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  • Default colours Black text on white background Yellow text on black background

Alternative Formats

Photograph of a boy reading a bookThere is a vast amount of information that surrounds people every day. For example, bus timetables; meeting agendas; restaurant menus; bank statements. All crucial information that impacts on the decisions about how life is lived.

The RNIB (2007) states that there are two million people in the UK with a sight problem, and many others with other types of disability for whom inaccessible information is an everyday occurence. Rather than offering information in print only, it is good practice to offer alternative formats, which could include large print, braille, audio, including DAISY format, or electronic formats, including email and electronic attachments such as PDF files.

Why provide information in alternative formats?

Reasons as to why information should be produced in alternative formats include:

  • It is fair to people with disabilities.
  • It is the law - the Disability Discrimination Act means there is now a legal duty to meet the information needs of blind and partially sighted people.
  • It makes good business sense - two million people with a sight problem is a sizeable customer base which should not be ignored.


  • The RNIB estimates that in the UK today, there are around 20,000 people for whom braille is their regular reading format, this equates to 1% of those in the UK who have a sight problem
  • In 2001, 78% of people with a sight problem had audio cassette players of some description. 33% had a CD player (the proportion was much higher for younger people at 66%)
  • In 2006, 90% of UK households owned a CD player
  • In 2006, 20,000 of the Welsh population were registered as being blind or partially sighted, 60,000 were not registered
  • Of the blind and partially sighted people in Wales in 2006, 80-85% used large print as their preferred reading media, 10-15% used audio cassettes, 3-4% preferred to use Braille, 1% used Moon and 5% preferred ICT

Types of alternative formats

There are a number of ways in which people can access information and communicate:


Photograph of a magnifier on a page of textPrint is considered the normal method for displaying information. Many people with vision impairments or other disabilities can read print as long as it is designed with accessibility in mind. Some may also use magnification or certain lighting to improve readability.

It is important to make sure that print is clear. This means bringing together basic design elements such as font style, type size and weight, contrast and page navigation. Documents that use clear print will find a wider audience because they are easier to read.



The word "typeface" refers to the appearance of a "family" of characters used for printing text. In addition to the upper and lower case version of each letter, it includes numbers, punctuation marks and symbols.

There are two broad categories of typeface: serif typefaces, which have little "feet" (serifs) at the ends of the letters and sans serif, which do not.

An example of Times New Roman, Arial, Verdana and Tiresias LPfont

  • Choose a clear, easy-to-read typeface that will distinguish between characters and numerals - a sans-serif typeface is considered preferable, such as Tiresias LP Font or Arial
  • Kerning between specific characters is sufficient so as to ensure legibility

Type size

Recent research (Rubin et al, 2006) looked at the impact of type size on the ability of people with a sight problem, who are able to read print, to read fluently. The research indicated that a person's reading speed increases as the size of the text increased.

  • Clear print documents should use a minimum type size of 12 point or ideally 14 point

Type weight

Typefaces are usually available in light, normal (roman), semi-bold (medium) or bold weights.

  • A medium weight is used for blocks of text
  • A bold weight is used for emphasis rather than consistently

Type style

Most people read by remembering word shapes. The eye recognises these shapes rather than individual letters. Text set in italics or capitals is harder for partially sighted people to read since it is difficult to recognise word shapes if the letters are all the same height or set at an angle.

  • Constant use of capital letters or italics is avoided
  • Blocks of text should not be underlined


  • Word and letter spacing should be even
  • Linked paragraphs should not be widely spaced
  • Initials or words should not be divided or split across a line break
  • The RNIB (2007) states that, as a general rule, the space between one line and the next should be "at least 1.5 to 2 times the space between the words on a line". However,
  • The Plain English Campaign (2001), state that normally line space should be "about 120% of the type size"
  • The Plain English Campaign (2001) recommend that "a line of body text should normally contain 60 to 72 characters, or about 10 to 12 words"


  • Text is aligned to the left margin


The contrast between the text and the background on which it is printed is extremely important. Contrast is affected by several factors, including paper colour, printing inks, the opacity of the paper and the size and weight of the type.

  • Aim for a clear contrast, as high as possible, between the text/image on the page and the background colour
  • White/off-white/cream paper creates the best contrast with black ink
  • Avoid printing text over photographs or illustrations or over a wash, effect or tint that reduces contrast and clarity
  • Yellow with blue and green with red combinations are avoided


  • There is an adequate margin around columns to differentiate them
  • The RNIB (2007) state that if space is limited, use a vertical rule of at least 1 point thickness to separate the columns
  • Pictures within the middle of text in columns are avoided

Images or pictures

  • Information is conveyed in text as well as images
  • Captions for images are used in a consistent way
  • If text is wrapped around an image, the image is on the right hand side of the page
  • Illustrations should be line drawings with thick, dark strokes or outlines


There are two important factors to bear in mind when choosing a paper: how much light the paper reflects and whether or not the text from one side of a page shows through to the other.

  • Paper is matt, silk or uncoated
  • The RNIB (2007) recommend that paper should weigh over 90gsm

Large print

Larger print is essential for many blind and partially sighted people. No single size is suitable for everyone. Large print is usually in the range of 16 to 22 point. Giant print uses fonts that are 24 point plus.

An example of Tiresias LP font


  • Type size is 16 point or larger
  • Typeface is Tiresias LP Font
  • Recommendations for clear print (see above), are followed


Photograph of fingers tracing over BrailleBraille is a system of raised dots made up of different combinations of six dots, arranged in two columns of three. The 63 possible combinations correspond to letters of the alphabet, punctuation and letter groups or words.


  • Text is edited for the reader before transcription
  • The structure of the document follows a logical order and makes the most important information easy to find
  • A contents list is included at the beginning
  • Images that are used to convey information or to increase the reader's understanding of a point made within the text are described
  • A4-sized sheets of braille are easiest to handle and mutliple sheets of braille open easily when comb-bound

Audio and DAISY

Photograph of a CD and an audio cassetteAudio information has the benefit of being usable by anyone who owns a cassette or CD player. A drawback of audio cassettes is that they offer limited navigability, especially when reading longer documents. The track facility on audio CDs makes navigating around large documents much easier but has the limitation that users can only navigate to the beginning of a track, rather than a specific point within it.

A format which improves navigation on CD is the structured digital audio format called DAISY. DAISY CDs can be played on a stand-alone DAISY player or by using a software player on a computer. DAISY has the added features that enable the user to navigate through the structure of the recording, and when using a computer can view synchronized text and see any pictures on screen. Screen colours, fonts and font sizes can be adjusted to suit the reader's preferences.


  • Important information is placed at the start of one side of the audio tape, or as one track on a CD
  • The first words on a tape or CD should make it clear who it is from and what is on it
  • The length of the actual recording is stated at the beginning
  • The same piece of information is not split between the two sides of a tape or different CDs
  • The listener is notified when they need to turn the tape over or change CDs, and when the recording has finished
  • There is a contents list, with items numbered unless the list is alphabetical
  • For an audio CD, include the track numbers within the contents list
  • For audio cassettes specific place finding is achieved by marking the start of each item in some way for example, a couple of bars of music, or a 15-20 second silence

Electronic formats

Photograph of a lap top computerMany blind and partially sighted people, have access to computer equipment that makes written information accessible. More and more information is now sent via emails and is available as attachments to emails or as downloads from websites.


Electronic documents

  • The document has been created as one of the four file types in common use at this time: plain text, Microsoft Word, Rich Text Format and Portable Document Format
  • All text should be set as ASCII, ANSI or Unicode characters
  • Special symbols are not used
  • The font colour is set to default or auto
  • When creating documents using Microsoft Word, headings are given a "heading level" using the "Style" function
  • In plain text documents headings are preceded by a plus sign
  • There is a contents list or summary at the beginning of the document
  • If an image conveys essential information not contained in the text then a text description should be created
  • Alternative text is added to images in Microsoft Word and PDF format


  • The document is a searchable text file not an image-only scan
  • Any form fields are fillable
  • Form fields have descriptions
  • Form fields have a preset tab order
  • The structural elements of a document are identified using tags
  • The document has a logical, easy-to-follow reading order
  • Graphics, links and form fields have alternate texts
  • Navigational aids such as links and bookmarks have been included
  • A document language is specified
  • The document uses fonts that allow characters to be extracted to text
  • Security settings are not set so that they interfere with screen readers


  • Email is created using plain text format to let the recipient view the email in their preferred display settings
  • If email is created as an HTML document there is a plain text version too
  • Unusual characters, such as mathematical symbols are avoided
  • There is a clear, meaningful subject line
  • For email newsletters, ensure the first line of the email is the same as the subject header, which should include the full title of the newsletter, and the issue number and date
  • Attachments are named appropriately
  • When attaching files in two formats make sure this is noted in the body of the text

Checklist for alternative formats


  • ANSI/NISO Z39.86 Specifications for the Digital Talking Book
  • CWA 15778 (2008) Document processing for accessibility
  • Disability Discrimination Act 1995 part III
  • International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, Article 19 (2)
  • ISO 32000 - Document management - Portable document format - PDF 1.7
  • TTAS.OT-09.0001 (2006) - Digital Talking Book Guidelines 1.0
  • TTAS.OT-10.0122 (2007) - Electronic Document Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
  • UN Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, Rule 5 (b) 6 (Access to information and communication)

Further information