STORM OR SEA-CHANGE: Meeting the Challenges of Providing Tertiary Materials in Accessible Formats For Students with Print Disabilities

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 Opportunity Commission
May 2002


1 Background
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Legislative Context
1.3 Definitions

2 University Perspectives
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Outsourcing and In-house Production
2.3 Environmental Factors Affecting Timely Delivery of Material
2.4 Specific Factors Affecting Delivery of Accessible-format Material

3 Student Perspectives
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Some Examples
3.3 Choice of Format
3.4 Timeliness
3.5 Copyright
3.6 Accessibility of Online Resources
3.7 Quality

4 Producer Perspectives
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Communication with Universities
4.3 Copyright and Publishing

5 Summary and Conclusion

Appendix A Accessible Formats and Assistive Technology
A.1 Accessible Formats
A.2 Production of Accessible Formats
A.3 Assistive Technology


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 formats;
  • 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 formats.

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:
Bruce Maguire
Policy and Project Officer, Disability Rights Unit
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
GPO Box 5218
Sydney NSW 1042
Telephone: 02 9284 9613


1.1. Introduction

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 rights.

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 places.

The Commonwealth Government has identified a number of purposes for higher education, namely:

"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 to society);
  • 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 levels;
  • enable individuals to contribute to a democratic, civilised society and promote the tolerance and debate that underpins it." (Kemp 2000 §1.1.2).

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 education.

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 of subjects;
  • 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 education.

1.2. Legislative Context

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 disability.

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 hardship".

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.

1.3. Definitions

1.3.1. Accessible Formats

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,
" braille,
" 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.

1.3.2. Print Disability

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 formats.

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.


2.1. Introduction

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 implications.

2.2. Outsourcing and In-House Production

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) electronic text.

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 production costs.

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 in braille.

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.

2.3. Environmental Factors Affecting Timely Delivery of Material

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 be implemented.

2.4. Specific Factors Affecting Delivery of Accessible-format Material

2.4.1. Limits to Needs Identification

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 constraints.

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 disabilities.

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.

2.4.2. Co-operation with Academic Staff

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.

2.4.3. Which Materials Should be Provided?

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 guiding principles.

2.4.4. Technological Literacy

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.

2.4.5. Multiple Course-Delivery Modes

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.

2.4.6. Administrative Requirements

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.

2.4.7. Copyright

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.


3.1. Introduction

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 up.

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.

3.2. Some Examples

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 website.

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 than weeks."

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.

3.3. Choice of Format

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.

3.4. Timeliness

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.

3.5. Copyright

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.

3.6. Accessibility of Online Resources

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).

3.7. Quality

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.


4.1. Introduction

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.

4.2. Communication with Universities

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.

4.3. Copyright and Publishing

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 contracts.

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.


A.1. Accessible Formats

The accessible formats that may be required by tertiary students who have print disabilities are:

  • large print,
  • braille,
  • audio,
  • 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 of dots.

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 their use.

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.

A.2. Production of Accessible Formats

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 even keywords.

A.2.1. Current Production Techniques

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 sheets.

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 its clones.
  • 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 disadvantages.

  • 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 tactual graphics.

A.2.2. Towards Digital Documents

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.

A.3. Assistive Technology

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.

A.3.1. Students with Low Vision

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 being displayed.

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.

A.3.2. Students who are Blind

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.3.2.1. Access through speech

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 is spoken.

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 applications.

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 appropriately.

A.4. Internet Access

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.


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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
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