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Graphics Formats Holding Back Blind People in Workplace

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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  1. John Gardner | February 27th, 2012 | 8:52 pm

    I am surprised by the story “Graphics Formats Holding Back Blind People in Workplace”. A two year study funded by RNIB should have been able to learn that ViewPlus software and embossers can more or less automatically reproduce a wide range of charts and tables in braille. The Tiger Software Suite, bundled with every ViewPlus embosser can transform and emboss an Excel spread sheet or chart in braille with one click. More complex graphics, such as flow charts, can be made audio/touch accessible with ViewPlus IVEO software and a ViewPlus embosser. These products have been on the market for years and are available in the UK from Sight and Sound/Force 10.

  2. John Ramm | February 29th, 2012 | 8:56 am

    Thank you for your comment, John Gardner. You’ve posted a great advert for View Plus, but rather missed the point.
    Putting aside the abilities or otherwise of particular embossers to produce graphics, what my research shows is that blind people are not getting them. It surely doesn’t matter how much hardware and software is available if transcribers are taking a de facto position that when they come across a graphic in something they are transcribing they produce a verbal description, not an equivalent graphic!
    The blind people I interviewed should not need to know or care about how transcribed material is produced. All they want, overwhelmingly, is transcribed material which puts them on a parr with their sighted colleagues.

  3. Nigel Herring | March 1st, 2012 | 9:51 am

    I don’t think John has missed the point. PictureBraille has been availabel since 1990. The current version will, amongst many other things, generate tactile charts and plots on most embossers, simply by entering the data set or equation. You article lays the blame at the lack of tools not the lack of will to implement them. Surely promoting the tools is one answer to the probelm you outline. Perhaps getting producers off their backsides should be the subject of the next article.

  4. Norman Lilly | March 6th, 2012 | 2:35 pm

    I can see where John is coming from with the producers of Braille not thinking about the graphic and how it can be made available to the end user. John@ViewPlus make a great product that easily converts Braille and Graphics from standard Windows software. The point is not enough people know about it, what’s the point of writing a great article if you do not talk about what options are available? I know that some would see that as a commercial, but what the hell! I come across so many people who say to me why didn’t I know about this great technology! because not enough people are prepared to shout about it that’s why!

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