all the required reading is in the book, so I've had to rely a lot on
library staff to photocopy articles for me and collect books from the
shelves. They are very helpful, but it still means a lot of work just
trying to get the material in a format that I can read. I don't have
time to read any of the "additional readings", and it's a
battle just to keep up with the "required readings".
Last week I arrived early for the lecture; I was talking to another
student when the lecturer arrived with a newspaper article that he wanted
us to read for the lecture. Handing it to the other student, he said
"you can read this to Angus". Now the lecturer's a nice guy,
and I get on well with him; but this illustrates the need for awareness
training. What if the other student didn't want to read the article?
What if the other student hadn't arrived early? What if I hadn't arrived
early? I would have completely missed out. As it turns out, the article
was so badly photocopied that I wouldn't have been able to scan it,
but had I had some notice, I could have arranged to get a better copy,
or I probably could have obtained it electronically from the paper's
I've put a lot of time and effort into becoming as independent as possible.
For me, being able to read what I want to read when I want to read it
is very important: part of the intellectual stimulation of university
is being able to follow-up ideas and topics independently. If I relied
more on the university to provide my material for me by outsourcing
it to NILS, there's no way I'd be able to read as much as I do, and
I know I'd rarely if ever get anything on time. But it is very stressful:
trying to fit study around work commitments is hard enough at the best
of times, but it's even more of a challenge when you've got to spend
a lot of time before you can even start to read anything. And it's only
possible for me because I'm fairly computer literate and because I'm
not studying subjects such as Maths or even Psychology; it certainly
isn't the way to go for the majority of blind students. I would like
to see a service that would scan books and journal articles using the
best available software, and provide well-edited versions to students
like me. It would need to be able to respond quickly - in days, rather
Rachel is in her last year of a Bachelor of Social Science degree. She
has a vision impairment, and uses audio and large print material. Her
experiences illustrate the positive impact on study of having timely materials,
and the negative effect when material is not provided in a timely way.
"My experience of support has been varied. Whilst studying at
Deakin University (distance ed. Victoria) I had such a positive experience.
My materials were provided in a timely manner. Consultation prior to
enrolment was met with an almost 'happy to help you' response. I explained
what I needed and this was met with further suggestions of how Deakin
could assist me. Any delays that occurred though minor were not the
result of a lack of response from the university.
My experience for the last three years and now in my fourth year in
NSW has been far from positive. The problems I have encountered have
been many. I have a congenital vision impairment which will not improve.
. Asked to justify why I required materials on audio tape and why I
could not manage with large print. This demonstrated a lack of understanding
of my particular vision impairment and a reluctance to 'listen' to me
as a student. The university would not accept a letter from my eye specialist
verifying my condition or further confirmation of my legally blind status
from Centrelink which had been confirmed by a Commonwealth medical practitioner.
I was advised that support would be withdrawn unless I underwent further
assessment. I did so at RBS feeling I had no choice. This type of response
from a university shows further lack of knowledge and almost a culture
of suspicion of the student with a disability. The lack of organisation
by lecturers adds to the problem of timely access to materials. Delays
in deciding which texts will be used until just prior to semester commencement
causes such delays. Access to university collated books of readings
until just prior to semester commencement occurs too. Transcribing materials
does take time and my experience has been at least a four week delay
before tapes start to filter through The impact this has on my ability
to study is tremendous. Constantly being behind, trying to persevere
using magnifiers, not actually having the texts as they are with RBS
(Royal Blind Society of NSW, the reference is really to NILS] Readers,
not being able to complete the reading in time which then impacts on
the standard of assignments. Constantly needing extensions which means
being constantly behind. The contract period for the DLO does not commence
until one week prior to semester. Accordingly, there is difficulty in
accessing disability services. Educating lecturers to the needs of a
vision impaired person has been challenging. Even though I have requested
print copies or electronic copies of class notes or information that
is put up on a white board, this rarely happens. Accordingly, I miss
much of the information that other students get. Lecturers have told
me they are too busy or do not have a reason why I cannot get this information.
I do not have a guide dog or use a white stick. Upon first meeting
me, many have not realized I have a vision problem. Because my disability
is not (fortunately) extreme on the scale of things, I appear at first
like many others. Whether this has an impact on the responses I get
I do not know.
I think I have given you a basic description of some of the factors
that affect my study. I do not think I am alone in my type of experiences.
The impact of the lack of understanding, the constant need to 'fight'
for basic access is on-going. Politics and bureaucracy further impact."
These quotations illustrate a number of important factors that universities
and producers need to take into account when developing strategies for
providing study materials in accessible formats.
Students with print disabilities do not form a homogeneous group, and
accessible formats are not interchangeable. Some students will require
braille, some large print, and so on. It is not appropriate to expect
someone who has become literate through braille or large print to study
using audio. In any case, some subjects are difficult or impossible to
study effectively using audio alone. There does, moreover, seem to be
a trend away from the traditional cassette-based audio as a tertiary study
medium. Developments in digital technology such as the DAISY (Digital
Accessible Information System) standard do offer greater flexibility,
but it needs to be stressed that effective and non-discriminatory provision
of accessible-format material is not possible unless the need for a variety
of formats is seen as fundamental, and the student's choice of preferred
format is seen as paramount.
Students who use material in large print have spoken of the inappropriateness
of material that has been photoenlarged onto A3-sized paper. While it
is easier to produce, such material is seldom satisfactory for students.
If the original is of poor print quality, then the A3 version will be
of even poorer quality and, in any case, it is difficult to handle, carry
and store A3-2ized documents. The production of large print by computer
is not technologically difficult, although it does require expertise,
especially for subjects such as Mathematics and Music that use graphical
presentations. Strategies need to be developed for improving access to
material for students who require large print.
Students with print disabilities need materials when other students need
them. Because of the volume of work that is characteristic of university
study, it is difficult or impossible for students to catch up if they
receive material after it has been discussed in lectures or referenced
during tutorials. Given that many subjects are of one semester's duration,
and that a semester is only 12 or 13 weeks, it is readily apparent that
a time delay of even two weeks can have a devastating and lasting effect
on a student's ability to study a subject effectively.
Students have identified a variety of negative consequences of receiving
delayed material, including:
- inability to complete assignments on time;
- inability to participate in class discussions, which in some cases
results in a lower grade;
- exclusion from conversations between other students about specific
topics or readings;
- exclusion from the cultural and recreational life of the university
because of the need to spend a lot of extra time scanning books or catching
up on missed reading;
- high stress due to the pressure and time spent trying to catch up
when material does eventually arrive;
- feelings of anger, frustration, despair, or depression.
In some cases, students have been forced to leave university altogether
because they have not been provided with accessible study materials. The
long-term effects of this on career prospects and financial security are
difficult to quantify, but they are likely to be profound.
The effects of copyright issues on the efforts of universities to provide
accessible-format material have already been outlined. For students themselves,
these effects are manifest in delayed material and restriction on access
due to such practices as file encryption that prevents screen-reading
software from accessing text displayed on the screen. Students are uncertain
about whether they can legally scan entire books under the "fair
dealing" provisions of copyright legislation, and there is a fear
(regardless of whether it is justified) that a publisher might take legal
action against individual students. In addition, students in Australia
are apparently not legally permitted to share books that they have scanned
with other students, for example through the creation of online repositories
of scanned books accessible only to people with print disabilities, which
leads to duplication and impeded access. Copyright legislation in the
US does permit the creation of online repositories of scanned material,
but Australian students are not permitted to access them, due to the absence
of international agreements.
Copyright regimes have been developed to protect the legitimate rights
of authors. It seems, however, that such development has often been at
the expense of the rights of people with print disabilities to have full
and independent access to the information that is available to the rest
of the community.
A concerted, resourced initiative for allowing progress to be made in
harmonising the rights of copyright holders with the rights of people
with print disabilities will have substantial benefits for students who
require materials in accessible formats.
There is a trend towards the use of the WorldWide Web for providing course-related
material (and for providing entire courses). Students with print disabilities
can benefit significantly by this trend, but attention needs to be given
to designing web pages and course materials so that they are accessible
to students who use screen magnification or screen-reading software. The
Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) has developed guidelines for the design
of accessible websites, and these guidelines are well-publicised, readily
available, and easily applied. In the main, it appears that Australian
university websites comply at least partially with these guidelines, but
a number of students have commented that they are unable to use their
university's website because it does not follow the W3C guidelines.
The Commission reminds web designers that failure to make their sites
accessible may make them liable for a complaint under the Commonwealth
Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA). Universities, libraries and
publishers should determine whether their websites are currently accessible,
and rectify any shortcomings without delay.
An accessible website does not guarantee that the content will be accessible.
A number of file formats have been developed for distributing information
on the Worldwide Web. Adobe's pdf (portable document format) system is
probably the most commonly-used. Despite some efforts made by Adobe to
make the pdf format more accessible to people who use screen-reading software,
the latest research concludes that:
"While we applaud Adobe's efforts to make Portable Document Format
(PDF) more accessible, the limitations of existing practices and technological
capabilities available to end-users who are blind or otherwise print
disabled render documents and forms in PDF inaccessible to many members
of the public." (Sajka and Roeder 2002, Executive Summary).
University students the world over complain about the poor quality of
materials that they are given: missing pages from study guides, missing
letters and words from photocopied articles, illegible print. For students
with print disabilities who use accessible formats, quality is also a
major concern. Obviously, if the producer of the accessible-format version
does not have an original of good quality, it will delay the production
process. However, if the accessible-format version is not itself of good
quality, it will cause problems for the student. Most students would rather
have material when it is needed even if there are minor formatting or
typographical errors, but poor-quality material is sometimes worse than
no material at all, because it can convey misleading or inaccurate information.
To take one example: Braille has 64 symbols at its disposal for the representation
of all subject areas. Separate codes have been devised for mathematics,
music, chemistry, phonetics, and linguistics. Many braille symbols have
different meanings in each code. Detailed rules govern the use of the
symbols in the various codes, and there is no room for typographical errors
when transcribing subjects such as mathematics and music-a missing or
extra dot can change the entire meaning of a mathematical expression or
musical phrase. It is absolutely essential that such material be proofread
by trained proofreaders who are familiar with the Braille code being used.
Another area where poor-quality material can cause significant problems
for students is formatting. When material is scanned and processed using
OCR software, formatting is often lost completely or misinterpreted. If
the results of the scanning/OCR process are not edited, a student may
be presented with a book that has no paragraphs, or numbered lists that
have no line breaks before each number. This can make it impossible for
a student to locate particular sections of the text.
Scanned material also needs editing to remove "noise" that
has been introduced during the OCR process. Handwriting in the margins
of library books, for example, will be recognised as brackets, tildes
(~), and other non-alphabetical characters that will be unintelligible
to the student, as illustrated by Simon in the example quoted previously.
Editing is also necessary to insert the page numbers of the original,
without which a student using a braille version will not be able supply
accurate referencing information for quotations and citations. Using scanning
and OCR without subsequent editing might be the best approach when there
is no other way of providing material at short notice to a student who
needs an accessible-format version. However, the quality is generally
not sufficient for it to be seen as a routine solution.
There are about a dozen Australian organisations and business enterprises
that accept requests for the production of material in accessible formats.
This figure does not include the various units that exist within a number
of state and territory education departments to produce accessible-format
materials for K-12 students. Not all producers have direct involvement
with the higher education sector, perhaps because university staff may
be unaware that there are organisations other than NILS to whom materials
could be outsourced. One initiative that would be easily implemented is
the creation of a register of all Australian accessible-format producers.
Another reason for the almost exclusive reliance on NILS and other not-for-profit
agencies is that they have heavily subsidised their tertiary production.
Some accessible-format producers have the expertise and capacity to undertake
the production of tertiary materials, but are run as business enterprises,
and so have no ability to subsidise their production. One effect of the
removal of the NILS subsidy for tertiary production is that a number of
other producers may be able to offer competitive tenders to universities
seeking to outsource their accessible-format production.
Regardless of their business structure, producers of accessible-format
tertiary materials encounter similar issues that affect their ability
to deliver high-quality, timely material in a cost-effective way.
Because they are not located within the university environment, it can
often be difficult for producers to have direct communication with academic
or library staff. Disability support staff themselves have great difficulty
liaising with academic staff about course materials and timeframes, and
producers often feel very isolated from decision-making processes into
which they would like to have input. They have to make their own decisions
about prioritisation of work and utilisation of expertise with little
knowledge of likely demand for tertiary material, yet they are expected
to respond at short notice.
There are time constraints that govern the production of accessible-format
material. For example, it is simply not possible with the current state
of technology and resourcing, to produce a braille version of a complex
tertiary Mathematics book in a few weeks, and producers often feel that
universities place unrealistic demands on them, and then have little understanding
when those demands are not met.
Producers report that in many instances, they are provided with poor-quality,
photocopied material that is difficult or impossible to use as a source
for the production of an accessible-format version, and further delays
occur while they try to obtain a more usable copy. There is clearly a
need for universities and producers to develop greater understanding of
the environment and set of expectations that govern their operation, and
to work towards developing a shared understanding of what is achievable
and reasonable in terms of all the various parts of the production process.
Confusion seems to abound whenever copyright issues are raised, whether
it be with students, universities, or producers. There have been a number
of changes to copyright legislation over the past few years and this,
coupled with high staff turnover in producer organisations, means that
knowledge of current legislative provisions is fragmentary at best. The
Commission hopes that the session on copyright that it is organising as
part of the forum will resolve much of this confusion.
There are issues, however, that relate to the legislation itself. For
example, music scores cannot be produced in accessible formats without
the permission of the copyright holder, even though other types of material
can be produced under a statutory licence. In many cases, music is published
overseas, and producers report that long delays often occur waiting for
permission requests to be processed. This situation could be completely
resolved with a change to the Copyright Act, or the development of a voluntary
code of practice by the publishing industry.
Another issue of concern to producers is the lack of a formal mechanism
for gaining access to electronic versions of published texts. It is much
easier to produce an accessible-format version from an electronic source
document than from a print copy. If only a print copy is available, it
must either be typed into the computer word by word, or (in the case of
text with non-complex layouts) it can be scanned page by page using a
scanner and optical character recognition (OCR) software. Even with the
best OCR software and the most straightforward text, editing is necessary
to correct errors made during the recognition process. Almost all texts
are now published from electronic sources, and producers have varying
success in gaining access to these. It seems that the majority of Australian
publishers co-operate when producers request an electronic version of
a work, but this is not generally the case with overseas publishers. One
producer reported that a US publisher would not provide a Psychology text
in electronic format, even though it was available. This meant that the
braille version of the book had to be produced from scratch - a process
that took 8 months instead of the few weeks it would have taken had the
electronic source been provided.
The publishing industry has a pivotal role to play in resolving this
and related issues, and the Commission hopes that, through the forum and
the ongoing discussions that it will be having with the publishing industry
and other groups over the coming months, that substantial progress can
be made in this area.
From Storm to Sea-Change
The previous sections of this paper have sketched the contours of the
challenges that face the higher education sector as it balances increasing
student numbers, rising costs, and responsibilities under disability discrimination
legislation. The system of providing materials in accessible formats to
students with print disabilities is no longer in equilibrium, and the
storm clouds of protest and anger are looming large. The higher education
sector has a unique opportunity to divert the storm and craft a sea-change
that will result in improved access to materials, and enhanced participation
in university life. Through a combination of strategic initiatives, the
higher education sector, working in partnership with the publishing industry,
disability organisations and producers, has a chance to shape the paradigm
of the future. In so doing, it can demonstrate a lasting commitment to
the rights of people with disabilities.
This new paradigm - the sea-change to replace the storm - cannot happen
without commitment of time, people and resources; it also requires that
the sector work closely with the disability sector to ensure that measures
of quality and accountability are embedded in any and all strategies that
are developed. By convening a national forum, the Commission has provided
an opportunity for the sector to take stock of the current situation in
order to develop the most effective ways for moving forward. We are encouraged
by the positive responses that we have so far received, and we urge the
sector to take advantage of the skills, expertise and ideas that the forum
will bring together.
We offer a few thoughts on how all stakeholders, including the higher
education sector, the publishing industry, disability group, and producers
of accessible-format materials, might develop strategies for providing
materials in accessible formats. Our suggestions should not be seen as
prescriptive; rather, they are intended to be used as a springboard for
discussion and the generation of ideas.
Probably the biggest decision to be made is how accessible-format materials
can best be produced on a national scale. The ad-hoc approach has demonstrably
failed, and now it is time for something new. One suggestion that has
frequently been made during the past few months is that the higher education
sector should establish a specialised national facility for producing
accessible materials. Those who advocate this approach have identified
a number of advantages, including the development of expertise geared
to tertiary needs and expectations; the elimination of duplication; more
flexible approaches to prioritisation with improvement in turnaround times;
greater ability to interact with university staff; and cost-effective
and efficient use of resources. Obviously, quite a lot of preliminary
work would have to be done to determine the feasibility of such a facility,
and it would need to be developed in close partnership with disability
organisations such as Blind Citizens Australia, and standards-setting
bodies such as the Australian Braille Authority.
An alternative, though not mutually exclusive, approach would be the
establishment of a structure to manage outsourcing of material on a national
basis. The emphasis would be on the development of commercial contracts
with producers of accessible-format materials. Because the arrangements
would be largely contractual, producers would have greater accountability
that they do currently, but universities would also have a greater onus
of responsibility to ensure that original material was provided sufficiently
in advance to allow for the terms of the contract to be met. The management
structure would be able to negotiate contracts with a range of producers,
and it would be responsible for performing database searches to locate
existing accessible-format materials, and so on, thus freeing up much
staff time within the universities themselves. As with the approach already
describer, a detailed feasibility study would be required. It is also
worth noting that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and that
it is possible to develop a production model that incorporates elements
of each. One way of doing this would be to enhance the production capacity
of those universities that already produce their own accessible-format
materials, while establishing a national structure for managing outsourcing
There are a number of areas where working groups could be established
to develop guidelines or codes of practice. These include:
- standards for the accessibility of online curricular resources;
- a code of practice and for use by the publishing industry in addressing
issues related to print disability;
- the identification of recommended competencies for prospective students
with print disabilities that could be incorporated into K-12 curricula.
Within the higher education sector, publishing industry, and disability
community, there is a wealth of expertise that could form the nucleus
of several such working groups. There is also scope for greater participation
by the higher education sector and the publishing industry in other organisations
that are involved with print disability issues, such as the Round Table
on Information Access for People with print Disabilities Inc., and the
Australian Braille Authority. In particular, the Commission hopes that
it will find in the higher education sector and publishing industry the
commitment and resources to allow the establishment of an ongoing mechanism
for achieving progress on copyright and publishing issues.
It would be wrong to imply that there are no instances of best practice
within universities at present. One example of best practice in the development
of accessible course materials is described in Archie and Whitty (2002):
a CD-ROM containing all course readings and related articles was designed
to be accessible to blind students who use screen-reading software. There
are many other examples of best practice involving the innovative use
of design techniques and presentation options These examples might be
used as a basis for policy development within universities to course maximise
the accessibility of materials.
Finally, issues of funding will need to be addressed by both the sector
and government. The Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST)
has recognised that some university students with disabilities have high
support needs that must be funded adequately; more work needs to be done
on identifying and costing the needs of students with print disabilities.
It must also be remembered that if university staff are to provide support
to those students, they need adequate professional development opportunities,
for example, basic training in the use of adaptive technology and format
conversion procedures. If the Tertiary Education Disability Council of
Australia (TEDCA) is to continue providing a networking resource for disability
support staff, then it, too, must have a secure funding base.
The forum that is to be held on May 29 is a chance to kick-start the
process of strategic development. The issues are complex, though, and
many will require ongoing work and commitment by all stakeholders if long-term
win/win solutions are to be found. The commission believes that such solutions
are achievable, and looks forward to real progress in the months ahead.
The accessible formats that may be required by tertiary students who
have print disabilities are:
- large print,
- electronic text, and
- tactual graphics.
Large print is very helpful to students with low vision. Sometimes it
can make the difference between someone being able to read a document
or not read it. Large print commonly makes it easier and less tiring for
a person to read. However, there is much more involved in the production
of good large print documents than simply enlarging the print. Documents
are easier to read if there is a good contrast between the print and the
paper, if the characters are plain, if font enhancements such as bolding
and underlining are used appropriately, and if the document structure
is clearly shown.
Braille is a tactile code that enables blind persons to read and write.
It was invented by a blind Frenchman, Louis Braille, in 1829. Braille
is the primary literacy medium for blind people. Braille is embossed onto
heavy paper and people read it by moving their fingers along the lines
Each braille character is made up of a combination of dots from a matrix
of three rows and two columns. Since there are a maximum of 64 braille
characters, including the blank space, there are not enough distinct characters
to provide for a one to one correspondence with print. Braille includes
some so-called composition signs which have no print equivalent. One composition
sign indicates that the following characters denote numbers rather than
letters, whereas another composition sign indicates that the following
characters denote upper case letters as distinct from lower case ones.
To reduce the bulkiness of braille documents, braille uses a system of
contractions, and abbreviations. This system is known as Grade II braille.
There are 189 contractions and abbreviations and many rules governing
Braille is an extremely efficient and reliable tool of literacy and numeracy
for blind persons. Like a print reader, a braille reader is aware of the
spelling and punctuation of words in a document; it is the closest approximation
to print for blind persons. Braille also enables a blind person to write
in a form that can be immediately read. With simple devices, braille can
be punched by hand, and mechanical braille writing machines are readily
available and widely used. Blind persons of all ages and in all walks
of life use braille in the same ways that sighted persons use print.
For the small number of persons who are deafblind, braille is the only
means to access printed information and computers.
The audio format originated almost 70 years ago with the development of
long-playing records to store talking-books. The format is used for talking-books
for borrowers from specialist and generic libraries who are blind or print
disabled, and for textbooks and other documents for students who are blind
or who have print disabilities such as dyslexia.
Audio books are distributed on compact cassettes in Australia. There
are two formats.
- The two-track, full-speed format allows for 90 minutes of recording
on a standard C90 cassette. The cassettes can be played back using a
standard cassette player.
- The four-track, half-speed format allows for six hours of recording
on a standard C90 cassette. The cassettes are played back using a special
cassette player which can play cassettes at slow speed and can play
the left and right stereo channels separately. This format is well suited
to students because of the compactness of the data storage.
Electronic text, commonly referred to as e-text, is an emerging document
format. Essentially an e-text document is a computer file containing the
text of the document. E-text documents are commonly accessed by a student
who is blind through the use of synthetic speech or braille. The commonly
used software for accessing documents in electronic form is designed for
use by sighted people. The programs are word processors or Internet browsers.
These use visual means to convey the structure of the document such as
larger or changed fonts for headings, and font enhancements like bolding,
italics and underlining. When a student listens to an artificial narration
of the document via synthetic speech much of this supplementary information
is lost. The e-text format is well suited to non-complex documents, having
the particular advantage that they can be produced quickly to give a student
access to required documents. This format might be thought of as a first
cut, prior to obtaining documents in a student's preferred reading format.
E-text files are usually presented as ASCII (text with line breaks) files
with some embedded codes to describe the structure of the document. The
descriptive codes are based on a subset of HTML codes, to give the reader
information about the document's structure. (HTML denotes HyperText Markup
Language, which is the underlying document structuring language of the
World Wide Web.) Most readers of e-text documents use synthetic speech
for access, although some use braille.
The e-text format is the forerunner of eBooks. The standards for eBooks
are being developed by the Open EBook Forum, and disability advocates
knowledgeable about Internet access issues are hopeful that the standards
for eBooks will provide for their accessibility by users with print disabilities.
Tactual Graphics are used to supplement materials in braille, audio or
electronic text. The preparation of good Tactual Graphics requires skill,
an appreciation of the users' perceptual abilities and attention to detail.
There are various ways of producing the master and organisations tend
to have their favourite or traditional methods. Tactual Graphics range
from simple maths diagrams, to maps and more complicated representations.
Producers of accessible format materials are in the midst of a major
transition, from the analog to the digital platform. This transition is
evident for the major formats: braille, large print, e-text and audio.
Traditionally these formats have been produced separately, using distinct
and largely non-complementary production processes. However, the advantages
of convergence through digitisation are being realised, particularly for
braille, large print and e-text, but perhaps soon also for audio. The
benefits are reduced production costs, more documents available in accessible
formats and a higher quality and completeness of service to students who
have print disabilities. In particular, the transition from analog to
digital for audio books will enhance their utility for students by allowing
them to quickly and easily search for sections, page numbers and sometimes
Most braille is produced using a computer. The IBM PC is the standard
hardware. The Duxbury Braille Translator is the standard software running
in the Windows-95 environment. With computerised methods the operator
does not generally need to know the braille codes. However, for good braille,
the operator must understand the rules and conventions of braille formatting.
A serious limitation is that the Duxbury translator cannot be directly
applied to the mathematics and science codes used in Australia. This means
that if a computer is used the operator must enter the braille characters
directly. This requires a detailed knowledge of the braille mathematics
and science codes. This means that mathematics and science textbooks are
very time-consuming to produce.
There are three ways of generating the file for translation into braille.
The traditional method was to enter the text manually into the computer
through the keyboard. Scanning text is now popular, and of course many
documents are obtained in electronic form. Scanned files and electronic
documents have their own problems and these approaches are often not the
simple solution that they first appear. Because of the complexity of much
of the material produced in braille, particularly tertiary texts, a great
deal of manual intervention is needed to edit, correct or supplement the
text. Quite often it is most efficient to type in the text from the keyboard.
Copies are produced on a braille embosser which is functionally equivalent
to a printer. Almost all organisations now have embossers that can produce
braille on both sides of the page (interpoint braille). For manually produced
braille the Thermoform Duplicator is used for making copies. It is like
a photocopier which can only do one copy of one page at a time-single-sided
braille only. It uses a heat and vacuum process to produce copies on plastic
Ideally, large print masters are produced using regular word processing
or desktop publishing software, most commonly MS-Word. As with braille
masters, there are three distinct input methods: keyboard entry, scanning
and electronic source files. Much of the work resides in reformatting
the document. Copies are made with a regular office photocopier. Indeed,
sometimes large print is produced by photo-enlarging; however many students
with low vision do not like photo-enlarged documents particularly if the
original was taken from A4 pages.
E-text masters are created with a regular word processor or text editor.
E-text copies are usually distributed on disk. One might anticipate growing
use of email for distributing copies.
In Australia most audio books are produced for circulation as talking-books
or for use by tertiary students. However, school students who are blind
or vision impaired can benefit greatly from access to books produced in
the audio format.
Audio books have traditionally been made using analog equipment. Recordings
are commonly made on to cassette. Some of the blindness agencies are switching
to the digital platform for Audio Masters. Some use DAT (Digital Audio
Tape), but mostly they are graduating to use a computer with editing software
and the recording stored as digital audio files on the hard disk.
Audio books and other documents are commonly distributed on cassettes.
They are produced using high-speed cassette duplication systems. Eventually
organisations will change from the analog to the digital platform for
Audio Copies. They may want to stay with cassettes, but at some time the
mainstream market will abandon cassettes just like it abandoned vinyl
records. Among the competing technologies, it is not clear whether CD,
DVD or solid-state playback media will predominate.
There are three distinct methods for producing tactual graphics. Each
has its merits based on the time and cost of the production and the useability
of the finished product.
- Manual methods use objects which are placed on a piece of paper. Objects
like string, spaghetti, sandpaper and pieces of plain paper can be used.
The master is then copied on a Thermoform machine. This machine was
developed for duplicating braille. It uses heat and suction to produce
embossed copies on plastic sheets.
- A drawing can be made by hand, or photocopied from an original and
augmented by hand. It is then photocopied on to swell paper and converted
to tactual form by using a machine known as a Stereocopier or one of
- There is some software for generating the tactile graphics. Mainstream
software is useful to some extent, but a program called Picture Braille
is useful for including Braille labels. The Tactual Graphics might then
be directly embossed on a braille embosser or printed and stereocopied.
Each method has particular advantages and disadvantages in relation to
cost, convenience of production and utility of the finished product.
Broadly, there are three methods of producing copies of tactual graphics
once a master has been prepared. Each method has its own advantages and
- The Thermoform Duplication process gives very good tactual graphics.
Since vast copies of tactile graphics are not produced, the labour intensiveness
of this method is not important.
- Embossing tactual graphics on a braille embosser is very convenient.
The work entirely resides in producing the master and determining where
in the document the tactual graphic should appear. Quite good tactual
graphics can be produced by this method, especially diagrams for high
school and tertiary mathematics. One limitation with this approach is
that it may be difficult to produce smooth curves due to the low density
of the dots.
- The use of swell paper became popular in the 1980s. It yields quite
good tactual graphics. The graphics are easy to produce. Whilst the
stereocopier is not very expensive, the special paper is expensive (almost
$2.00 per sheet). The paper is covered with tiny capsules containing
a special chemical. When the paper is exposed to heat the chemical expands.
The visual graphic is photocopied on to the capsule paper which is then
passed through the Stereocopier which is essentially a machine that
applies heat to the page as it passes through. The dark parts of the
paper absorb more heat so that the capsules swell up more than the light
parts. The result is a tactual graphic. This method can give very good
A major disadvantage with cassette-based audio books, particularly for
student or reference texts, is that it is very slow and cumbersome to
move through the text from one section to another, from one page to another,
or from the index to the pages to which a particular entry might refer.
On the other hand, a major asset of the digital platform is the ability
to encode structuring into the audio document and for the user to search
for sections, pages or index references.
The two key words for technological change in the production of documents
in accessible formats are digitisation and convergence.
- Digitisation means that processes are being transformed from an analog
to a digital platform. This means that the computer is becoming the
fundamental production tool for all formats.
- Convergence means that the production techniques for previously disparate
formats are converging. In theory one source document with embedded
structuring codes to indicate headings, paragraphs, tables, etc., can
be used to produce well-formatted documents in braille, large print
and e-text. However, the new paradigm for digital audio allows for structuring
and integration with other formats in a multimedia environment.
In practice this means that organisations will move toward the production
of documents in braille, large print and e-text from a common source document;
and that structured audio documents will be augmented by e-text, large
print or braille. The playback unit of tomorrow will allow text in print
or braille to be displayed on the video screen or braille display, whilst
the audio is being heard. These developments bring the promise of enormous
benefits for students who are blind or vision impaired through a greater
ease of access to many more documents. This will speed up their access
to information and thus help to reduce their educational disadvantage
by comparison with their sighted peers.
Assistive technology commonly refers to computer hardware and software
which is used by students who are blind or vision impaired to access information.
Since computers are commonly used by people with full sight to access
information, much of the assistive technology addresses the challenge
of computer access by students who are blind or vision impaired. This
section gives an overview of assistive technology which may be used by
students with low vision or those who are totally blind. It does not discuss
all of the available assistive technology, simply giving an indication
of the hardware and software available.
Students with sufficient vision to see letters, generally prefer to access
their computers by sight. They are assisted by enlarging the characters
on the screen. However, they may also benefit from the use of a speech
synthesiser if the text is dense or lengthy. Therefore, as with students
who are blind, the development of listening skills is important for students
with low vision.
Two components are needed to yield good screen magnification and access
to information: screen-enlargement software and hardware suitable for
handling the display.
Screen-magnification software enables students with low vision to enlarge
the screen display by virtually any factor they choose. The programs run
simultaneously with the operating system and applications and can be programmed
to enlarge certain areas of the screen or the entire display. A few mainstream
browsers and word processors allow the user to enlarge the display, and
Microsoft's Windows 95 and 98 have in-built accessibility features.
Specialist screen-magnification programs are very important for students
with very low vision. They allow the user to access computer information
by enlarging the display on the screen by any factor required. These programs
allow the user to zoom in on parts of the screen, to focus on one enlarged
line or to split the screen. The user has a high level of control and
is able to tailor the display to suit personal needs.
The key piece of hardware for large-print displays is a large monitor.
Although standard monitors (14 or 15 inches) are used by many persons
using screen-enlargement software, they do not allow the user to fully
take advantage of screen enhancement. Larger display monitors (19 to 20
inches) allow more of the text to be viewed. In order to get the full
benefits from text-enlargement software, a large monitor is essential.
Not only does it provide a larger display to start with, but it gives
much better resolution and therefore sharpness to the large characters
Closed Circuit TV systems (CCTVs) consist of a camera and a video display
unit. They enable a person who is vision impaired to access hardcopy print
material in a highly magnified form. The foreground and background colours
can often be changed to suit the specific requirements of the reader.
Some CCTV systems integrate with PC screen enlargement to provide a unified
workstation for print and computer magnification. A significant disadvantage
of these devices for students is that they are desktop devices and therefore
not portable for moving between lecture rooms or for transferring between
home and university.
Assistive technology is helpful to students with low vision for both reading
and writing. Many of these students work under extreme difficulty because
they cannot easily read their own handwriting. Using a computer for completing
assignments and writing essays has wide applicability and obvious advantages.
However, it can be difficult to write mathematical equations and other
graphical material using this method.
There are broadly two alternatives for computer access for students who
are blind: synthetic speech and braille. These two technologies should
be seen as complementary, rather than competitive, and it is important
to recognise that individuals will have particular preferences and abilities.
A screen-reader works as follows. Each system contains two major components.
First is the hardware that does the `speaking`. This is called a voice
(or speech) synthesiser because it attempts to create human-sounding speech
through synthesis. The second component of any speech-output system is
the software program, generally referred to as a screen-reader. The screen-reading
program is a highly complex application that must run behind all other
applications. Its job is to monitor, and send to the speech synthesiser,
everything going to the computer's screen, whether from the keyboard,
from internal computer processing, or from external sources such as a
modem or network connection
A modern screen-reader provides the user with many options about how
the information from the computer is to be spoken. For example, when the
computer's keys are pressed, the user can choose to have the voice output
speak each letter of a word or string the letters together to form a whole
word. The user can choose to hear all the modifier keys announced (<SHIFT>,
<TAB>, or <ENTER>) or have them silenced. Most leading screen-reading
programs contain a number of these features, but programs vary according
to producer and model. Screen-readers allow the user to select whether
to have highlighted text, the whole screen, or no screen output spoken.
Additionally, because important messages often appear in a particular
colour or position on the display screen, the screen reader can be set
to monitor the screen for these messages and announce them when they appear.
Other options control such factors as the speech rate and how much punctuation
Over the past ten years, issues surrounding the development of software
to produce speech or braille output for computer users who are blind have
become very complicated. The factor contributing most to this complexity
is the switch from text-based to graphics-based computer systems. As programmers
of today's Windows systems attempt to make computer usage easier for people
watching the screen through the use of graphics or symbols, they are,
at the same time, making it more difficult for the programmers of access
systems to produce software that can accurately read the screen. While
substantial progress has been made, it is still the case that screen navigation
that is intuitive for students who are sighted is often confusing for
students who are blind. Furthermore, there is a substantial learning load
for students who are blind to learn how to use their computers-both for
using the standard applications such as the word processor or email program,
and the screen-reader, which they need to use in order to access these
A.3.2.2. Access through Braille
Braille displays provide access to the information on a computer screen
by converting standard ASCII text into braille. In response to information
from the computer, braille is produced on the display by pins that are
raised and lowered in combinations to form braille characters. When used
with screen-access programs, braille displays allow users to access any
portion of the screen information. They are akin to a small window which
may be moved about the screen. Braille displays generally show only one
line of braille and typically they have 20, 40 or 80 braille cells. This
limitation is largely due to economics, the cost of the braille cells.
A 40-cell braille display is commonly regarded in Australia as a good
compromise between functionality and affordability. Some displays are
portable and battery-powered, while others are larger desktop units that
sit under the computer keyboard.
For a good braille reader, the use of a braille display can offer many
benefits over other access modes. For example, it allows the user to move
quickly from one point on the screen to another; to skip large blank spaces
easily; to watch an item on the screen change rather than having to query
the screen for the latest update; to read at a personal rate; to observe
many specifics about the text such as spelling, punctuation, and format;
to review the code of computer programs; and to be keenly aware of items
on the screen and their relative position to one another.
The term `embosser` rather than `printer` is used in connection with braille.
A braille embosser is functionally equivalent to a printer.
A student who is blind might want to use a braille embosser to produce
a hard copy of documents such as search results or text files. Many blind
people prefer to have a hard copy of their documents, for study or reference,
just as sighted users do. Braille embossers are widely used for producing
textbooks translated by computerised braille production.
To produce documents in braille with proper adherence to the braille code
and the formatting rules, it is necessary to use a Braille Translator-a
specialist piece of software. The most widely-used program in Australia
is the Duxbury Braille Translator (DBT) from Duxbury Systems in the US.
DBT produces excellent braille and is not difficult to use, although human
intervention is always necessary to ensure that the Braille is formatted
During the second half of the 1990s the Internet has emerged as a potent
symbol of globalisation and a primary conduit for information exchange.
Many people use the Internet for email and Web browsing, and it is becoming
an essential part of university life, both as a means of communicating
with lecturers are students, and also as a way of distributing course
materials. Assistive technology developers have worked furiously to extend
their products or develop new ones that give people who are blind or vision
impaired access to the World Wide Web (Web). For students who are blind
or vision impaired, Web accessibility is an ongoing challenge, since Web
sites continue to become more visual and sophisticated in their delivery
and presentation of information.
For university students, the Web is a fundamental source of information;
for students who have print disabilities, the Web may be the only way
of accessing information that other students can access via print, for
example, browsing library catalogues, searching databases, reading newspapers
and magazines. So students who have print disabilities may be gravely
disadvantaged if their Internet access is inadequate. Even if these students
have access to the latest screen-reader and can use it efficiently, they
may find that some Web sites are inaccessible, that they are much slower
to find and download information they are seeking, or that the voice card
in their computer does not let them use their voice-based screen-reader
and access audio files simultaneously.
Archie, R., and Whitty, M. (2002): Enhancing student access to the University:
"The integration of online and course-based material for the visually
impaired." Paper presented at Ed-Media 2001, World Conference on
Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, Tampere, Finland,
June 25-30, 2001.
Barrett, J. (2002): A Review of Transcription Services for Students with
Vision Impairment and others with Print Disability in Post-Secondary Educational
Institutions in Tasmania, University of Tasmania.
Kemp, D., Minister for Education (2000): Higher Education Report for the
2000-2002 Triennium, Department of Education, Science and Training, Canberra.
Archived on the Worldwide Web at http://www.dest.gov.au/highered/he_report/2000_2002/default.htm.
Sajka, J., and Roeder, J. (2002): PDF and Public Documents: A White Paper,
Version 1.1, American Foundation for the Blind. Archived on the Worldwide
Web at http:www.afb.org/aboutPDF.asp