February 27th, 2012
Lack of access to information graphics in tactile form is holding back blind people in the workplace, when the problem could be tackled by relatively simple software to adapt Braille printers to produce graphics, according to a report published this week.
The independent research report, “Touching the world”, is the product of a two-year specialist fellowship with the Clore Social Leadership Programme funded by RNIB. Based on interviews with 12 blind people, the study was carried out by accessible technology specialist John Ramm, with support from University of Sussex research fellow Frances Aldrich.
Blind people often come across data at work set in tables, graphics, charts and other graphical formats but it is extremely rare to receive such information in tactile form, the report finds. This means most often they rely on descriptions of graphics from colleagues or support workers, which creates a sense of dependency and inequality and are much harder to use.
“The de facto standard at the minute for anything graphical seems to be to write a description of it, which to me is a really feeble attempt at best, because the whole reason for putting it into a graphic in the first place is it makes it easier for people to grasp the big picture,” Ramm told E-Access Bulletin. “Then I have to reconstruct in my head, I can’t just read off information.”
Ironically, in the days before widespread computing when Braille materials were produced manually from steel embossing sheet, the situation for graphics was better because they could be embossed onto the same sheets, he said. More recently Braille production has become automated, with machines outputting it directly from software, but the issue of graphics appears to have been overlooked.
The answer is to develop new software and standards which use automated Braille dots in freer formats to build graphics alongside character cells, Ramm said. “If you have a pie chart and it is only a rudimentary circle shape, that’s fine. For the purposes of a pie chart, it doesn’t really matter, all your want to know is how things split up.”
He said tables could be produced more easily in Braille if there were better ways to abbreviate numbers and put the data into columns. “What most of these bits of software they don’t even try to do anything graphical with tables – they make each row as a new paragraph, with no attempt to recreate columns at all. It’s pointless.”
The study finds some blind people may currently be deterred from applying for some jobs altogether because of the difficulty in accessing tables and charts. One participant said: “I am very put off jobs where I think the content is going to be quite graphical… That would actually make a decision for me, probably, because I think it adds another layer of need for assistance.”
Ultimately however, blind employees may have to resort to legal action to force through equal provision, the study says.
“It is quite possible that some test discrimination cases could be brought to show employers, universities, training institutions and others that the vague verbal descriptions are just not sufficient alternative provision when those who can see have a diagram in front of them,” it says.
“There is a serious disconnect between the colourful, varied, eye-catching, multimedia world of printed material and the bland, text-based, serial Braille material which blind people receive – if they get anything at all.”
The Clore Social Leadership Programme aims to develop aspiring leaders in the social sector through fellowships of up to two years.
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