Andy Keyworth

What are Alternative Formats?

The term “alternative formats” refers to printed and electronic versions of documents intended for users with disabilities. In both print and digital environments, certain users may be unable to read text. These users can benefit from having the document content represented in different ways.

There are a variety of disabilities that can prevent a given user from reading either a printed or digital document. These can include:

  • Blindness.
  • Low vision, such as partial sight or tunnel vision.
  • Color vision disabilities can affect the legibility of certain foreground colors against the background (i.e., color contrast).
  • Cognitive conditions such as dyslexia or learning disabilities.
  • Cognitive conditions that arise from traumatic brain injuries.

Why are alternative formats important?

The way document content is presented must be modified to accommodate people with varying disabilities. There are several alternative formats available to make the content universally accessible. This may involve changing how the content is presented or even transcribing it into a different media altogether.

As the amount and variety of information available in print and digital forms continue to increase, providing equal access to all users has become vital. This is particularly important as the number of people with disabilities is expected to grow alongside the aging population of North America. Therefore, alternative formats have gained significant importance as they offer everyone the best and most personalized access to information.

Allyant has a great deal of experience creating and remediating alternative format documents: we have seen an increase in their availability in all sectors, from educational textbooks and testing materials to bank and utility statements to menus in restaurants.

Types of Alternative Formats

  1. Braille
  2. Large print
  3. Accessible PDF
  4. Audi
  5. EText (or e-text)

Let’s review the above-mentioned alternative formats, their characteristics, and how they have developed.

Braille is perhaps the most famous alternative format. It replaces print characters with raised dots: these are presented in “cells,” which may contain up to six dots. Each cell can represent a letter, number, punctuation mark, symbol, or even a whole word. 

People with visual disabilities can use touch to read the system of dots. 

Braille was originally produced on embossed paper and card and, more recently, on various refreshable braille display devices. There are also braille keyboards available.  

Braille can be used to represent alphabetic, numeric, musical, and mathematical notations. It can also be used to teach language skills, including grammar, spelling, and vocabulary, to people who are deaf-blind. 

There are braille codes for over 133 languages. There are multiple formats of braille, including (in English) Unified English Braille (UEB), the older English Braille American Edition (EBAE), and the Nemeth braille code for mathematic and scientific notation.

Large print is the term for printed matter in which the font size (also called “typeface”) is much larger than standard font size and is specifically intended for use by people with low vision. 

Large print requires a minimum of 14-point font size and above, and usually 18-point font size or greater. This allows people with low vision, including tunnel vision or partial sight, to have an easier time reading text and to avoid eye strain and exhaustion.

Large print includes other considerations besides font size alone. These include using “sans-serif” fonts to simplify characters, providing ample spacing between characters and words, and evident punctuation marks. 

In addition, the overall document should be “reflowed”, or rendered such that all content, including headings, images, and text structures, occupy the available width of the medium and replace any instances of multiple columns with a single column. These characteristics help readers with visual disabilities distinguish and navigate the content more efficiently and clearly.

An Accessible PDF is a PDF that has been created or remediated specifically to ensure people with disabilities can access the content. We have a comprehensive article on accessible PDFs, which you can access by visiting this page: What is an accessible PDF, and why is it crucial for accessibility?

The proprietary Adobe Acrobat file type Portal Document Format (PDF) has existed since the 1990s; it was created to ensure that electronic documents could be transported and shared with all the styles, images, and formatting information intact. It has proven tremendously popular for uses such as press releases, annual reports, and major communications publications; however, this predominantly visual format has a long history of accessibility issues.

Accessible PDF seeks to redress this by providing a more accessible version. Using such accessibility standards as WCAG 2.0/2.1 and PDF/UA for guidance, information about the content – such as alternative text for images and screen reader-friendly tagging for tables, lists, and links – is provided to enable screen reader users and keyboard navigation users to read, comprehend, and navigate the document more easily. 

In addition, accessible PDFs that contain accessible form fields can be developed, allowing users with a wide range of disabilities to make use of these document functions.

Audio refers to the content converted into a spoken, audible recording. It is an excellent resource for people with visual or certain cognitive disabilities, as it eliminates the need to read or see the text.

Users who prefer audio format can request that the content be played in a synthetic (artificial) or human voice.

A synthetic voice has a consistent pronunciation and speaking rate, making it easier for some listeners to follow. On the other hand, some users find an authentic human voice more natural and pleasant to listen to.

At Allyant, we provide audio recordings in synthetic or actual human voice readings in both male and female voices.

EText (also spelled as “e-text”) is a very broad term: it can be used to indicate any written text readable on a computer. As such, it can be read using text-to-speech applications such as screen readers or visually amplified using screen magnification technology.

However, in the context of Allyant, EText refers to plain text formatted digital content: text with no formatting, supplemental images, tables, or other such structures. The end user can modify it as they deem fit, but ultimately, EText prioritizes the raw text content.

As a “one-stop-shop” for accessible communications, Allyant has extensive experience defining, remediating, and creating alternative format documents. We are actively involved in the standards organizations that support and guide their design and production. As such, we see the interest and adoption of alternative formats in local, provincial, state, and federal governments and multiple social and economic sectors. We actively promote awareness and inquiry about what options are available to meet the communication needs of all customers and members of the public.