Making a book accessible to a blind student

specs.jpg Recently I posted an appeal on Webgrrls for tips on creating a PDF for a blind student, David. The message spread and I received great advice from many sources -- thank you, everyone! It's been interesting, and I'm not through yet.

Background: David needs access to my own book Better Business Writing on the Web, used as a textbook by the Open Polytechnic. I have the original Word file, and fortunately I used styles throughout. Its 286 pages include many screenshots, 13 pages of URLs (many of which will already be obsolete) and an index.

I had a hugely rewarding chat with Luke Smith, a (different) blind student yesterday. As a result, the first thing I'm going to do is check what format David prefers. Perhaps that will be a Word document, not a PDF. That's just one of many comments that surprised me.

I was surprised to find how many choices a blind student had, and how smart the latest screen readers are. Luke stressed that many of the things he did were personal choices. One example: he leaves documents open and the computer continuously switched on to avoid the 10-minute delay (!) when the screen reader opens a document, and to save his place in a document. Luke uses JAWS 6 or 7.

Fortunately I used styles in the original Word document. Conversion to an accessible PDF could be much more straightforward than I expected.

Strangely, the more Luke spoke, the more reassured I was.

My book is full of screenshots, so I thought I'd have to write long descriptions. But Luke said that JAWS just skips images, and usually they are unnecessary. Indeed, they do always support something textual in a visual form, giving readers two shots at getting the point. This was humbling! It's funny: I'm a writer, so you'd think I'd prefer eating information in verbal form, but I hunger for those supplementary illustrations. Lucky me, to be able to see them.

For example, I like theJISC TechDis guide, because the document has great screenshots.

Luke also said he personally found bookmarks nothing but a nuisance. And he also made me wary of using hyperlinks for anything but URLs.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it seems unexpected problems appear regardless. So I'll have to be responsive to feedback on this specific document.

John E. Brandt recommends Adobe's videos on the topic, but notes wisely, While the screencasts provide great content, they themselves are not accessible!
Articles on accessibility by Peter Abrahams, Bloor Research

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine


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