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Electronic text and visually impaired users: standards & the move toward Universal Accessibility

Jamon Camisso, FIS2309, Design of Electronic Text


How would you feel if you went to buy a magazine and were told that, of the 100 on display, you could choose from only three?” (Henderson, 2003). So reads the introduction to a 2003 Toronto Star article detailing the efforts of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) to digitize and make text available to users with blindness, low vision, or learning disabilities. All the more remarkable is the fact that a main stream newspaper would pay attention to the efforts of the CNIB to serve its users at all. However, the CNIB point out on their website that “Each year, almost two million books and information resources are delivered across Canada postage-free or delivered online from the CNIB Library” (2008a, p2), highlighting the importance of electronic texts and delivery systems to Canadians with vision loss and learning disabilities. Indeed, they note that “All newly produced audiobooks are now available exclusively in digital format - on DAISY CD and online at the CNIB Digital Library. Audio magazine subscribers now have the choice of reading magazines on DAISY CD or by phone” (2008b, p2).

Thus the issue of accessibility of electronic texts for the visually impaired is of considerable scope, scale, and implication. Morgan (2002) writes that for the print-disabled population, “According to a 1991 Statistics Canada Health and Activity Limitations Survey, roughly ten percent of people in Canada... are print disabled, and therefore unable to use the resources found in most school libraries” (15). There are however numerous national services and libraries for the visually impaired, and a plethora of hardware and software tools and interfaces for visually disabled users. There are also multiple international standards and various corporate partnerships designed to produce uniformly accessible data to users of electronic texts, foremost among them, the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY). This paper will examine each of the aforementioned areas in turn in an attempt to broadly survey access methods, initiatives, and standards pertaining to the accessibility of electronic texts for visual and learning disabled users.

On a broad scale, Tank and Frederiksen (2007) point out that accessibility of electronic texts need not be confined solely to users with partial or full blindness. Rather, they note that “People having trouble with reading and writing face problems in modern daily life.... It is possible, but definitely not easy, to manage a life with very little reading, but there is a risk of social exclusion as access to print or virtual text is an essential key to almost any form of training and education” (933-934). While the focus of this paper is not on illiteracy, reading disabilities like dyslexia fit squarely within the realm of electronic texts for the visually impaired.

Indeed, Lockerby, Breau, and Zuvela (2006) carried out a study for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) that had “A total of 56 adults from across Canada.... they included both men and women, adults (aged 18-59) and seniors (aged 60 and older). These individuals had different perceptual disabilities, such as legal blindness... visual impairment... and/or a print disability as a result of a learning disability or a physical disability that prevented or inhibited them from reading regular print” (478). As such, there are a number of interesting hardware devices related to this course that may be of interest to users with visual disabilities.


In Canada, the CNIB is the national (and largest) body serving visually impaired users, whose impairment ranges from learning disabilities to full congenital blindness. Henderson (2003) notes that the CNIB has “more than 300,000 copies of talking books. The conversion to digital will eventually double the size of the collection, while giving more clients easier and quicker access,” and all mailed for free via Canada Post. In the meantime, “Canada Post annually circulates 1.3 million CNIB Library items to tens of thousands of readers across the country” (CNIB, 2008c).

On a global level, the Libraries for the Blind Section of the International Federation of Libraries Association (IFLA-LBS) is working with DAISY to push for accessible library services. Their partnership with the DAISY consortium extends to building federated search tools, digital rights management, sharing content, and even working on standardizing an interface for the CNIB's electronic delivery system to help other libraries access content (IFLA 2006). By seeking partnerships with international standard setting bodies like the DAISY consortium, IFLA-LBA can promote their organization's goals while helping build credibility for a standard like DAISY. Kerscher (2006) puts it best, noting that “The DAISY Consortium focuses on the standards development, builds tools for production, reading, and provides training and technical support. IFLA-LBS libraries produce the accessible books and provide the surrounding services their library patrons need.” (100)

Hardware Devices

For fully blind users, there are a number of hardware braille devices available with a variety of levels of functionality and built for different purposes. Cooper and Nichols (2007) conducted a project with 20 kindergarten, first, and second grade students in the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. They initially evaluated four different braille devices, “The Braille Star (by Pulse Data), a refreshable braille display device for a computer that also functions as a stand-alone notetaking device... the BrailleNote (by Human Ware) and the Braille Lite (by Freedom Scientific)” and finally, the Mountbatten Pro Brailler (23). Their study focused on the latter of the four devices and its impact on learning, writing, and reading skills.

With regard to reading their electronically produced and embossed braille in particular, Cooper and Nichols found that the independence that students gained with the Mountbatten led to students having more opportunities for reading text from the device. They also note that amongst the teachers surveyed, “Another widely cited feature was the benefit of the voice in teaching the children the phonetic aspects of reading” (28). Indeed, they conclude that “The voice-output feature helped the students locate errors; learn the braille code and phonics; and develop listening skills, particularly listening to understand the electronic voice” (30).

As a relevant aside to the content covered in FIS 2309H, Design of Electronic Text, while neither company's business is in making accessible technology, both Amazon and Sony could consider including at least a rudimentary screen reader to allow visually impaired users at least some degree of access to their respective devices. Neither company need even acknowledge that accessibility, specifically the lack thereof, is an issue. Instead, each can simply include a text to speech engine as a new feature and advertise their unit as giving users even more ways to interact with their texts.


One successful and very important development in terms of both hardware and software is the knfbREADER. For partially sighted, dyslexic, or even fully blind users who do not read braille, Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB is the United States equivalent of the CNIB) recently released a smartphone featuring a 5-megapixel camera and text to speech engine called the knfbREADER. The phone even garnered mainstream attention via gizmodo.com, a popular technology blog. The gizmodo reviewer (Rothman, 2008) writes that “For people with dyslexia or other learning disabilities who can see, the system serves to enlarge, read, track or highlight printed text on the N82's display. Since many learning disabilities hamper the reader's ability to track text, this allows them to focus more clearly on their reading task” (p3). Moreover, the “Reader enables users to take pictures of and read most printed materials at the push of a button. Blind users hear the contents of the document read in clear synthetic speech” (p7). The knfbREADER thus bridges the gap between portability and hardware and software interfaces to electronic text. Moreover, its use need not be limited to visually impaired users as its functionality can be of use to anyone with any degree of vision. In that respect then, if a smart phone can be used to make all manner of texts electronically accessible while maintaining a suite of functionality common to most mobile phones, it stands to reason that Sony and Amazon could, as previously mentioned, make some attempt at making their respective devices even slightly more accessible.


There are multiple software and data formats that are widely used to provide visually impaired users with access to electronic text, many of which can be used on dedicated hardware devices, or at least personal computers. The main format, used by the CNIB and libraries around the world, is the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY). DAISY is an ANSI standard as of 2005 though it has been in widespread use for 10 years (Westlind 2008). Westlind notes that DAISY is used to structure text and “to mark up important entities such as chapters, footnotes, lists, tables, quotes, etc.... This makes it possible for the user to read the text with a screen reader.... Another possibility is to use the standard to prepare a braille production.... [and] to create HTML, PDF, and other e-text formats automatically” (416).

Morgan (2003) provides an excellent summary of the various forms that DASIY electronic books can take, condensing the ANSI/NISO Z39.86 document (2005) upon which DAISY is based into six broad document types:

(1) "Full audio only", perhaps with just the title element present as text. The recording consists of a human voice narration of the contents of the document but it is not structured - it is linear as is an analogue talking book. The reader cannot navigate to points within the digital talking book. (Talking books converted from analogue into digital are likely to be in this form.)

(2) "Full structured audio." The digital talking book contains a recording of the contents of the document and includes a navigation control file to let the reader navigate to selected structural elements reproduced from the print document, e.g. page numbers. A SMIL file defines the sequencing of audio items.

(3) "Full (or partial) audio with structure and partial text." The structured audio is supplemented by some of the document in a textual content file which enables features such as keyword searching and spelt out words and/or synthetic speech rendering of content such as lists. Images may be included. The reader of any of the included formats is able to navigate directly to items in the navigation control file and to specially tagged items in the textual control file. All media present are synchronised by the SMIL files.

(4) "Full audio with structure and full text." The whole document is recorded in speech and present as text. The book is structured and synchronised via SMIL files so that the reader can navigate to items in the navigation control file and to tagged items in the textual control file.

(5) "Full text with structure and partial audio" means that only parts of the document are recorded in speech and those parts are synchronised with the accompanying text. Otherwise the SMIL contains text in sequence, or text and any image elements. This pattern might be used for dictionaries and other reference works in which human speech pronunciation of certain words is required.

(6) Digital talking book without audio. This is entirely possible, as for a book to be read via braille or synthetic speech. The full text of the document is in a textual content file, structured and linked so that the reader can navigate directly to items in the navigation control and textual content files. SMIL files synchronise text elements and any images.

Essentially, DASIY is a formalized subset of Extensible Markup language (XML) that is used to encode books in the six different forms that Morgan describes. Because it is XML easy for screen readers, braillers, and other software and hardware devices to use, it is an ideal format to use for any kind of electronic text distribution and reproduction.

Indeed, Westlind (2008) points out the Microsoft recently announced a DAISY tool for use with its most recent office suite that allows users to save their documents directly to a DAISY file. Importantly, he also notes that “efforts are being made to convince publishers in several countries to use DAISY for their commercial audio books or to place a DAISY in the back of a printed book. It is important to introduce DAISY as an alternative suitable for all users in the growing audio and e-book market, and not only for people with print disabilities” (425). Westlind explains by analogy that just as zippers were invented for people who had trouble with buttons and subsequently found useful by almost all other people, so too will DAISY become universally accessible and used given enough uptake amongst publishers and the public.


Westlind's article and analogy are an appropriate summary of the history and current state of accessible electronic text for the visually impaired. Combined with a smartphone like the Nokia N82 used by Kurzweil for the knfbREADER, or a state of the art braille machine, DAISY is the common data format that can tie all the devices and use cases together. Because there are so many different types of visual impairment and because some users may be content with braille, while others prefer audio books, or screen readers, by relying on a common data format, all visually impaired users can read the same electronic text, via completely different sensory modalities. Ideally, given enough time and use, and tools like Microsoft's office suite with DAISY integration, electronic texts will all be created and disseminated in accessible forms such that they are universally accessible. In the end, the best outcome of current technology and research into accessible electronic text would be for sighted and unsighted users to all enjoy the day's news, latest novel, textbook, or academic paper without any delay in publication or barrier to use.

Works Cited

CNIB. (2008a). Welcome to the CNIB Library!, retrieved on July 12 2008 from http://www.cnib.ca/en/services/library/Default.aspx.

CNIB. (2008b). All About DAISY, retrived on July 11 2008 from http://www.cnib.ca/en/services /library/daisy/Default.aspx.

Cooper, H., L. & Nichols, S. K. (2007). Technology and Early Braille Literacy: Using the Mountbatten Pro Brailler in Primary-grade Classrooms. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 101(1), 22-31.

Gylling, M. (2003). DAISY: a new approach to Braille and Talking Books. BrailleNet WorkShop 2003: New Technologies for a More Accessible Society, retrieved on July 25 2008 from http://www.daisy.org/publications/docs/20040517192032/daisy_a_new_approach_v1.html.

Henderson, H. (2003, November 22). Digitized collection unveiled:[ONT Edition]. Toronto Star,p. L14.

IFLA. (2006). Strategic Plan 2006-2007. Libraries for the Blind Section, retrieved on July 25 2008 from http://www.ifla.org/VII/s31/annual/sp31.htm.

Kerscher, G. (2006). The Essential Role of Libraries Serving Persons Who Are Blind and Print Disabled in the Information Age. LNCS 4061, 100-105.

Lockerby, C., Breau, R. & Zuvela, B. (2006). Enhancing Digital Access to Learning Materials for Canadians with Perceptual Disabilities: A Pilot Study. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 100(8), 477-482.

Morgan, G. (2003). A word in your ear: Library services for print disabled readers in the digital age. The Electronic Library, 21(3), 234-239.

Morgan, J. (2002). Who's not invited? Collection development for the enlightened school library. School Libraries in Canada, 21(4), 15-16.

NISO Press. (2005). Specifications for the Digital Talking Book. ANSI/NISO Z39.86-2005, retrieved on July 15 2008 from http://www.niso.org/workrooms/daisy/Z39-86-2005.html.

Rothman, W. (2008, January 28). Kurzweil Develops First Seeing-Eye Cellphone. Gizmodo, retrieved on July 14 2008, from http://gizmodo.com/349558/kurzweil-develops-first-seeing+eye-cellphone.

Tank, E. & Frederiksen, C. (2007). The DAISY Standard: Entering the Global Virtual Library. Library Trends, 55(4), 932-949.

Westlind, M. (2008). Dynamic materials force dynamic cataloguing: accessible materials in a new digital age. Library Review, 57(6), 424-429.

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