Program 2: Inaccessible Documents: A Disability Service Provider's Perspective


Jim Stachowiak: Before we begin looking at creating accessible, electronic materials, we need to understand the issues surrounding inaccessible electronic text.

To best understand this, we went straight to the source to talk to individuals who use and work with inaccessible text in a university setting.

Let’s start by getting some perspective from somebody who works with converting inaccessible text on a daily basis, Mike Benson, from Student Disability Services. Mike thanks for joining us to talk about this a little bit today. First off, how much of your job involves creating accessible documents?

Mike Benson: Good question, Jim. More and more of my time is spent working on acquiring accessible text for students.

First thing is that there are more students with disabilities —learning disabilities, ADHD, chronic health conditions, visual impairments—that are eligible for this service and are requesting it. And the second part of it is,

there’s more faculty awareness and more faculty training we need to do to educate faculty on letting us know what their textbooks are, letting us know if their readings will be on ICON in the course management system.

So we’re spending more time administratively, and more time “hands-on” working with students and getting inaccessible text reformatted.

J: I think most people understand what makes standard text inaccessible. Can you tell us what we mean when we say an electronic text is inaccessible?

M: Good question. So, we have sometimes PDF files that are poor images. That could be a fifth generation photocopy that’s been scanned in, that could be offset, it could be that the pages aren’t laid flat on the scanner, it could be that there is underlying highlighting or footnotes, words literally written in, or giant sections exed out or circled, and that’s not good for the average students- that’s not good for students in general.

It’s not good for research and academia in general, if you can’t read the document or if it’s illegible, that’s not very useful.

Another thing that can make electronic text inaccessible is if it’s just an image file that the software can’t read.

If it can’t see what the letters are, it can’t provide a useful document for students with disabilities.

J: What are the biggest issues you see with electronic text that leads to inaccessibility?

M: Well the first thing like I mentioned before, if it’s a poor copy or poor scan, it’s hard to make something useful out of a poor image.

Next thing is if the optical character recognition hasn’t been run on it, then it’s going to be seen as an image.

What that means is we have to work through the document that’s inaccessible and run it through the software, and that’s something that faculty and anybody using Adobe Acrobat Pro and other software can do on their own.

Another thing would be if there are images, so that could be a graph or a chart or a figure.

It could be some sort of visual on the page. If there’s no alternative text to explain what it is, that’s going to create an inaccessible document as well.

So it’s important for the faculty member, instructor, or the TA to put down what that image is, so if there’s an individual with a visual impairment that can’t see what’s on the page, that they know that there’s some sort of table, figure, graph, or image on that page, and they can still read along and get the same access as everybody else does.

J: How many electronic documents exist in the UI system, and what percentage of those would you consider to be accessible?

M: Well that’s something we’re working with IT administration, this past summer there was an initial scan done on the university webpage. I think there was some sort of scan where there were almost 87,000 documents and the average file size was 87 kilobytes which is pretty small.

We’re assuming that most of those were text files. And then when we look at the course management system which on campus is ICON which is run by Desire to Learn, there were a couple hundred thousand plus documents and the average file size was closer to 2mg. And so when you compare that to the other file size that’s on the UI website, we’re led to believe that they’re going to be image files, which would be inaccessible text, most likely.

J: Mike you’re pretty well versed in creating accessible electronic documents.

How easy would you say it is for an instructor to do in on their own?

M: With a few basic steps and the right training, it’s very doable. We do have software available in all the ITCs and through virtual desktop.

We also have our office that can be used as a referral source or consultant, as well as the library has services to help instructors to create accessible text and create good image, good scans for accessible PDFs.

J: Even if instructors are creating accessible documents on their own, are there still things that they may need to rely on some help for?

M: Sure, science and math texts are the first things that pop in my head for that question. Average text like novels, we really don’t have too many problems with that and instructors probably won’t have many issues with that, but when there are formulas or scientific notation there may be some specialized alternative text that needs to be added in there. So usually faculty have the expertise to know how to say that in an alternative text way, so we can just help them create those accessible text boxes and create the alternative text, so that users with disabilities can access that.

J: Mike is there anything you’d like instructors to know about creating electronic accessible documents?

M: I would like faculty, instructors, TA’s, administrators to know that there are a few basic steps that can be taken to provide accessible electronic text to students.

And this might be something you only need to do once, if you use a specific document semester to semester, you don’t necessarily have to do anything else semester to semester.

So if you do it right the first way, it makes my life easier as well as for all end-users who are going to be accessing those documents,

J: Well thanks, Mike. That’s very valuable insight into inaccessible electronic documents, and it’s a good lead in to how we’re going to lead people through actually creating accessible documents on their own.

M: Great, thanks for having me.

Creating Accessible Documents