Shades of VI
Noel Duffy argues:
"Different shades of visual impairment require different altformat solutions"
A colleague passed on this quote, it came off an RNIB VI forum:
"They all want to help, but they don't know how to, so they shout as if we're deaf or they enlarge print when actually we can't see that large print anyway."
Strike a chord?
In an industry beset by little or no funding, little or no central support and little or no training, many, if not all support staff will have confronted the frustration of thinking "what size large print Do You WANT?"
Of all print disabilities, students with visual impairments have the most obvious need for receiving their learning materials in alternative formats. The most popular form of alternative format is still large print, the output traditionally considered most suitable for people with low vision. As the scale of blindness increases, large print ceases to work and alternatives such as Braille, audio or DAISY become imperative. Noel Duffy talks to Neil McBride and Dave Williams about their altformat experiences and hopes for the future.
Neill McBride lost his sight at 19:
Neill Mc Bride, now working in the Product Design and Support department at Dolphin Computer Access, was diagnosed with RP while still at school in Northern Ireland at 17. A year later Neill went to the RNC, where he spent two years before attending the University of the West of England. After Neill's sight loss, large print ceased to be an option. Because he lost his sight later in life, he didn't have an opportunity to study Braille so initially his principal means of accessing information was through audio tapes.
He recalled "Although I was pleased to have them, using audio tapes for study material was difficult to put it mildly".
"I work with the latest technology, which is fantastic,
I can't wait for everyone to have the same access I've got"
Neil went on; "Imagine a shelf with row upon row of cassette tapes. Now imagine a visually impaired student painstakingly trying to find the article he wants to review amongst all the tapes. If you can imagine this then you have an idea what the last few months of my University days were like prior to my final exams".
He continued “Regrettably, it is still like that in some schools and universities. I have mixed emotions - on the one hand, I’m frustrated that the availability of altformats in schools is so poor but on the other hand I work with the latest technology, which is fantastic, so I can’t wait for everyone to have the same access I’ve got”.
Neil continued, "These days, books can be digitised so a student can have hours and hours of recorded material on a single CD or hard drive. Using DAISY (Digital Accessible Information SYstems) these recordings can be indexed down to a single heading and the student can have his own personal bookmarks and audio notes throughout the recording. Imagine just how much easier studying and revision can be for today’s student. The learning process will be much more about independent learning - the way it should be".
Dave Williams – blind from birth:
Not one of life's shrinking violets, Dave also works for Dolphin and describes his latest job as product champion for Dolphin mobile products as "great" for two reasons: he is involved in product design which is something he is passionate about and he also gets to moan passionately if it's not right - "It's a great job" he smiles.
"I had to fight tooth and nail for the transcription of every single Braille dot."
Shortly before Dave was born in 1976 he was diagnosed with Leber's Congenital Amaurosis. LCA is a rare inherited eye disease which results in blindness. "I had insufficient vision to use the printed word for reading and writing. Various doctors and teachers throughout my childhood experimented with printed text of different sizes and colours, I tried using an array of optical and electronic magnification devices, and for a while I wore glasses. All of these experiences were humiliating and frustrating, and none of them successful".
He continued; "Initially I was reluctant to learn Braille as I felt using a different method for reading and writing would segregate me from the main stream. In fact, the reverse was true." With hindsight Dave feels "not being able to read and write independently can be extremely embarrassing and isolating, while access to Braille is key in developing the literacy of blind people, ultimately empowering us to become more confident, competitive and successful in both education and employment".
His time at a specialist school for blind and partially sighted people meant he had Braille readily available. The school had a well stocked library of Braille books. Course materials were provided in Braille, and the staff at the school had the expertise and equipment to produce any additional Braille on-demand.
His delight at making it to a highly regarded main stream redbrick university was rapidly displaced by frustration. At his special school Dave presumed his right to Braille was sacrosanct - no such presumption was to be made in university. "I had to fight tooth and nail for the transcription of every single Braille dot".
To many blind people, Braille is about literacy and can never be replaced by other formats. However, a limitation of hardcopy Braille is the sheer bulk of paper that needs to be transported. At times, particularly if blind people are confronted with large quantities of material or the learning or work environment involves high mobility such as university, alternatives to hardcopy Braille may be more appropriate - these might include refreshable Braille, audio or DAISY. Dave concurred "as exams come on to the horizon, the ideal situation is to be able to chop and change - have audio files to and from the campus for lecture notes, drill into DAISY files on your laptop for complicated material, (although in reality there are limitations with DAISY maths), read Braille books at your flat. All this may seem far fetched but I believe it's achievable at a reasonable cost". Dave continued "the paradox is, if the university worked with publishers and lecturers to have the material available electronically on a central server, the student could draw it down and either convert it himself or, in association with the altformat office, generate the right format for any situation and the overall cost would probably fall".
"The harsh reality right now is the system is failing with only 5% of published matter ever making it into an accessible format, even less into Braille"
Dave is enthusiastic about the future "nothing is standing still - DAISY is augmenting Braille - one of the strengths of DAISY is the opportunity to have synchronised audio and Braille. Mobile technology, including refreshable Braille displays, is reducing in size and cost. Also broadband and wireless Internet access is becoming more widely available so large DAISY files can be more easily downloaded".
It's so easy to get carried away listening to Neill and Dave but however enlightening it is, the reality of service delivery is some way short of what they describe. In fact Dave himself is skeptical about the future. He adds "The harsh reality right now is the system is failing with only 5% of published matter ever making it into an accessible format, even less into Braille".
Giving the last words to another visually impaired, vocal teenager from the VI forum:
"the thing I found most annoying was that my supervisor kept saying that things needed to be blown up on the photo copier and they ended up at like A3 and were terrible. But, I did get to write an article about being a VI and let's just say I made it 'interesting'."
- Dave recommends reading: The Value of Braille (external link), published by The Braille Association of the United Kingdom.
- DAISY Milestone 311 portable media player (external link)