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The Changing Landscape for Accessible Information. Round Table Conference 2019

Round table logo. A map of Australia and New Zealand inside a circle.  Text underneath Round Table on information access for people with print disabilities inc.

On May 5th and 6th 2019, I had the fortune of attending two days of the Round Table Conference on Print Disability in Brisbane. This conference brought together professionals from service providers, government departments and consumers to discuss the changing landscape for accessible information both nationally and internationally. The sessions focused on evidence-based research, technological advances and policy changes which have paved the way for the widespread availability and format expansion of accessible information.

There were several sessions which were pertinent for practitioners working in the higher education sector, notably the use of smart speakers, 3D printing and conversion services provided by online platforms. These methods can provide access for students to different forms of accessible information.

The discussion of smart speakers was focussed on the Sonnar  library, which has 12,000 titles including audiobooks, available through the Google Home and Alexa Dot platforms. By simply speaking to the smart speaker, a user can select a title by name or by author, and get the speaker to play the audiobook, including picking up from any place the audiobook was previously paused.

Researchers from Monash University followed with a powerful demonstration of how 3D printing can be harnessed to translate abstract, visuospatial information into tactile formats for people with vision loss to understand the information through an alternate representation. The researchers demonstrated the utility in translating educational information in the STEM subjects (e.g., representing a flat layout of a 3D object like a square in 3D printing so that a student with vision loss can explore it to understand how a cube is made up of six squares etc.) The researchers have an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant to explore the utility of 3D printing for education and orientation assistance to augment orientation and mobility training.

“During the three year project, Monash will work with our partners to produce 3D models of interest, gather feedback from touch readers and key stakeholders, investigate technologies for attaching audio labels, and ultimately produce guidelines for the use of 3D printing for accessibility.”

These sessions about alternate formats for accessible information production dovetailed neatly into a session about the two new guides published under the Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative This link will take you away from the adcet website.: Making Content Accessible: A Guide to Navigating Australian Copyright Law for Disability Access and the Inclusive Publishing in Australia  guide. These guides assist with the effective production of alternate format production and will particularly assist disability services in the higher education sector around accessing alternate formats of information for students and for publishers providing information to universities and others to understand what inclusive publishing entails.

Following this announcement, a discussion between the publisher for Nick Gleeson’s memoir, The Many Ways of Seeing and Nick Gleeson himself examined through the account of the publication of his own book that the need for inclusive publishing. Nick’s publisher, Jane Curry stated that books need to be “born accessible, not retro-fitted [to be made accessible] well after the book launch.” Nick spoke about the lack of options for accessible formats in his own life and how that detrimentally impacted him after losing his sight at aged 7.

The theme of accessible format production for books continued with Tanja Stevens and Lars Ballieu Christensen of SensusAccess  discussing the options for a shared repository of online alternate media for higher education users and others, available through the Sensus platform: SensusAccess is a self-service, alternate media solution for students, staff, faculty and alumni; SensusLibrary  is a companion digital library for alternate media.

Mary Schnackenberg, Accessible Information and Communications and Paul Brown, The Braille Authority of New Zealand Aotearoa spoke after this presentation about the importance of educators considering privacy measures when requesting the production of alternate, accessible formats. They emphasised the need of keeping information about the person requesting private (i.e., the student) and protecting the content itself (e.g., exam papers etc.) An example they gave was being aware who has password access to systems where they could potentially get access to this type of information about the requester or the content of the source material. It was suggested that a time log of whom is accessing information is kept.

The conference naturally turned attention then to multiple accessible options for information access for students using tablets or desktops apps or software. This was presented by student services staff at Griffith University: Melissa Wortel, Assistive Technology Support Officer and Sharon Garside, Disabilities Service Officer. LanSchool  is a product which projects a lecturers’ screen to a personal tablet, enabling the student to enlarge it for viewing. Scope-pad microscopes also help in science labs by taking live images from microscope slides and project it as an enlarged, high quality image to a screen on a tablet-like device. A PIAF machine can be used to also create tactile images of diagrams (e.g., brain diagram) or clay can be used for a 3D rendering of an image. 3D printing is an option too although it is more expensive and time-consuming.

A deeper dive into assistive technology by Ainsley Robertson from SPELD Qld looked at a vast array of technology available or inbuilt in technology at present. It is beyond the scope of the present article to list all the technology covered, however educators should be aware that many devices have in-built features for accessibility too. Some of the recommendations for external tools and technology to augment these features are:

  • Digital graphic organisers for preparing assignments and other tasks e.g., Audio Note, Simple Mind or OneNote
  • Dictation tools to covert speech to text includes web-based tools like Talktyper
  • Writing tools like Read&Write & CoWriter (iPad/laptop); iWordQ & TypoHD (iPad); WordQ+SpeakQ (laptop); Ghotit.
  • Desktop or iOS device OCR: PrizmoGo and Claro PDF. Also consider OCR all-in-one programs
  • eBooks and audiobooks
  • Reading pens – C-pen

Finally, a session about making information accessible through the use of Easy English was lead by Kary Macliver, Executive Manager Client Services, VisAbility Ltd. Her 10 tips which can be used immediately to make documents easier to understand were:

  1. Stop and think before you start writing. Make a note of the points you want to make in a logical order.
  2. Structure your document. Put the most important information up front.
  3. Preference short words. Use direct language. For example, use “you can” instead of “one could”
  4. Use every day conversational language whenever possible. Avoid jargon and legalistic words, and always explain any technical terms you have to use.
  5. Keep your sentence length down to an average of 15 to 20 words. Stick to one main idea in a sentence.
  6. Use active verbs and nouns as much as possible. Say ‘we will do it’ /’we will give you the form’ rather than ‘it will be done by us’ ‘it will be given to you by us’
  7. Imagine you are talking to your reader. Write sincerely, personally, in a style that is suitable and with the right tone of voice.
  8. Use subheadings, bullets, lists and white space to break up the text.
  9. Don’t use abbreviations e.g., instead of don’t, use do not.
  10. Use full names e.g. road, not Rd or Ministry of Heath not MoH.

*Bonus: Reduce punctuation as much as you can. Don’t use colons or semi-colons

The two days I spent at the Round Table Conference provided rich information for practitioners working in the space of disability education and I hope some of the learning I have imparted here is valuable for practitioners. The next conference will be held from 2-5 May, 2020 at Bayview Eden, Melbourne.

Proceedings and papers from the 2019 Round Table conference.

Written by Jane Britt