Jeff Jullion

Accessible Textbooks for Students with Visual Impairments—How Educators Can Flip the Script on Speed and Quality

If you’re in the education sector, you know that time is of the essence when it comes to producing textbooks and other accessible materials for students with visual impairments.

In fact, the time it takes to get alternate formats into the classroom for students who are blind or have low vision is a widespread ongoing challenge across departments of education, school boards, and individual educational institutions.

That’s because—depending on the complexity and size of the materials—transcription can often take months. By the time the student receives the transcribed version, the class curriculum has moved on, and fellow classmates are lightyears ahead in their studies.

Adding to the problem, even when textbooks do arrive in a timely manner, you often see a troublesome trade-off between speed and quality.

All students should have the opportunity to reach their full academic potential. But many with visual impairments don’t have equal access to the information they need to learn. As a result, students who are blind or have low vision deal with ongoing frustration, increasingly lower engagement, and less motivation to learn.

So what can be done to ensure students don’t fall behind? A lot of it comes down to choosing the right alternate format provider (aka remediation service) for your textbooks and educational materials—and knowing what qualities to look for.

Firstly, the best alternate format companies for educational institutions specialize heavily in the transcription of textbooks on complex topics. While this may sound obvious, many companies are actually unable to produce truly accessible educational materials related to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math). Especially in the higher grades, students with visual impairments need materials with text and images that have been effectively transcribed and produced with great precision.

Secondly, not all remediation services have extensive experience producing a wide range of alternate document formats. Certainly, it is important to accommodate all forms of braille including Unified English Braille (UEB), UEB Technical, English Braille American Edition (EBAE), Nemeth, and Braille in English and French. That said, not all students with visual impairments read or require braille transcription. To properly accommodate students’ preferences, educational organizations should invest in a service provider that produces accessible formats beyond braille, including:

  • Reflowed large print: Also known as “accessible Word,” this format improves readability by modifying the layout and images into a single column and converting to large print. Users can then print these documents from a Word file or experience it as a digital format with improved on-screen readability and an enhanced audio experience (via text-to-speech tools).
  • E-text: Electronic text, or e-Text, ensures all graphical components—from photographs to charts, illustrations and more—are fully explained in text, enabling students using screen reader software to access all the necessary information. This format contains extracted text from the source document with audio directives. More so, text-to-speech tools can process this file to create an audio version of the document.
  • Accessible PDF: An accessible PDF is a PDF that students with disabilities can access, navigate and read using assistive software and devices including refreshable Braille displays, screen readers, screen magnifiers, joysticks and more.

Finally—and as alluded to beforehand—not all accessible textbook producers put equal emphasis on speed and accuracy, often sacrificing one for the other at students’ educational expense. While timely customer service is critical, so too is quality assurance. There is little point in spending public dollars on an alternate format provider that does not appreciate a solid review process—so quality should never be a compromise.

Providing timely, high-quality accessible textbooks and learning materials to students with visual impairments is not only a matter of good policy—it’s also about standing on the right side of law. But most importantly, it’s about supporting differentiated learning, improving learning outcomes, enriching students’ learning experiences, and giving students who are blind or have low vision equal opportunity to succeed.

Are you an administrator, educator or disability support professional seeking equitable access to information for all students? Connect with one of our team members today to start your seamless journey to accessibility.

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