Our guide to creating accessible documents

There are many ways to support and accommodate visually impaired people. One of those is finding out their communication preference, to provide any information/communications (such as letters and leaflets) in a format that is accessible to them. This could be large print, Braille, audio, or in an electronic format such as a Microsoft Word document.

Asking a visually impaired person about their communication preference is a must. It could be the difference between a visually impaired person choosing to access your offering or not.

Accommodating visually impaired people’s communication preferences demonstrates corporate social responsibility, and will make the visually impaired person feel included, valued, and more independent.
Below we talk through some different accessible formats, and give some top tips on communicating information in the different formats.

Please note: This blog focuses specifically on documents you may typically produce on paper in standard print, such as a letter you may post out, or a leaflet somebody may pick up at a customer service desk.

Large print

Not all people with sight loss need their printed materials in large print; it all depends on their eye condition, and any useful vision they may have. Some visually impaired people may need their communications in a very large font (for example font size 36pt). Ask for their preference.

At Henshaws, we tend to send printed material using Arial 18pt, unless we know the person’s preferences.

It isn’t just about font size though – for some, using colour contrast also helps with their reading. For example, black text on a yellow background.

Watch our video below in which we talk through examples of good and bad contrast.

Braille

Transcribing materials into Braille requires specialist equipment (a Braille embosser) and specialist software. Braille embossers and the software are very expensive, and Braille transcription requires a specialist skillset to ensure the Braille is produced to the highest standard.

In most cases, if a visually impaired person requests information in Braille, your cheapest, and most efficient, option is to outsource the request to an organisation with the specialist software and skillset at the ready.

In the UK, Unified English Brailleb (UEB) is the standard format. There are two types of UEB: uncontracted and contracted. When transcribing materials into Braille, ask the person for their preference, if they haven’t specified it already.

There are various organisations that offer a Braille transcription service: Henshaws is one of them! Contact us for information about costs and to find out more.

One of our regular Braille transcription requests is to Braille the ballot papers for some of the councils in Greater Manchester so that voters can vote more independently.

Audio

Some visually impaired people like to have communications in an audio format, meaning that the information is read aloud for them to listen to.
You can convert Text to Speech in two ways: recording a person reading out the document, or using a synthesised voice. The latter is our preferred option, as it’s relatively quick and easy to do. Synthesized voices are getting so sophisticated these days and are totally accepted by the sight loss community. There are plenty of ‘free’ and ‘paid for’ solutions if you go online. There are even some companies offering it as a service. We tend to use two solutions: the free ‘spoken track’ feature on Apple Mac, and the Amazon Polly service.

Delivering your materials can be via a thumb drive, compact disc, email, or online cloud service like Dropbox or WeTransfer.

Visit Amazon Polly

Watch our video below to hear Amazon Polly in action

Digital documents

Another format available is the digital format. There are various file types including Microsoft Word Document, PDF and plain text.
While all of these can be accessed by screen readers, the preferred file type by many visually impaired people is the Microsoft Word document. However, not all elements of Microsoft Word documents are accessible. This fantastic article from the Big Hack by Scope gives some top tips on making Word documents accessible.
Other formats are also acceptable, for example PDF, plain text and HTM. However, it is important to ensure that the file you produce is accessible – for example, avoid PDFs which feature the text as an image, and ensure that PDFs are tagged correctly so that the person can find the information they need quickly.
If sending documents digitally, we recommend Word document as the standard, and other formats available should the person prefer an alternative.
Like audio, digital documents can be delivered on a thumb drive, via email, or via a service like Dropbox or WeTransfer.

RoboBraille

RoboBraille is a free online service for converting documents into various formats including Braille, audio and accessible digital formats including Word, RTF, TXT and PDF.
The service is cloud-based – upload the file you want to convert, select your conversion preferences, enter your email address, and the result will be emailed to your inbox.
Please note: The conversion is done using artificial intelligence, not a human, so ensure that any errors have been corrected manually before distributing the accessible document.
RoboBraille is a great service for getting the ball rolling, but ensuring converted documents are proofread by a person is a must.
A major advantage of RoboBraille is that the service allows for conversion into a wide range of formats.

Access RoboBraille

Articles For The Blind

Articles For The Blind is a way of sending materials to a visually impaired person.
Articles for the Blind is a scheme run by Royal Mail that enables you to post materials to visually impaired people, completely for free.
There are, however, caveats: any printed materials must be in Font 16pt or above (unless it is an original copy of a document also provided in another format, for example a print copy enclosed with a Braille copy); the package must be addressed to a named person (not ‘the occupier’ or ‘dear customer’); and personal, sensitive and confidential information cannot be sent using the scheme.

Find out more about Articles For The Blind

Our ultimate top tips

  • Ask, don’t assume! Don’t assume that one format works for everyone. Two people may have the same level of vision loss, but may have very different access needs when it comes to accessing information.
  • Be prepared! Be prepared to be able to convert your information into all the different accessible formats. When a visually impaired person asks for information in a specific format, be ready to turn that around as fast as possible.
  • Do your research! Similar to the previous tip, do your research and learn the processes and services you will use to convert information into the different formats. For example, decide what process you will use to convert text to speech, and research the Braille transcription service you will use, and have that information easily available to others if necessary.
  • Be consistent! If you are an organisation with multiple people, ensure consistent standards when it comes to access provision, and that everybody is aware of the processes and services used for accessible format conversion. It can be very frustrating when a person contacts an organisation and requests information in an accessible format, only to be told that they aren’t sure if that can be done and the request would have to be forwarded on to somebody else.
  • Ask questions! Don’t be afraid to ask questions to the person requesting information. This could be asking their preferred Braille preference, their preferred font size or their preferred digital format. If the person doesn’t know, have a standard in place, for example Arial Font 18 for large print, and Word document as the standard digital format. On top of that, keep a record of people’s preferences; if you contact a person regularly, keep a clear record of their preferred format, so the visually impaired person doesn’t have to keep requesting an alternative format, and the person will receive a more consistent standard of service.

If you are new to ensuring that information is available in accessible formats, the processes may feel daunting at first, but nevertheless, it is something that is really important to get right.

If you need further advice, contact an organisation supporting visually impaired people. You could also contact visually impaired individuals, for example via Facebook groups, other social media platforms and through email lists.

Related Hints & Tips

Find out more about living with sight loss with our hints and tips.

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