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The Journey Towards Dyslexia-Friendly, Digital Publishing

Teenage boy walking with handheld device with earphones attached. Image is just of his torseDuring 2018 Dyslexia Awareness Week, Abi James, Chair of the British Dyslexia Association New Technologies Committee, looks back at how dyslexia-friendly practices have evolved and how the latest accessibility standards and inclusive practices can help publishers produce materials that are suitable for everyone.

Dyslexia affects approximately 10% of the population and, of those individuals, 4% severely. It is a life-long condition and studies have shown it has a neurological basis, often running in families. Dyslexia is one of several Cognitive Disabilities that are hidden from view but, through their impact on processing, attention and recall, can significantly affect the effort, efficacy and enjoyment of printed text. Technology has increasing been used to help overcome the difficulties associated with dyslexia.

The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) New Technologies Committee has been providing free advice on assistive technology for over 20 years. Popular tools include those that support the composition of text, such as word processors, spell checkers and speech recognition; or assistive technologies such as text to speech and other customised tools to aid reading. However, while technology has evolved significantly in that time, the most popular articles are still those about fonts and layouts for making accessible documents.

In 2003, as word processing became a common tool, the BDA developed a Style Guide to promote dyslexia-friendly publishing practices. The style guide called for a minimum font size, the use of clear font styles and consideration of how glare and colour combinations can have an impact on some readers. The BDA Style Guide remains one of the core references for those interested in inclusive publishing practices and is frequently cited in academic studies.

In the decade that followed the publication of the Style Guide, interest from typographers also grew with the creation of several dyslexia-specific fonts (i). These fonts attempted to aid dyslexic readers by making letter sizes more consistent and recognisable. Some of these fonts have been included in mainstream ebook tools, including the OpenDyslexic font which comes with some Kindle devices. This in turn has led to an increased interest from researchers about how fonts and colours affect some dyslexic readers. Studies such as Rello and Baeza-Yates’ Good Fonts for Dyslexia have failed to identify the benefits of dyslexia-specific fonts, although they have continued to highlight the impact that fonts and typography have on reading skills.

This work has led to the BDA once more revisiting the style guide, to update it not only to include the latest research, but also to take account of the latest technologies and publishing practices. The 2018 BDA Style Guide highlights several important findings from recent studies including:

  • Font size matters; larger fonts improve readability.
  • Letter spacing can have as big an impact on readability as the font style. Fonts where letters have a more equal spacing are easier for dyslexic readers.
  • Word and line spacing also influence readability for those with dyslexia. Line-spacing of at least 1.5 lines can be beneficial, although if the line spacing is too large, the benefits are removed.
  • Shorter lines or reading on small screens can help some dyslexic readers.

How can these Recommendations be Built into Digital Publications and Ebook Devices?

The increase in the availability and use of e-books, as well as the all-pervasive nature of smart devices has meant that dyslexic children and adults have a greater opportunity to make use of assistive tools when reading text. Ebooks can bring many hidden accessibility wins and the publishing community, through initiatives such as epubtest.org are working towards making ebooks more accessible to all users. Being able to change the font style, the background colour and/or hear content read aloud can make a difference. However, the options to allow users to personalise all their ebooks frequently remains unavailable or are limited to basic font size changes.

This may be due in part because accessibility standards have tended to focus on supporting the needs of those who face sensory and/or physical barriers. The primary web accessibility standard, WCAG2.0, which forms part of accessibility legislation in many countries, had minimal guidelines on personalisation. Earlier this year an update of the Web Accessibility Content Guidelines (v2.1) was released with several new guidelines aimed at supporting the needs of those with cognitive disabilities as well as the use of new technologies such as touch screens. Guidelines related to reflow (1.4.10) and text spacing (1.4.12) will be particularly useful for encouraging dyslexia-friendly text, although additional dyslexia friendly approaches remain unspecified.

One area that still needs to be addressed by accessibility guidelines is background colour. Colour choice is felt to be a design issue and so guidelines only consider barriers that may arise due to insufficient contrast or certain colour combinations. While the impact of coloured filters and lenses remains controversial to remediate dyslexia, the negative impact of glare on readability has been recognised for nearly a century (ii). Recent studies have shown that dyslexic readers prefer coloured backgrounds that reduce glare although some also prefer back on white rather than unfamiliar colour combinations, which can be distracting. The BDA style guide continues to recommend that alternative background colours should be considered to reduce glare.

Even when an ebook publisher or platform offers many accessibility options, it can be difficult for readers to identify if the platform will meet their needs. In particular, dyslexic readers who wish to listen to text find their assistive technology does not work as the tools tend to rely on accessing the clipboard, while built-in accessibility modes can present ebook content as pure text, removing the formatting and visual structure clues that dyslexic readers rely on. A recent audit of ebook accessibility by university library staff highlighted how difficult it was for students to know if ebooks and digital resources were accessible for their needs. There were no clues in the ebook description or by the download as to whether text to speech or other personalisation options would work.

One initiative, which may bring real change to the sector, includes recent legislation that applies across Europe to ensure that public sector websites, digital resources and mobile apps meet accessibility standards (iii). This will require organisations such as public libraries, universities and local government to confirm that content they publish on their websites, even if sourced from a third-party supplier, meets accessibility standards. These organisations will be required to publish an accessibility statement outlining how the digital sites and resources meet the European accessibility standard EN 301 549 (which is aligned to WCAG 2.1).

What Does This Mean for the Publishing Community?

As these new regulations come into force, accessibility could become an increasingly important factor in procurement decisions as public sector organisations look to minimise their accessibility issues. Understanding accessibility and personalisation requirements could put you ahead in business decisions, as well as providing a better experience for your readers. But remember, creating accessible and inclusive publications is not just about meeting technical standards. It is about understanding the needs of people with different strengths and weaknesses and how they might overcome digital barriers as well as understanding how personal preferences and choices combine. At the University of Southampton, we provide the opportunity for anyone to learn more about digital accessibility and its impact through our free FutureLearn Digital Accessibility MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). This course will be running from early October 2018, so why not encourage colleagues to sign-up now.

Abi James is the Chair of the British Dyslexia Association New Technologies Committee and a digital accessibility researcher at the University of Southampton.

 

Footnotes

i Dyslexia fonts include Sylexiad, Dyslexie , Read Regular and OpenDyslexic.

ii Goldsberry reported to negative impact of white and shiny paper in Goldsberry, L. D. (1921). Eyesight and paper glare. The Elementary School Journal, 21(10), 782-785.

iii Countries within the EU have been required to implement the EU directive on the accessibility of the websites and mobile applications of public sector bodies by September 2018

Event Report: Digital Content & Disabilities Seminar, January 10th

This report was kindly submitted by Nicola Swann from the Publishers Association, U.K.

Photograph of the UCL quad

Co-production of resources with those with disabilities and the involvement of the whole supply chain in providing accessible content were two of the main imperatives to come across at a Digital Content and Disabilities Seminar held at University College London on January 10th, 2018.

This seminar was organised as a tie-in with Dr Peter Williams’ British Academy-funded post-doctoral research fellowship at UCL, which is examining the impact of mobile technology on the lives of people with learning disabilities.  As one of the seminars and workshops that Dr Williams is running to gather data and disseminate findings, the event brought publishers, university library and learning specialists, community groups, textbook platforms and other suppliers together to explore creating original content to serve disabilities, and adapting content for maximum accessibility.

The first session, looking at original content to serve disabilities, looked at methods, tools and practice, with Professor Barrie Gunter of the University of Leicester in the chair.  First speaker was Dr Williams, who gave an outline of his work on  the digital lives of people with learning disabilities as they use mobiles, laptops, apps and social media.  His project includes a look at prevalence of use, agency (self or supporter), purpose, consequence (benefit/barrier) and ease of use of mobile devices.  Each participant is helping to produce an accessible, annotated hyperlinked electronic archive of their experiences; they have their own web page to record what they enjoy and what they find difficult.  Supporters can comment, with the consent of the person whose page it is.  Issues unearthed include difficulties in finding photos as phones offer no sort mechanism, in using the access code in a supported house, and understanding how music can get onto a phone.  The web material’s password-protected, but would be available to academics and other professionals on request (peter.williams@ucl.ac.uk) – and additional participants are welcome.

Philip Gibson, Project Manager for Camphill Village Trust, outlined findings from creating a communication platform for people with learning disabilities.  The key message was ‘if you are going to do something, do it co-productively’.    This referred both to the specialist knowledge that may be required to develop electronic resources and the importance of involving all stakeholders, including those for whom the resource is being developed.

Camphill found around three years ago that those with learning disabilities were trying out quite a few digital services – – Skype, email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, apps, information sites and bill paying. Most use was via touchscreen device rather than laptop, and was mostly to keep in touch; men particularly also used their devices for games.  Camphill wondered therefore if it was missing options to help users as they mostly did this in traditional ways, though the use of digital was perhaps not as effective as it could be.  It was not clear how users were weeding out misinformation and fake news, and there was evidence that once burned, people quickly shut down if they had problems with issues like signing on, fear of what might happen to personal information and operating hand-me-downs.  Many of those supported dabbled, enjoyed using tech for a while, but then stopped as benefit plateaued.

Camphill is therefore making its own app, CVT Connect, https://www.cvt.org.uk/learn-to-lead/cvt-connect in co-production with users so those within their communities can use them to keep in touch.  More and more are signing up for accounts to use in innovative ways, sharing photos and expressing likes and dislikes.  The challenge now is to make it so interesting that people will wish to use it daily.  Camphill is working on single-click use, tagging, and a less ambitious personal profile; and is keen to share with other charities and community groups.

Dr Yvonne Vezzoli, a learning and communication specialist with the Ca’Foscari University of Venice  @ Go Touch VR, is looking at the visual literacy practices of young people with dyslexia in multimodal digital environments (MDEs).  Her work is based on a strength-focused perspective on dyslexia, viewing it as a thinking and learning difference while not denying the existence of neuro disorders.  She has found that dyslexic teens strongly prefer visuals, knowing they have good skills in retrieving, accessing & interpreting them even though they may have lower skills relating to their production.  Further information on her research is available at   https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319508619_Dyslexia_in_SNS_An_Exploratory_Study_to_Investigate_Expressions_of_Identity_and_Multimodal_Literacies

and at https://www.slideshare.net/secret/x6yPngwhsTM0IP

The second session of the afternoon focused on adapting content for maximum accessibility:  tools, methods and practice, chaired by John Akeroyd, Honorary Research Fellow UCL and CIBER Research.  Tanja Stevens and Lars Christensen outlined the work of their company SensusAccess, http://www.sensusaccess.com/, a subscription service which enables students, faculty, staff and alumni to automatically convert documents into a range of alternate media including audio books (MP3 and DAISY), e-books (EPUB, EPUB3 and Mobi) and digital Braille.  Christensen said that providing accessible content is not restricted to publishers but must involve the whole supply chain; he credited Jisc (https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/getting-started-with-accessibility-and-inclusion) with a huge amount of work on technical sticking points, including complex platforms, but felt that inadequate provision of appropriate reading software was often a barrier to what could be a very positive experience for students.

Teresa Pedroso, Disability Librarian for the Bodleian Libraries, outlined the opportunities and challenges digital presents to those with accessibility needs; it is a mere 40 years old compared with print so presents a great opportunity to explore, despite the drawbacks.  The Bodleian subscribes to 1,300 databases with a variety of accessibility features; users have to learn how to use them as well as staff.  Issues include referencing in non-paginated monographs (though a lack of pagination leads to better visibility and flow).  Readers with disabilities prefer flexible provision of both print and digital; some value the lack of a wait time, where others find the flicker of digital off-putting.  How does a librarian decide between a need and a preference?  Questions apart, accessibility is making an appreciable difference – Questions apart, accessibility is making an appreciable difference – 20 years ago staff and volunteers had to produce everything the Bodleian needed to enable work with a blind academic; now 80% is sourced from the university’s collections, liaison with publishing houses or using materials the library already has.  The DAISY Consortium CEO Richard Orme pointed out that the tech and frameworks exist to enable accessibility; parties should work together to enable accessible metadata and the balance should shift towards mainstream provision (born accessible), though special repositories will likely be needed for a while.

Emma House, Deputy CEO of The Publishers Association, gave an update on the publisher perspective on adapting content.  The challenge is to make all published outputs available to anyone who has a print impairment, for commercial, ethical and legal reasons.  She outlined the relevant legislation both existing (on the PA website at https://publishers.org.uk/activities/campaigns/accessibility/guidelines/) and to come, flagging the European Accessibility Act and the Marrakesh Treaty as the legislation to monitor as it is implemented.  Marrakesh is regarded as a real triumph. One exceptional concept in this Treaty is the enablement of cross-border access to works; an IPO consultation is awaited on the changes needed within UK legislation to implement it.  Remaining to-dos include promotion in the user community on what’s available; publishers’ inclusion of accessibility in ONIX feeds; and publishers’ building accessibility into the mainstream.  Emma’s presentation is on the PA website at https://www.publishers.org.uk/activities/campaigns/accessibility/events-and-presentations/

A video from Ben Watson, Accessible Information Project Adviser for the University of Kent, described building ramps and lifts for digital information with the OPERA project https://www.kent.ac.uk/studentsupport/accessibility/opera.html.  This project promotes inclusive design and assistive technology, aiming to mainstream accessibility – shifting the culture from adjustment for individuals via inclusive learning plans towards anticipatory reasonable adjustments and inclusive practice by design.

A lightning talk from Heather Smith of the National Trust highlighted the importance of working direct with disabled people, and one from Barbara Denton of the University of the Arts London flagged the digital accessibility centre http://digitalaccessibilitycentre.org as a helpful external testing company; UAL has had a culture change as the benefits of accessibility for cohorts with a higher proportion of students with disabilities than most have become apparent.

Resources

https://www.cvt.org.uk/learn-to-lead/cvt-connect

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319508619_Dyslexia_in_SNS_An_Exploratory_Study_to_Investigate_Expressions_of_Identity_and_Multimodal_Literacies

https://www.slideshare.net/secret/x6yPngwhsTM0IP

http://www.sensusaccess.com/

https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/getting-started-with-accessibility-and-inclusion

https://publishers.org.uk/activities/campaigns/accessibility/guidelines/

https://www.kent.ac.uk/studentsupport/accessibility/opera.html

http://digitalaccessibilitycentre.org