Is Braille the answer?

Sue and I were making her indulgent coffee cake complete with butter icing and walnut decoration.  For me, its one of those cakes that brings back memories of childhood, licking the bowl and making sure that there were still enough walnuts left for at least one apiece.

She was one of the Southampton Sight volunteers who had come equipped with a Braille cookbook.  But, as Braille is so very bulky when printed, one “normal” cookbook turned out to be five volumes when reproduced in Braille.  The system of raised dots representing each word, letter or number uses more space and thicker paper which adds to its bulk.  There are alternatives such as Braille touch pads that respond to electronic documents: presenting them as changing tactile symbols as the document is “read” – but these aren’t always ideal when you want a ready reference like a cookbook.

Sue had learned this way of reading when she was young and agreed with the advice I’d been given, after about age 50 one’s fingertip sensitivity has lessened so it is much more difficult to learn Braille.  Remembering that relatively few people have no or little vision from childhood while much sight-loss is associated with older age, it is not surprising that not many people (perhaps 10,000) use this system in the UK.

The lesson is that, if you are producing documents for the public or any audience that might include people with limited vision, don’t automatically think that Braille is the answer.  Certainly, you might offer it as an option alongside large print   but, as more and more people use electronic documents, make sure that these work with screen magnification and screen readers.  Documents in pdf formats are notoriously poor with screen readers if they haven’t been created in a suitable format – so don’t rely on these either.

My answer is to always keep an original version of a document in Word which can then be used with adaptive technology, including a Braille printer or touchscreen, can be printed in any size and can also work with screen readers and magnification.  Such a document may not solve every problem but will be close.

And, of course, the Equality Act makes this applicable to any organisation (public, private or voluntary sector) serving the public and employers who know that they have visually impaired staff.    It needn’t be difficult or expensive to comply with the law – it just takes a bit of forward-thinking



Website accessibility

What do you think:

  • Website designers taking account of adaptive technology?
  • Which screen-magnifiers, screen-readers and voice recognition solutions are most used?
  • What about all the others who use adaptive IT?

You can cast an eye, screen-magnifier or reader over the results of a recent survey of the sorts of adaptive information technology used to access the website at:

Useful in parts although only just over 700 responses were gathered over six weeks from users of the Government’s main website – perhaps other users of adaptive IT (like me) have found websites so difficult over the years that we really don’t try them anymore.  There’s probably a good case for giving more visibility (excuse the pun) to all the developments in web design in more recent times.

Meanwhile, this data is likely to influence how Government websites are tested and further improved – so other designers might care to follow suit.

And the problem with pdf documents got another airing – no-one should be using this format unless the original document was properly designed for accessibility.

Don’t forget: any organisation that provides services to the public (whether a private business, public body or voluntary or community sector organisation) has the legal responsibility to take reasonable steps to make information and communications accessible to everyone.  And “reasonable” is usually going to mean that the larger the organisation, the bigger the effort they need to make.

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd

Helping disabled people to work since 2000