Alternative (Alt) Formats


Individuals are unable to benefit from standard print materials for a variety of reasons. Some are unable to read the print due to blindness or significant visual impairment. Others are unable to manipulate the materials due to a physical impairment such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. More recently, persons who are unable to process printed information due to a learning disability resulting from a physically-based, organic dysfunction have been included among those eligible for some alternative format services. Regardless of the reasons why a person is unable to benefit from standard print materials, people require access to information in formats that will provide them with the same benefits to those who are able to benefit from standard print. Alternative format materials include Braille, audio cassette, large print, computer diskette, CD-ROM, or human readers. (Adapted from an article entitled: Guidelines for Accessing Alternative Format Educational Materials, by Barbara Nail-Chiwetalu)

Alternative Formats

Braille is a code of letters and symbols that is read by fingers moving across a series of raised dots. There are several forms of Braille. Information on a computer screen is sent to a Braille display, which is a tactile device that can raise or lower dot patterns. A person places their fingers on the display and reads the information. The result is a line of Braille that will change in accordance with the information sent from the computer. Because the pins appear and disappear, the display is known as "refreshable." Braille displays are the primary means of access to computers for users who are visually impaired. A Braille printer or embosser has the ability to reproduce the raised dots onto sheets of paper.

Although many vision impaired or blind people often prefer to have their electronic texts read aloud by a computer-based screen reader or Braille display, they may also require some texts to be read audibly. Some books may not be available electronically or cannot easily be scanned to text using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Consequently, texts have to be read and recorded onto CD or Audio tape. Daisy, WAV and MP3 are popular audio formats.

Daisy DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) is a universal standard format for reading and publishing digital talking books. DAISY technology allows for new ways to deliver information quickly and efficiently using high quality synthetic speech or human voice.

A DAISY book is a digital talking book, designed to allow the reader to move around the text as efficiently and flexibly as a print user. DAISY allows the reader to: make bookmarks, pause books, speed up or slow down, read or ignore footnotes and jump easily from chapter to chapter, heading to heading and page to page. Books and information published in the DAISY format can only be read using a DAISY player or DAISY software on a computer. A DAISY player is similar to a CD player where you can access tracks very quickly and flexibly. (Information source: RINIB)


Short for Portable Document Format, a file format developed by Adobe Systems. PDF captures formatting information from a variety of desktop publishing applications, making it possible to send formatted documents and have them appear on the recipient's monitor or printer as they were intended. To view a file in PDF format, you need either Adobe Reader, which is a free application distributed by Adobe Systems, or you could use one of the many alternative PDF readers available on the internet.

Making the most of PDFs (Source: TechDis)

Print - General Guidelines

The following (edited) guidelines are taken from the Royal National Institute of the Blind’s guidelines on printed documentation:

  • Font. A minimum of 12pt (and ideally 14pt) is recommended for all information to facilitate ease of readability for the substantial group of individuals with a mild visual impairment (includes age-related vision loss) and those with mild cognitive/literacy difficulties who also benefit from slightly larger text. Avoid light type weights. People with sight problems often prefer bold or semi-bold weights to normal ones. Use a clear typeface if documents contain numbers. Readers with sight problems can easily misread 3, 5, 8 and 0.
  • Contrast between the background and the type is extremely important. The better the contrast, the more legible it is. Contrast is reliant on the size and weight of the type, and the text and background colours.
  • Typeface. Stick to typefaces that people are familiar with and will recognise easily. Avoid seriffed fonts, italic, simulated handwriting and ornate typefaces as these can be difficult to read. Avoid capital letters, as they are generally harder to read. A word or two in capitals is fine but avoid the use of capitals for continuous text.
  • Space between one line of type and the next (known as leading) is important. As a general rule, the space should be 1.5 to 2 times the space between words on a line. Those with dyslexia/dyspraxia are shown to benefit from 1.5 line spacing.
  • Line length should be between 60-70 letters. Lines that are too long or too short tire the eyes. The same applies to sentence and paragraph lengths, which should also be neither too long nor too short. Limit new points to one per paragraph. Keep to the same amount of space between each word. Do not condense or stretch lines of type.
  • Margins. RNIB recommends aligning text to the left margin as it is easy to find the start and finish of each line and keeps the spaces even between words. It is best to avoid fully justified text as people can mistake large gaps between words for the end of the line. Those with dyslexia/dyspraxia also find fully justified text more difficult.
  • Paragraphs. Leave a space between paragraphs as dividing the text up gives the eye a break and makes reading easier. Make sure the margin between columns clearly separates them. If space is limited, use a vertical rule. If using a light-coloured type, make sure the background colour is dark enough to provide sufficient contrast.
  • Images. Avoid fitting text around images if this means that lines of text start in a different place, and are therefore difficult to find. Set text horizontally as text set vertically is extremely difficult for a partially sighted reader to follow. Avoid setting text over images, for example photographs. This will affect the contrast and, if a partially sighted person is avoiding images, they will miss the text.
  • Signatures. Allow extra space on forms for signatures. Partially sighted people tend to have handwriting that is larger than average. This will also benefit people with conditions that affect the use of their hands, such as arthritis.
  • Headings. Make sure recurring features, such as headings and page numbers are always in the same place.
  • Paper. Glossy paper should be avoided (as reflected light can obscure the print) and paper should be at least 90gsm. As a rule, if the print is showing through then the paper is too thin. Avoid creases that obscure the text when folding paper. People who use screen magnifiers need to place the document flat under the magnifier, so try not to use a binding method that may make it difficult to flatten the document.

Large Print
  • Use at least 16 point text or the reader's preferred size
  • Ensure page numbering and headings/captions for photographs are also in large print
  • If large print documents are bulky, comb binding them is generally better than stapling
  • And finally - please do not blow up standard size print documents on a photocopier

Reference sources:

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