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FAQ: Selecting Formats a Learner Needs

Checkpoint 3 of selecting accessible formats is to consider the formats available. Understanding the range of accessible formats, the characteristics of each, and the considerations for student use are essential to the successful selection process. Here, we offer a series of Q&A for the customary accessible formats:

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What is braille?

Braille is a tactile system of reading and writing made up of raised dot patterns for letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. This format is used almost exclusively by people with visual impairments. Braille may be either embossed (a permanent printed document) or refreshable (digitally generated and accessed via a braille display device). Considered a code, any language can be conveyed in braille.  Visit the American Foundation for the Blind to learn more braille basics

How do people read braille?

The process of learning to read in braille is similar to learning to read and write print, yet people use the fingers of both hands to read from left to write over a line of braille using very little pressure with their fingers to touch the braille dots. Tactile perception and discrimination skills are important for efficient braille reading. So too are smooth, coordinated hand tracking motions.

Why would decision-makers consider the braille format for a student?

When braille provides a student with a visual impairment with the best means to develop literacy skills in order to access information, communicate efficiently and independently, and participate in all educational activities, then braille is selected as the student's primary learning medium. This decision is based on a systematic and objective evaluation process. Sources of information include a clinical low vision evaluation, a functional vision assessment, a learning media assessment, and the student's progress in the educational program. The team analyzes and considers the information in a variety of contexts, including the student's current and future needs.

What characteristics of the braille format should decision-makers think about when considering this format for a student?

Once a team determines that braille is the primary learning medium for a student, the team needs to consider all aspects of providing access to textbooks and other educational materials. For example, with a beginning braille reader it must be determined if the student will initially learn braille in an uncontracted form (letter-by-letter representation) or in contracted form (use of special characters to make words shorter). The team should also be aware of the braille codes that exist, and the relationships between them. The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) published a useful brief for teams: Considerations for States Providing Materials in Braille

What output features of the braille format are important?

Students usually begin reading embossed braille. This is commonly referred to as "paper braille" (also "hard copy braille") versus "refreshable braille." Refreshable braille is a digital or digital braille output. As students become proficient in reading textbooks and other materials in paper braille, refreshable braille is frequently included as another effective way to read braille. Refreshable braille displays represent what is visually displayed on a computer screen one line at a time. Braille output is created with small plastic pins in the shape of a typical braille cell that move up and down from a flat surface to display the braille characters. Refreshable braille displays can be attached to computers, tablets, and smartphones. They are also integrated with dedicated note taking devices and portable multi-function computers.

What characteristics of the braille format influence which outputs are selected?

Both paper and refreshable braille formats have benefits to students. Paper braille is an excellent format for representing graphic materials, math content, and assisting in the student's comprehension of spatial concepts. Refreshable braille provides the student with increased access to information and independence in a variety of environments such as school, home, work, and community because of greater flexibility and portability. Students usually learn to choose a preferred braille format depending on the literacy task and the environment. For example, a student may prefer a geography textbook in hard copy embossed braille to access maps and related tactile graphics but prefer reading literature using a refreshable braille format. Another feature of refreshable braille formats that may influence student choice is the additional output of speech available in digital formats. Speech access can work in combination with refreshable braille access to increase a student's efficiency. For example, students may increase their reading rate and comprehension through the combined outputs of refreshable braille and speech.

What are the considerations for the use of braille in multiple environments and for multiple tasks?

It is important to consider braille formats in the context of multiple purposes in order to provide access to a variety of tasks. For example, both paper and refreshable braille can be used for tasks such as reading books and using additional braille codes. With a portable digital braille device, a student can easily use braille in multiple environments such as school, home, and community events to engage in additional tasks such as word processing, calculating, web browsing, using email, and checking spelling.

How do people who use braille communicate with others who do not read braille?

Because braille is not widely known or used by the general population, communication between people who use braille and people who use print for literacy tasks needs special consideration when braille is selected as a student's primary learning medium. To facilitate this communication, braille formats that contribute to independent communication and access are important to consider, such as the use of digital braille tools with refreshable braille access. Features of digital braille tools that integrate and interface with other access devices and "mainstream" devices can give print readers access to braille and braille readers access to print.

Tactile graphics

What are tactile graphics?

Tactile graphics are images, such as maps, charts, and graphs that are designed to be interpreted by touch. Perkins School for the Blind provides extensive resource information on the design and production of tactile graphics.

Why would decision-makers consider tactile graphics as a format for a student?

Braille users need to develop proficiency in interpreting tactile graphics in order to understand visual illustrations used in teaching and learning activities. The availability of tactile graphics for mathematics and science is especially important for students who need this format.  The website Teaching Students with Visual Impairments has useful information about tactile graphics instruction.

Large print

What is large print?

Large print is generally defined as print that is larger than the print sizes commonly used by the general population (8 to 12 points in size). Some use a guideline for defining large print as 18-point or larger. A document rendered in large print format usually has more white space and may or may not look like the original document but contains the same information. Large print may be printed on pages that are the same size as a standard textbook page or on pages of a larger size.

How do people use large print?

Large print can be an effective reading medium for students with low vision who are unable to use typical print size for efficient reading. Many students who have low vision, however, use typical print formats with greater efficiency than large print. Medical conditions that cause low vision in children are varied and affect how a person uses vision in many different ways. The evaluation process is essential to assist a team in making appropriate decisions about print media for students with low vision.

Why would decision-makers consider the large print format for a student?

For a student with low vision who uses print for reading and writing, the team considers the use of large print through an evaluation process to determine the print media the student will use to develop literacy skills. This objective evaluation process (which is similar to the process used to determine the use of braille) includes information from a variety of sources, such as a clinical low vision evaluation, a functional vision assessment, and a learning media assessment emphasizing print media and efficient reading skills. A variety of factors are included in the decision-making process such as eye condition, type of vision loss, reading speed, comprehension, print size, and individual student goals. Large print may be a student's primary or secondary learning medium depending on task and context. For example, large print may be most appropriate for a print textbook, but not necessary for access to digital text where many print features can be adjusted and customized to student preferences.

What characteristics of the large print format should decision-makers think about when considering this format for a student?

When a team determines that large print is the most appropriate method for a student to read, the team needs to consider all aspects of providing this format. For example, in the early grades, print material is generally provided in a larger print size, which may be sufficient for the student's access. As the student progresses through the grades, ongoing monitoring of print characteristics and reading efficiency needs to occur to ensure appropriate use of large print materials. Other factors affecting visual access need to be considered for a student using large print, such as contrast, clutter, and spacing in print presentation. Students also need to know how illustrations (e.g., photos, maps, graphs, and charts) should be presented for efficient visual access and the most effective way to access graphic information.

What output features of the large print format are important?

Students read printed text on paper and digital text on digital screens. Some people refer to text on paper as large print and text displayed on screens as enlarged text. Students requiring large print or enlarged text need to become proficient in reading materials in a variety of media and output features. Magnification devices also provide access to print. Computer-based tools such as software and hardware solutions enable large text. Other tools such as digital magnifiers, both portable and desktop (commonly referred to as CCTVs or video magnifiers), enlarge print. In addition, the accessibility features built into computer platforms have many options that students can use to increase the size of visual presentation and readability of text on a screen.

What characteristics of large print and large text formats influence which outputs are selected?

For hard copy, using large print in textbooks gives the student immediate access to the same materials classmates are using and allows the student to participate in teaching and learning activities in the same manner as all students. Use of magnification devices to view print can provide additional visual access to materials, such as maps that contain detailed and embedded graphics. Viewing text on a computer screen gives a student the option to personalize text size and other features using accessible software or accessibility features. Another benefit to using digital tools for viewing text is the ability of some software programs to provide the additional output of speech. Similar to using speech with braille, speech access with large print can work in combination to increase a student's reading efficiency.

What are the considerations for the use of large print in multiple environments and for multiple tasks?

Typical large print textbooks have a history of being sizable and heavy. Many current large print textbooks, however, are produced in a size typical of all textbooks, making them portable and student friendly. Hand-held portable magnification devices give students the flexibility and independence to access print in an enlarged format in multiple environments, such as school, home, and in the community. The use of digital devices to enlarge print also provides the flexibility to view print for multiple tasks, such as word processing or digital communication.


What is audio?

Audio formats render content as speech to which a student listens. Audio formats include recorded human voice and synthesized digital speech.

How do people use audio as an alternative to text?

People who use an audio format receive information by listening. Audio formats have no visual component. 

Why would decision-makers consider an audio format for a student?

By listening to content, students can reduce the cognitive load of trying to read text or braille and can focus on comprehension of the information. Decisions are made based on a student's needs, the environments in which tasks will be completed, and the nature of tasks the student needs to accomplish.

What output features of audio formats are important?

The major features that decision makers should focus on are voice, navigation within an audio file, and supported study skills. For audio format, output means how the voice sounds to the listener. Output features describe the ways that speech can be adjusted or modified when using audio format. Audio output may be a recorded human voice or synthesized speech. There are many ways in which the speech output can be adjusted, whether the speech is recorded human voice or synthesized speech. Adjustments can be made in the pitch, the volume, and the speed at which speech is presented.

What characteristics of audio formats influence which outputs are selected?

The team considers if the student needs or prefers the audio to be a recorded human voice or whether a synthesized or computer-generated voice is acceptable. Output is selected depending on the personal characteristics of the student, such as age, level of experience with the format, and tasks to be completed with the educational materials.  

What navigation features of audio formats are important?

Navigation features should allow users to move around the recorded audio files easily. Navigation is similar to a table of contents and allows users to jump to elements such as chapters, sections, pages, paragraphs, and sentences. Bookmarking and inserting audio notes are additional features to consider.  

What are the considerations for the use of audio in multiple environments and for multiple tasks?

Some students use different audio formats for different reading tasks. For example, a student may find it acceptable for a science book to be read with a synthesized voice. When a literary work is studied for a literature class, however, a human voice may be more useful.

Accessible digital text

What is accessible digital text?

Digital text is a common format that is delivered on a computer or mobile device. While many digital text formats exist, here we are referring specifically to accessible digital text formats. Accessible digital text is malleable and can be easily transformed in many different ways depending upon student needs and the technology being used to display the content. Various features of the technology control how the content is presented, such as text size, fonts, colors, contrast, highlighting, text-to-speech, etc. An accessible digital text file may contain both audio and visual output depending upon the way the content is developed, and the technology being used.

What are examples of accessible digital text formats?

Many format types can be used to create accessible digital text, including HTML, DOC, EPUB, PDF, DAISY XML, etc. Frequently, however, digital materials in these formats (e.g., ebooks and websites) are not designed to be accessible for students with disabilities. Accessible digital text is based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Information about WCAG is available on the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative website.

Schools can purchase digital materials that conform to WCAG directly from publishers. When a print material or a digital material that does not conform to WCAG is procured, a student who needs accessible formats may need the material in accessible digital text. Learn more about procuring accessible digital materials at Communicating Digital Accessibility Requirements

How do people use accessible digital text formats?

There are three main categories of accessible digital text. There are three main categories of accessible digital text. The first is software and some stand-alone hardware devices that read text aloud using synthetic speech or text-to-speech. The second category is digital talking books (DTBs) that conform to the DAISY standard or Digital Audio Information SYstem. Depending on how the DTB is created, text-to-speech, human recorded audio, or both may be available to the user. The third category consists of commercial digital texts or ebooks, some of which may offer embedded read-aloud functionality.

Why would decision-makers consider an accessible digital text format for a student?

Accessible digital text is often displayed on computers and mobile devices with text-to-speech software that has the ability to easily provide text and audio simultaneously or separately. This format not only provides flexible access to the information, but many text-to-speech software programs also have built-in learning supports that can increase learning and literacy for some students.

What output features of accessible digital text formats are important?

Output is what a user hears and sees on the screen, and the available features are related to the technology being used. The following are some of the features that may be manipulated:

  • Font size/type/color
  • Background color
  • Synchronized highlighting as text is read
  • Text-to-speech
  • Voice speed
  • Navigation

What are supported reading programs and apps?

When learning supports are designed into a program or app that renders accessible digital text, the software is often referred to as supported reading software. Learning support features may include:

  • Find/search
  • Bookmarking
  • Note taking
  • Text highlighter
  • Generation of an outline from highlighted text
  • Audio notes
  • Dictionary/thesaurus
  • Links to multimedia

What are the considerations for the use of accessible digital text formats in multiple environments and for multiple tasks?

When digital materials are created that meet standards for accessibility, the digital files can be manipulated to meet the student's multiple needs depending on the technology that is used.

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