Two fraught dots

There’s no shortage of examples of missing or misplaced punctuation causing confusion. When used properly, most punctuation should add clarity. But the colon has the remarkable ability to add ambiguity—sometimes hilariously—even when correctly used:

Continue reading “Two fraught dots”

Four levels to accessible communications

I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!


Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.

The four levels are:

  1. discovery—can users find your communication?
  2. acquisition—can users get your communication?
  3. use—can users use your communication?
  4. comprehension—can users understand your communication?

Continue reading “Four levels to accessible communications”

Collapsing the dimensions of communication space

In June, I was lucky enough to attend Information+, a phenomenal data visualization and information design conference at Emily Carr University. One of the keynote speakers was Colin Ware, renowned for his pioneering work on visual thinking and cognitive processing. At the end of Ware’s talk, Yanni Loukissas, assistant professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, asked him: “Don’t we have an ethical obligation to consider people who have colourblindness or stereoblindness in our visualizations?”

Ware responded, “As a designer, I always want to use of all of design space,” suggesting that limiting the palette only to the colours that people with colourblindness can discern, for example, would be too restrictive.

I’ll come back to Ware’s comment in a bit, but first I want to focus on the concept of design space, which refers to the universe of choices—media, typeface, type size, colour, and so on—available to the designer. The metaphor doesn’t tend to be used outside of design, which is a pity, because it’s handy. I’ve found it useful to think of design space as a subset of communication space, which itself is a subset of creation space. Continue reading “Collapsing the dimensions of communication space”

Cheryl Stephens—Audience awareness (Communication Convergence 2015)

Who are we writing for when our audience is the general public? “The general public is an amorphous concept,” said plain language champion Cheryl Stephens in her talk at Communication Convergence. “I wrote 20 years ago that there was no such reading audience as the ‘general public,’” she wrote in a handout. “I said that any organization would have gathered data about their customers, clients, patients, or participants through their marketing or client-service research. They would share this information with their communication consultant.”

“But I’ve come to see that this does not happen or does not solve the problem,” she continued. “Too many of my clients were not collecting the sort of information needed for better communication.”

What Stephens proposes is an approach to understanding who might be in your general reading public so that you can take steps to make communication more universally effective. First, we must try to overcome the curse of knowledge—“when better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.” We also have to acknowledge that people from different cultures think and see things differently. Most importantly, we need to consider some of the hidden reasons our communication may not get through as intended.

Cognitive biases

Cognitive biases arise from information-processing shortcuts, the mind’s limited information-processing capacity, emotional and moral motivations, and social influence, among other sources. They’re good for evolution because the shortcuts let us process information in less time, but they can lead our thinking astray and cause inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretations, and irrationality. A person’s construction of social reality—not objective input—determines behaviour. When you put together your communications, ask yourself, “How are people going to misunderstand?”

Stress and anxiety

Stress interferes with our capacity to focus, process information, and think clearly. Stress can arise from any number of sources—harassment or abuse, physical or mental health problems, personal or work problems, poverty, fear, and even exposure to excessive noise, just to name a few. Post-traumatic stress disorder and grief also interfere with comprehension. Stress can be transient and situation specific, or it can be chronic.

Language issues

Aphasia, autism, dementia, head injury, neurological diseases, and hearing impairment can all affect language comprehension. And Canada, being a country of immigrants, has a large proportion of people learning English as a second language. Images can be a huge help: people process images instantaneously, and with a different part of the brain.

Invisible illnesses

These illnesses can be mild, hidden, undiagnosed, or unrecognized. “If it’s hidden from you, it may be hidden from the person who has it.” Stephens said she could tell us first-hand that diabetes interferes with thinking. Mood disorders like depression can also affect how well a person thinks. Patients who have chronic complex diseases have six or more diagnoses and are typically on several medications at a time. Whether from the diseases or as side effects of the drugs, disabling fatigue and difficulty thinking and remembering are characteristic of this group. Many of them are also in severe pain. They would not have the patience for material that takes too long to read.

Invisible disabilities

Ontario defines “disability” as follows:

(a) any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,

(b) a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,

(c) a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,

(d) a mental disorder, or

(e) an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997; (“handicap”)

(From the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001)

Disabilities may be

  • visible or invisible
  • congenital or acquired
  • physical
  • mental or psychiatric
  • mobility-related
  • sensory
  • intellectual or developmental

For example, said Stephens, one out of twelve people have some degree of colourblindness, and often the only clue that something is a link, for example, is the colour.

The Association of Registered Graphic Designers’ guide, Access Ability, offers strategies for maximizing the accessibility of your print and online documents.

Literacy challenges

Forty-two percent of working-age adults have low literacy skills (level 1 or 2 as defined by the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey). They have limited vocabulary and lack the skill to parse sentences and so can’t draw intended meaning from text. Some readers may have emotional or psychological problems that interfere with comprehension or may lack knowledge of the content.


“The legal system discriminates against people,” said Stephens. She said that the Supreme Court of Canada recognizes differences that are disabling because of external barriers or stigma imposed by societal norms, procedures, and institutions. In other words, discrimination is socially constructed, and it can lead to functional limitations, real or perceived.

“Everybody appreciates material that’s simple, clear, and well designed,” she said. As communicators, we should acknowledge that people with reading difficulties aren’t a separate target group—they are all of us, at some point in our lives. By considering these invisible impediments to comprehension, we can better empathize with our readers and be sensitive to their needs.

Stephens has written a paper that explores these concepts in much more detail. Contact her to get a copy.

Book review: Plain Language and Ethical Action

Clear communication advocates are used to telling prospective clients about the practical benefits—the savings in time, money, and effort—of plain language. But many plain language practitioners (and I’m among them) are motivated by more than the efficiency and expediency of a clear message. To us, demanding clarity and plain language is an overtly political act meant to redress power imbalances. Russell Willerton, who teaches in the technical communication program at Boise State University, gives ethical context to these interactions in his new book, Plain Language and Ethical Action: A Dialogic Approach to Technical Content in the Twenty-First Century (Routledge, 2015).

This book, Willerton explains in the preface, “is the first to focus on the ethical impacts of plain language: plain language gives citizens and consumers better access to their rights, and it combats the information apartheid that convoluted, overly complicated documents generate.” (p. xiii) He introduces what he calls the BUROC framework, used to identify

  • Bureaucratic,
  • Unfamiliar,
  • Rights Oriented, and
  • Critical

situations that call for plain language as an ethical imperative. Whereas other technical communication textbooks “provide extensive analysis of ethical scenarios that are drastic and dramatic, such as stealing intellectual property, fabricating or misrepresenting data, or whistleblowing” (p. xv), which don’t happen very often, Plain Language and Ethical Action focuses on more common situations that nevertheless raise important ethical issues. For example,

Plain-language laws and policies extend citizens’ freedoms: plain language bolsters the authority of law and respect for the justice system. The public’s right to understand the law coincides with the responsibility to follow the law. (p. 19)

Designed to be a resource in technical communication courses, each chapter ends with questions and exercises that reinforce the chapter’s concepts.

Willerton casts a wide net and approaches the topic of ethics and plain language from several directions, first introducing his BUROC model and summarizing quantitative and qualitative results from a survey he conducted with plain language practitioners around the world. These experts reviewed and commented on the BUROC framework and shared their perspectives on the relationship between plain language and ethics. Plain-language consultant Frances Gordon expressed a view similar to my own, saying, “I think that plain language without ethics is pointless. I believe that an ethical view is what differentiates plain language from related disciplines” (p. 61)

What makes a plain language communication ethical? Willerton provides an overview of ethics in the technical and professional communication literature, drawing heavily from philosopher Martin Buber’s writings about dialogic ethics. Buber contrasts I–It relationships, in which the communicator talks down to the other party, with I–You relationships, which involves respecting the other party and engaging in a meaningful dialogue and exchange of ideas. Ethical plain language is based on an I–You paradigm, and the two sides, despite their differences, work to meet at what Buber calls the narrow ridge, where communication can truly take place. Writes Willerton:

Through dialogic ethics and the ideal of the I–You relationship, the importance of clarity becomes paramount. The dialogic approach requires rhetors to view the audience not merely as important, but as essential to their own being. (p. 52)

Because plain language resources rarely get this theoretical, I read this chapter with great interest. At the core of ethical plain language, Willerton argues, is the dialogue between the communicator and the user, which lets the former be sensitive to the needs and limitations of the latter. The concepts he unearths in his review of technical communication literature share parallels with Howard Giles’s communication accommodation theory, which says that two parties hoping to communicate will adjust their speech patterns and mannerisms to minimize the differences between them. Under-accommodation can mean that the message won’t get through, whereas over-accommodation can be perceived as condescending. Striking the right balance of accommodation can be an iterative process involving continual feedback between the sender of the message and its recipient.

Willerton shows how these theories apply in practical terms for five initiatives:

“Each of these groups challenges the power differential that separates experts from nonexperts,” writes Willerton, “empowering consumers to act.” (p, 173)

The book also features in-depth profiles of six projects or organizations—many of them previous winners of the Center for Plain Language’s annual ClearMark Awards—that have applied ethical plain language practices to fulfill their mandates. These deeper dives include

  • Healthwise, a health information company in based in Boise, Idaho;
  • Civic Design, motivated by the butterfly ballot fiasco in the 2000 US elections to help county elections officials produce clear election materials;
  • the multi-year restyling of the Federal Court Rules;
  • CommonTerms, a volunteer-led effort in Sweden to simplify the terms and conditions that come with software;
  • Health Literacy Missouri, which provides health literacy training; and
  • Kleimann Communication Group, which produced mortgage documents that complied with the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA).

These deep dives give us a fascinating inside look into creative operations, small and large, that take plain language seriously. As a plain-language practitioner, I’m always looking for success stories to promote the cause of clear communication, and Willerton’s case studies are a treasure trove. They also show that the plain language community, though growing, is still small, and that the familiar names within these profiles are part of a collegial, supportive group of advocates working internationally to further the same cause.

Plain Language and Ethical Action is a refreshing synthesis of the informal conversations we’ve been having about what makes plain language a movement rather than simply a process or technique. I don’t hesitate to recommend this book to clear communication proponents, although I don’t think I’ll be using the BUROC framework in my own work. To me, the framework implies that situations in which plain language should be used are exceptions, but I prefer to think of them as the rule. Like universal precautions in healthcare to prevent infectious disease, plain language should be the default, with rare exceptions (for example, if you want to use abstruseness for literary effect, or if you are among specialists of equal expertise and jargon makes communication more efficient). I would also have loved to see Willerton take a risk and depart from the standard expectations of an academic monograph. (For one, I didn’t find the book’s subtitle particularly plain!) These minor quibbles aside, I’m grateful that Willerton has, with this book, given plain language practitioners the start of what I think will be an engaging and important conversation.

Joseph Kimble—No, the law does not (normally) require legalese (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Joe Kimble has been advocating for plain legal language for more than three decades: he is a founding director of the Center for Plain Language, a past president of Clarity International, the editor of the “Plain Language” column in the Michigan Bar Journal, and the author of Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language and Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law. He also redrafted U.S. federal court rules (which he spoke about at PLAIN 2013). At Editing Goes Global, Kimble gave us a few tools to help us work with lawyers who claim that legalese is mandatory.

Kimble has heard many stories about plain language projects that died after they were “sent to legal.” In one of his own projects, he redrafted bicycle regulations for a city. “The redraft went to legal,” said Kimble, “and their indifference was palpable. I knew almost immediately that this project was dead.”

How do we prevent projects from ending up in the graveyard? Lay the groundwork, said Kimble, by communicating with the legal department in the project-planning phase. “Don’t wait till the project is finished and then send it to legal. Do everything you can beforehand to make sure legal is receptive or at least knows it’s coming.” Show them samples of the work you plan to do, and keep them apprised of your progress as you reach project milestones. “A little sample should reduce anxiety, not create it,” said Kimble. “Everyone will get a feel for the contours of the road ahead.” For more pointers, Kimble recommends reading “Working with lawyers on your projects,” an article by Cheryl Stephens in Clarity, issue 66.

Some lawyers have prejudices against plain language and may insist on using legalese, although their arguments may change depending on whether you’re working with codified law or caselaw (also known as common law).

In codified law, lawyers tend to copy the exact wording of the underlying law. One example Kimble gave was of a warning sign at a Michigan gas station that reads, “A person shall remain in attendance outside of the vehicle and in the view of the nozzle.” This language was taken directly from Michigan Administrative Code R.295235, §, which says that warning signs “shall incorporate the following or equivalent wording” (emphasis added). In other words, warning signs that convey the same message but in plain language are perfectly acceptable.

If a lawyer says that you have to use a particular bit of legalese, ask for a legal citation—the name of the code and the numbers—and find the original. If it says that you must use particular wording, then you’re stuck, but “as often as not,” said Kimble, “the underlying law does not require legalese.” Look for words like “equivalent to,” “substantially similar to,” or “containing all the following information,” which gives you the flexibility of expressing the same concepts using different—hopefully simpler—language.

That said, Kimble acknowledged that the underlying law often gets copied anyway—“The fear of departing from the underlying language can be paralyzing”—so we should keep pushing for plain language in legislative and regulatory drafting.

In caselaw, lawyers will be reluctant to change what they consider terms of art. “Nothing shuts down a conversation more quickly than a lawyer proclaiming, ‘term of art!’,” said Kimble. “Pursuant to, in witness whereof, and prior to are not terms of art.” Nor are the here-, there-, and where- words (thereby, heretofore, etc.) so often seen in legalese. “Legal language is not as precise as lawyers think it is,” said Kimble. “Lawyers grossly exaggerate the constraining effect of terms of art.” Words like thereby have the feel of precision, but they can actually add ambiguity to a sentence.

Look out for what Kimble calls “legal doublets,” which often have shorter or plainer alternatives. For example, jointly and severally can be rewritten as together or individually, which is immediately understandable.

In some cases, you will have a hard time finding a plain equivalent—for example: reasonable doubt, probable cause, or negligence. But most of the time, a plain alternative exists. Why write indemnify when you can say pay for? (On that example, he cited the September 2013 “Plain Language” column.) “If you can’t bear to part with a word like indemnify,” said Kimble, “pair it the first time with a plain word. Then try using the plain word the rest of the way through.” See Law Words, on the Clarity International website, for help or inspiration.

For plain language more generally, Kimble recommends the following resources:

A longer list appears in an appendix to Lifting the Fog of Legalese.

Debra Huron—Low literacy adults read, too! How to edit for them (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Debra Huron is a plain language specialist with a degree in journalism, and she spent three years managing the Canadian Public Health Association’s Plain Language Service. She shared with us some adult literacy statistics and gave us tools to create clear communications that will help low-literacy readers understand and high-literacy readers save time. A free PDF of her booklet, Five Ways to Create the Happiest Readers, is available on her website.

Huron began her session by asking us to read through a two-page financial services letter packed with long, complex sentences and bureaucratese. “From an editor’s point of view,” she said, “it’s perfectly grammatical. The sentences are long, but they’re coherent.” Yet the letter was hard to read and buried the call to action. “What I thought when I first read this letter,” said Huron, “was, ‘I need to read this again.’ It requires a high degree of analysis.”

Those of us in the room were likely strong readers, but many Canadians are not. Huron showed us the results of a 2013 survey, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which ranked Canada eleventh in prose and literacy skills, behind the Czech Republic and Estonia. The survey also found that 49 percent of Canadians had low literacy, meaning they read at level 1 or 2 in the OECD’s definition of literacy levels. According to the Canadian Council on Learning, “Level 3 is the internationally accepted level of literacy required to cope in a modern society.” Huron cautioned us about using the correct terminology: we talk about low literacy, rather than illiteracy, because most people have some ability to read and write.

Who has low literacy skills? Huron worked with a national literacy organization in Ottawa helping adult learners improve their literacy. These learners may have grown up with violence or substance misuse in the home—not in an environment that valued literacy. Some people in their forties had learning disabilities that schools didn’t routinely test for when they were children.

People with low literacy do not read for pleasure. They read when they have to learn or do something. These adult learners have normal intelligence, so the term “dumbing down” is pejorative. Communicating with them may have to involve other media, including audiovisual material or activities to promote experiential learning. Huron reminded us that we can be literate in some circumstances and not so literate in others. Financial jargon and legalese can be particularly problematic.

Huron offered us four basic plain writing tips that can help you make your communications more clear:

  1. Prefer the active voice.
  2. Avoid frozen verbs (nominalizations). Don’t turn verbs into nouns.
  3. Organize your text into chunks.
  4. Reduce or define jargon.

These suggestions are a great starting point for the uninitiated, but writers and editors with more plain language experience understand that there are qualifications to these tips. Great sources of information for evidence-based plain language practice include Karen Schriver’s work (see my summary of her PLAIN 2013 talk) and Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (which I reviewed). These summaries from previous conference sessions about adult readers and plain language may also help:

Accessible documents for people with print disabilities

In prepping a PubPro 2015 talk about editorial and production considerations when creating accessible documents, I ran into information about both the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) and the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS). Confused about the differences between them, I emailed NNELS for clarification, and librarian Sabina Iseli-Otto wrote back: “Would it be alright to call you? I know it’s getting late in the day but 5 minutes on the phone would save 20 minutes of typing (seriously).”

That five-minute chat turned into an impromptu phone interview, and Iseli-Otto gave me permission to share with you what I’ve learned. (The information in most of this post I got from her, but I’m also including a bit of what I found through my own research for my talk.)

Print disabilities and copyright

Print disabilities include:

  • blindness or visual impairments,
  • physical impairments that prevent a person from holding or manipulating print materials, and
  • cognitive impairments, like ADHD, dyslexia, or learning or memory problems due to a brain injury, that impede reading and understanding.

Although colourblindness isn’t considered a print disability, documents should be created with colourblindness in mind.

About 10 percent (a conservative estimate) of Canadians have a print disability, but only about 5 percent of published works are accessible. Most people with print disabilities aren’t using public libraries.

Section 32(1) of Canada’s Copyright Act spells out an exception to copyright that lets people with print disabilities, and those acting on their behalf, create and use alternate formats of copyrighted print materials (with the exception of large-print books and commercially available titles).

Accessible formats

The following are some of the accessible formats for people with print disabilities:

  • E-text: plain text (.txt), rich text (.rtf), Word (.docx)
  • EPUB 2 & 3
  • Accessible PDFs
  • MP3s
  • large-print
  • Braille

E-text, EPUB, and accessible PDFs can be read by screen readers such as JAWS and VoiceOver. Not all PDFs are accessible—Adobe offers a way to check a document’s accessibility and has guidelines for creating accessible PDFs.


CELA formed about a year ago following a change to the funding structure at CNIB (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind). CNIB had, over the past hundred years, amassed Canada’s largest collection of alternate-format books in its library, and CELA, with the support of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, took over administrating this collection. The CNIB library still offers services to existing clients but will refer new clients to their local public library to access CELA’s services.

The shift of oversight from CNIB to CELA will hopefully allow more people to discover and use this extensive collection. Although it was always available to everyone with print disabilities, given that it was under the purview of CNIB, people who didn’t have visual impairments may not have realized that they could access it.

CELA has also partnered with Bookshare, an American online library for people with print disabilities. Rather than owning its content, Bookshare operates on more of a licensing model, controlling pricing and the licensing fees.


NNELS is also about a year old, with a lean staff of only four people, and, unlike CELA and Bookshare, is funded exclusively by provincial governments, which gives it more transparency. It has a much smaller collection but owns perpetual rights to everything in it. NNELS takes patron requests and works directly with publishers to add to their collection. Nova Scotia helped negotiate a fixed rate for NNELS with publishers in the Atlantic provinces, and Saskatchewan has funded an initiative to create accessible EPUBs for all Saskatchewan books, which will be added to the NNELS collection. Whereas CELA focuses on partnerships with public libraries, NNELS also works with public schools and universities—for example, it has a content-exchange agreement with the Crane Library at UBC .

Recent policy changes relevant to people with print disabilities

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act

According to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA),

Organizations will have to…provide accessible formats and communications supports as quickly as possible and at no additional cost when a person with a disability asks for them.

The law was enacted in 2005, but the regulations for information and communications didn’t come into effect until 2012, when all sectors had to make all emergency procedures and public safety information accessible upon request. For other types of communications, the AODA requirements were phased in beginning in 2013 for the public sector and beginning in 2013 and 2015 for private and non-profit sectors. (Respectively, I think? The website doesn’t make that bit clear.) If you work with Ontario businesses, you may be called on to provide accessible communications.

The Marrakesh Treaty

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities laid out exceptions to copyright so that signatories could freely import and export accessible content, obviating the need to duplicate efforts to convert works to accessible formats in different countries. Although Canada was instrumental in writing the treaty, it hasn’t ratified or signed it. However, in its 2015 budget, unveiled last week, the Government of Canada announced that it would accede to the treaty, meaning that people with print disabilities could soon have access to a lot more content.

Publishers and accessible content

I asked Sabina Iseli-Otto how publishers can make her job easier.

“We’d prefer to get EPUB files or accessible PDFs directly from the publisher. Actually, I’ve been really, pleasantly surprised at how often publishers will say yes when we ask for them. I mean, they can always say no—they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts—but it saves public funds if they send us those files directly.”

If a publisher refuses to provide accessible files, the copyright exception still applies, which means that NNELS would still be able to create an accessible format, but it would have to:

  1. acquire a hard copy,
  2. scan in the pages,
  3. run optical character recognition (OCR) on the scans,
  4. clean up the text file (e.g., deleting running headers and footers),
  5. proof the text.

“More than anything,” Iseli-Otto said, “we want to hear back quickly” from publishers, regardless of what they decide.

I asked if the files NNELS provides to patrons have digital right management (DRM) on them. “No,” she said, “but we make it very clear to them that if they abuse them that they’re putting our whole operation in jeopardy. Some of them appreciate having the access so much that they’re actually quite protective of their files.”

Our conversation had focused on books. What about periodicals and grey literature? “There’s certainly demand for it,” said Iseli-Otto. “We’d love to do more of that. And I’d like to turn your question around: what can we do for publishers to make it easier to collaborate with us? I’m not sure how to build those relationships.”

(Can you guess who I’ve invited to PubPro 2016?)

Publishers who’ve been in business for longer than a decade will recognize the steps NNELS has to take to create accessible formats from a print-only book: they’re identical to what publishers have to do if they want to reissue a backlist title that has no retrievable digital files. Could Canadian publishers partner with an organization dedicated to creating accessible formats so that, in exchange for digitizing the backlist for publishers, the organization could add those files to its collection at no additional cost?

Editorial, design, and production considerations for creating accessible files

In my PubPro 2015 talk, I mentioned a few things publishers should keep in mind through the editorial and production process so that the output will be accessible—especially since having to retrofit an existing document to adhere to accessibility standards is more labour intensive and expensive than producing an accessible file from the outset. I focused mostly on the effect of editing and production on screen readers.

Style considerations

Screen readers will not always read all symbols. The Deque Blog has a summary of how three of the most popular screen readers interpret different symbols. (It’s a bit out of date but still a good place to start; thanks to Ashley Bischoff for that link.) Testing on VoiceOver, I found that although the screen reader is smart enough to read “Henry VIII” as “Henry the eighth,” “Chapter VIII” as “chapter eight,” and “World War II” and “World War two,” it reads each letter in “WWII” as if it were an initialism. And it reads 12,000 as “twelve thousand” but “12 000” as “twelve zero zero zero.” I also found that it doesn’t read the en dash before a numeral if the dash is used as a minus sign, saying “thirty-four degrees” for “–34°.”  It’s best to use the actual minus sign symbol − (U+2112), which my version of VoiceOver reads as “minus sign.” The same goes for the letter x used in place of the real multiplication symbol × (U+00D7). My version of VoiceOver doesn’t read a tilde before a numeral, so ~8 mL would be “eight millilitres” instead of  the intended “approximately eight millilitres.”

In any case, if you’re editing and deciding between styles, why not choose the most accessible?

Language considerations

Plain language best practices apply here:

  • chunk text and use heading styles,
  • break up long, complex sentences, and
  • aim for a natural, conversational style.

Headings and short chunks of text offer context and digestible content to the listener. Screen readers are actually already quite adept at putting the stress on the right syllables depending on whether a word like reject is used as a verb or noun—when the word is in a short sentence. It can get confused in longer sentences.

Image concerns

For images:

  • Offer alt text—text that is rendered if the image cannot be seen—for substantive images but not decorative ones. (Add an alt attribute in the code, but leave it blank—i.e., alt = “”—or the screen reader will read the filename. You can add alt text directly in InDesign.)
  • Don’t use colour as the only way to convey information. Make sure colours you choose to distinguish between two lines on a graphs, say, will not occupy the same grey space when converted to greyscale. Alternatively, use different styles for those lines or label them clearly directly on the graph.
  • Don’t turn text into an image to fix its appearance. We often see this practice with equations. Screen readers do not read LaTeX. If you have equations or mathematical expressions, convert them to MathML or offer alt text using the Nemeth MathSpeak system.

In essence, because ebooks are like websites, applying the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 will ensure that your ebook will be accessible. The BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit also has useful guidelines for publishers. I would recommend at least spot checking a document with a screen reader to uncover possible ambiguities or reasons for misapprehension.


Huge thanks to Sabina Iseli-Otto for her eye-opening insights!

Open textbooks and the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (webinar)

In fall 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project was launched to reduce the financial burden on post-secondary students, who spend an average of $1,200 per year on textbooks. As part of Open Education Week, BCcampus hosted a webinar about the project as well as the associated BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, created to help people who develop learning resources to make them as accessible as possible from the outset.

Open Textbook Project (presented by Amanda Coolidge)

In 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project received a grant of $1 million to develop open textbooks for the top-forty enrolled subject areas. It received another $1 million in 2014 to create resources for skills and trades training. BC has now committed to working together with Alberta and Saskatchewan to develop and share open textbooks.

Many people think open textbooks are e-textbooks, but what makes them open is their Creative Commons (CC) license: they can be copied, modified, and redistributed for no charge. Instructors can therefore change open textbooks to suit their courses, and students are able to get these books for free. In two years the project has saved more than five thousand students over $700,000 in textbook costs.

BCcampus carried out the Open Textbook Project in three phases:

  • First, they collected existing textbooks with CC licenses and asked faculty to review them.
  • Second, they modified these books based on faculty reviews. At the end of this process, they had covered thirty-six of the top-forty subject areas.
  • Finally, they funded the creation of four textbooks from scratch.

Open textbooks are now being used in fourteen post-secondary institutions across the province, and BCcampus has eighty-one textbooks in its collection. To create these materials, they use Pressbooks, a plugin that lets you write once and publish to many different formats.

Accessibility testing (presented by Tara Robertson)

Tara Robertson helps run CAPER-BC, which provides alternate formats of learning materials to twenty institutions across the province. They specialize in accommodations, including remediating textbooks for people with print disabilities. One reason the Open Textbook Project is exciting, said Robertson, is that instead of taking something broken and fixing it, she now has the opportunity to make the textbooks accessible from the start.

Seven students with special needs volunteered to test the open textbook resources for accessibility, reading selected chapters from textbooks in five subject areas and offering feedback on their usability. Robertson also ran a focus group with five students. She found recruiting testers challenging, and she acknowledges that the students who participated in the focus group, all of whom had visual impairments, were not representative of the many students that had other print disabilities. Still, the testers offered a lot of constructive feedback.

The chapters the students reviewed each had features that might interfere with assistive technology like text-to-speech software: formatted poetry, tables, images, quizzes, and so on. Testing revealed that the software would skip over embedded YouTube videos, so the textbooks would have to include URLs; formatted poems were problematic when enlarged because readers would have to scroll to read each line; and layout sometimes led to a confused reading order.

Robertson sees the accessibility consultation with students as an ongoing process to refine accessibility best practices.

BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (presented by Sue Doner)

BCcampus has just launched an accessibility toolkit for faculty, content creators, instructional designers, and others who “don’t know what they don’t know about accessible design.” Their aim is to build faculty capacity for universal design and to highlight the distinctions between accommodations and accessibility. Accommodations involve individualizing resources and providing alternative learning options for students who identify as having a disability. If we were proactive about creating materials that were accessible from day one, we’d have no need for accommodations.

Universal design recognizes that different students learn differently—some prefer visual materials, whereas others prefer text, for example. It offers students multiple access points to the content, and it’s better for all students, not just those who register with their disability resource centre. For example, aging students may appreciate being able to enlarge text, and international students may benefit from captions to visual material.

The toolkit offers plain language guidelines for creating different types of textbook content with a student-centred focus, using user personas to inform key design concepts and best practices. It asks content developers to think about what assumptions they’re making of the end users and how those assumptions might affect the way they present the material.

It might take a bit of time for creators of some types of content to catch up with all accessibility features—for example, video and audio should, as a rule, come with transcripts, but a lot of YouTube content doesn’t, and you may run into copyright issues if you try to offer material in different formats.

The next steps for BCcampus are to incorporate the toolkit into the development process for all new open textbooks they create, to modify existing textbooks for accessibility, and to encourage the province’s post-secondary community to formally adopt these guidelines. The toolkit, like the open textbooks, are available under a CC license and can be thought of as a living document that will change and grow as different types of content (e.g., math) becomes amenable to accessible design.

Doner sees these steps as “an opportunity to create a community of practice—a new literacy skill.”


This webinar (along with others offered during Open Education Week) is archived on the BCcampus site.

Indi Young—Practical empathy: For collaboration and creativity in your work (webinar)

Empathy for your end users can help you create and design something that truly suits their needs, and it’s the basis of usability design and plain language writing. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is an example of applying empathy, but UX consultant Indi Young, author of Practical Empathy, says that you first have to develop empathy, and she led a webinar to show us how.

Empathy, said Young, is usually associated with emotion: it makes you think about sensitivity and warmth or about sympathy and understanding a person’s perspective, sometimes so that you can excuse their behaviours or forgive their actions. As it turns out, that definition describes empathy rather poorly. Dr. Brené Brown created a short animation to explain the differences between sympathy and empathy.

True emotional empathy, Young explained, is when another person’s emotion infects you. “It strikes like lightning,” she said, and “it’s how movies and books work”—you’re struck with the same emotions as the characters. This kind of emotional empathy can be incredibly powerful, but you can’t force it or will it to happen. In our work, we need something more reliable.

Enter cognitive empathy, which can include emotions but focuses on understanding another person’s thinking and reactions. In creative work, we often end up concentrating too much on ideas and neglect the people. By listening to people and deepening our understanding of them, we can develop and apply ideas that support their patterns. This listen » deepen » apply process is iterative.

How is empathy important in our work? Empathy has a lot of uses, said Young, and one she saw a lot was using it to persuade or manipulate, which could be well intentioned but might also problematic. She’d rather focus on using empathy to support the intents and purposes of others—to collaborate and create. “Others” is purposely vague here—it can refer to people in your organization or external to it.

To truly collaborate with someone, you have to listen to them, one on one. “When someone realizes you are really listening to them and you don’t have an ulterior motive, they really open up.” These listening sessions allow you to generate respect for another person’s perspectives and can be the basis for creativity. When a user issues a request, ask about the thinking behind it. Knowing the motivation behind a request might allow you to come up with an even better idea to support your users. You can’t establish empathy based only on a user’s opinions or preferences.

In a listening session, be neutral and let go of any judgments; you can’t properly support someone you’re judging. Purposeful listening can also let you discover what you’re missing—what you don’t know you don’t know. The intent of a listening session isn’t to solve any problems—don’t go into a session with an agenda or a set list of questions, and don’t use the session as a forum to show others how much you know. Become aware of your assumptions and don’t be afraid to ask about them.

Let the other person set boundaries of what to talk about. Don’t bring something up if they don’t bring it up. If they’re not comfortable talking, excuse them. Don’t set a time limit or watch the clock. Finally, don’t take notes. “The act of writing things down in a notebook takes up so much of your brain that you can’t listen as well,” said Young.

What you’re trying to uncover in the listening sessions is the person’s reasoning, intent, and guiding principles. What passes through their mind as they move toward their intent? Instead of asking “How do you go about X?” ask “What went through your mind as you X?”

These guidelines seem simple, said Young, but mastering listening skills takes a lot of practice. Once people start opening up and you see how your ideas can better serve their needs, you’ll see how powerful developing cognitive empathy can be.


Indi Young’s webinar will be available on in a couple of weeks.