Making Journals Accessible to the Visually-Impaired – The Future is Near

Computers have revolutionized information accessibility for people who are blind or have other serious print disabilities. When information was distributed primarily on paper, it was necessary for a sighted human being to intervene in order to make that information available to people with print disabilities (PWPD). Information could be read directly to PWPD, tape recorded for them, or converted into braille and, for detailed graphical information, into tactile graphics with braille labels. Such intervention is presently unnecessary for a wide variety of information that can be read by PWPD on computers using speech or braille screen readers. E-mail, web textual information, and many other types of electronic literature are now directly readable by PWPD.

Unfortunately there is still a vast amount of literature that is distributed electronically but that cannot be read adequately with screen readers. Very little scientific literature is fully understandable because the mathematics and critical graphical information is presently not directly accessible by any non-visual means. The new Enhanced Reading project has the goal of making a number of professional physics publications available in DAISY[1] (Digital Accessible Information SYstem) XML format that makes all text, math, and figures fully accessible by PWPD. This development will blaze a trail that will make it possible for many other publishers easily to make their publications available in accessible DAISY XML format.

IBM was one of the pioneers in use of markup languages for technical publishing. In the 1980’s IBM began standardizing composition of its technical manuals in all IBM manufacturing and laboratories, using a generalized markup language (GML). The goal was to preserve the original files in an electronic format that permitted easy maintenance and reusability. An offshoot of this effort was a research project to develop methods for reading, searching, and navigating such documents on computers. The result of that research was the IBM Book Manager computer application. By 1987 IBM had more than 3000 manuals available in Book Manager format along with support services utilizing the GML technology.

In the late 1980’s IBM developed a speech screen reader as a hardware PC attachment that enabled blind programmers to navigate and read IBM Manuals. IBM was surprised when many non-blind programmers requested and used the screen reader, explaining that they could read and comprehend better when they could hear as well as see the words. Today it is well understood that many sighted people benefit from hearing as well as seeing words. This is almost always true for people who are known to be dyslexic, but it is also true for many who are not.

One of the authors (R Kelly) was a leader of the IBM developments and in 1993 moved to the American Physical Society (APS) to lead their journal modernization. APS is a major publisher of scholarly physics journals. Its Physical Review journals and Physical Review Letters are generally regarded as the most important physics research journals in the world with more than 18,000 articles published each year, from approximately 36,000 articles submitted for review, by authors from nearly every country on earth. In 2008, roughly 1/3rd of the corresponding authors were from the United States and Canada, slightly more than 1/3 from Europe and slightly less than 1/3 from ASIA. APS publishes a number of other specialized physics research and physics teaching research journals as well.

APS has been a leader among scholarly publishers in modernizing its publishing procedures. In 1994 APS started experimenting with Standardized General Markup Language (SGML), in part to facilitate moving Physical Review Letters (PRL) online in PDF form. PRL went on line in 1995 with all of the APS journals following. By 1997, all were online. In 2004 APS began using an XML workflow for its journals. Once a submission has been accepted for publication, text and math is converted to XML. The XML file is then used to create the article for printing.

The XML source file can be repurposed for many other uses, including online offerings and Web 2.0 initiatives. In 2007 APS and ViewPlus began a collaboration to repurpose APS XML to enable publication of accessible on-line journal articles. Transforming APS XML to the accepted accessible DAISY XML format was easy. Making APS Encapsulated PostScript (EPS) figures accessible was the major challenge, but it was one for which ViewPlus was prepared. ViewPlus demonstrated that figures can be not only accessible but can contain a great deal of meta data that greatly expands the usefulness of images. It became quickly apparent that DAISY XML publications read with a good on-line Reader application could provide greatly enhanced access and information for sighted physicists as well as for people with print disabilities.

Research on graphics accessibility conducted in the Science Access Project at Oregon State University [2-4] first posed the question as to whether it was possible even in principle to create mainstream graphics in a form that could be automatically accessible to people with print disabilities. It was clear that well-designed viewing software and additional hardware would be needed even if the mainstream graphical information was in an ideal form. The researchers were strongly influenced by the pioneering work of Parkes [5,6] who had introduced the audio/touch technique in 1988.

The audio/touch method has been well tested and found to provide excellent accessibility. One uses a tactile copy typically mounted on a touch tablet attached to a computer. When a text label on the graphic is touched, the label is spoken by the computer. When a graphical object is touched, the title of that object can be spoken. Audio/touch software typically permits the developer to incorporate a number of levels of information so that any graphic can be made extremely accessible. The American Printing House for the Blind [7] and several other agencies used Parkes’ method to create audio/touch educational graphical materials for the blind. These were quite expensive due partly to the need for special hardware, for special computer applications, and to the difficulty and expense at the time of making the tactile copies.

Introduction by ViewPlus of the Tiger embossing technology in 2000[8,9] solved the problem of making usable tactile copy from mainstream graphical information. When the World Wide Web Consortium developed the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG)[10] language, the Oregon State research group immediately recognized that SVG was the key to making mainstream graphics that could also be accessible. SVG is an XML object-oriented graphics language in which labels and description properties are permitted for every object. When objects are meaningful and identified by their labels, then the SVG file can be accessible to all people, including those with print disabilities. SVG text includes the unicode characters, not just images of text. Consequently SVG text can also be accessible by non-visual techniques.

The research project was taken up by ViewPlus after that company spun off from the Science Access Project. Its IVEO SVG Viewer [11-16] was introduced in 2005. The authoring/conversion application IVEO Creator Version 1.0 was also introduced commercially in 2005, and Version 2 was introduced in 2008. The Creator and more recent Creator Pro applications can be used to author simple diagrams and to convert virtually any electronic format to SVG. They also permit authors to enrich the SVG image with additional meta data including image description, title and descriptions for the figure and for individual graphical objects in the figure. SVG text is more or less automatically accessible.

These SVG files can be displayed visually with any SVG viewer. People with print disabilities can use the IVEO Viewer, which can be downloaded free from the ViewPlus web site [17] to view by audio/touch. The image may be printed from IVEO Viewer to a ViewPlus embosser to obtain a tactile copy. When the tactile copy is placed on a touch pad, the user feels graphical objects and text (which has a distinctive tactile feel even though it is generally not readable with tactile sense alone). When text is pressed, it speaks. When a graphical object is pressed, its title is spoken. A graphical object may also have an arbitrarily long description field, which can be read by pressing the appropriate menu item or a hot key. The audio information can be browsed if the text is long, and it can also be viewed on an on-line braille display{ attached to the computer. The braille display makes the information accessible to people who read braille, including those who} are deaf and blind. Spoken text is reproduced in a status bar whose font size is user-selectable, a great help for many low vision people.

Figure 1 shows IVEO Viewer being used by a blind reader. An IVEO SVG example is shown in Figure 2. Figure 2(a) shows the original figure that is seen on screen and printed on a color tactile image. Figure 2(b) shows the embossed image where dark squares represent high dots and lighter squares represent lower dots.

Fig. 1. Photo of a blind person reading an IVEO graphic.

The ragged embossed text patterns seen in Figure 2(b) are generally easy to discern tactually as text. When pressed, the text will be spoken. {Text is organized into semantically-meaningful spans in the file. When any text element in a span is pressed, the entire span is spoken, so that information is spoken in semantically-meaningful strings.} Some simple diagrams and flow charts in math, physics, and computer science are fully accessible if nothing other than text labels are accessible. However most graphics are more accessible when important graphics are labeled and when the graphic has a good description.

Fig. 1. IVEO SVG image as seen on screen or on the color printed image. (b) Dots embossed with a ViewPlus embosser. Black dots have the maximum height of 0.5 mm and gray dots are smaller. 7 dot heights are possible

DAISY[1] is an organization of nonprofit agencies for the blind and dyslexic. It was formed to develop international standards, infrastructure, software tools, and training documentation to promote information accessibility by people with print disabilities. DAISY initially developed an XML format that is rich enough to convey most non-scientific literature, and it is now a subset of the mainstream open epub XML format.

The original DAISY XML specification did not include any capability for mathematics or accessible graphics beyond showing them as images with alt text labels. A MathML Working Group developed an extension to permit MathML to be included in DAISY XML, and their recommendations were adopted in 2007. There are presently several methods for displaying MathML non-visually including several commercial DAISY book reader applications [18,19] and the Design Science[20] MathPlayer plug-in that displays MathML in Internet Explorer. MathPlayer is accessible to speech screen readers and, with further cooperation of screen reader manufacturers, could also be accessible on-line in official math braille.

After ViewPlus demonstrated with its IVEO SVG technology that SVG graphics could be excellently accessible, a DAISY SVG Working Group was formed to develop DAISY guidelines and extend SVG specifications. The authors of this paper are members of this working group. The working group is building on the success of ViewPlus IVEO developments and intends to make SVG an excellent format for mainstream information accessibility as well as excellent for people with print disabilities.

The DAISY working group is developing guidelines on such things as how to describe figures for the figure description field. It is also extending SVG by defining a number of attributes for special purposes and by adding DAISY namespaces to SVG. {Examples of useful features that are possible with special attributes are The capability of making some objects visible on the printed copy but not embossed, or objects that are embossed but not printed in ink. There are many instances were it is convenient for the author to create tactile images that are not well represented by standard embossing rules relating color or intensity to embossed dot height. A portrait is a good example. By default a white nose would be embossed with low dots whereas the blind user would expect a nose to protrude from the paper.}

Additional namespaces will be used to hold numerical data displayed in graphs, both {x-y graphs and two dimensional displays such as see in common Geographic Information System (GIS) displays.} Having data stored within the image file gives a major improvement in searchability, since sophisticated search algorithms could search for data subject to constraints that make it interesting for many purposes. Having numerical data within the image file also improves the accessibility to blind people, since users can display data in numerical form or as audio tone graphs. {Tone graphs give semi-quantitative intuitive information by mapping frequency to value. Normally intensity rises as the value becomes more positive and decreases as the value becomes more negative.} Audio tone graphing provides good accessibility to both x-y graphs [21] and two dimensional graphics.[22]

The initial phase of the APS ViewPlus collaboration was to demonstrate proof-of-principle by transforming Physical Review Letter articles to DAISY XML with figures in accessible SVG form. This was done, and they showed these prototype articles at a number of publisher meetings in 2008 and 2009.[23] They then invited several other organizations to join them in the newly-formed Enhanced Reading Project. Presently that group includes the math software company Design Science, Inc,[24] the archiving company Portico,[25] and the composition vendors American Institute of Physics (AIP)[26] Aptara Corp[27] and Beacon PMG.[28] AIP is also a major publisher dedicated to publishing in DAISY format. The long range goal of the Enhanced Reading Project is to improve the publication process enabling DAISY XML publication at no increase in cost and to provide an excellent reading experience for everybody.

DAISY XML and well-designed on-line Reader applications can provide major advantages to all readers whether disabled or not. For example articles could be displayed on computers and mobile reading devices so that font size and contrast can be easily adjusted. One could have options to browse visually and in speech or just listen to all or part of the paper being read aloud. One could copy and paste MathML expressions into other applications such as Wikipedia and math computation programs. Figures can be zoomed and portions of figures selectively displayed. Underlying data in figures can be displayed or transported into other applications. Rich descriptions within the figure files can be displayed or heard in speech. Papers can be linked on-line to references or to community networks for discussions and criticism. Most of these advantages are not now possible with the PDF versions that are presently available and certainly not with paper copy. The Enhanced Reading Project hopes to develop such advanced reading capabilities and to explore future enhancements made possible by XML, many of which may be as unforeseen today as the internet was twenty years ago.

The APS/ViewPlus first phase project was funded in part by a Small Business Innovation Research grant, Number R43EY018799, from the National Eye Institute.

[1] The DAISY Organization,
[2] Gardner, J. A., Bargi Rangin, H., Bulatov, V., Kowallick, H., and Lundquist, R.: The Problem of Accessing Non-Textual Information on the Web. Proceedings of the 1997 Conference of the W3 Consortium, Santa Clara, CA, (April 1997)
[3] Bulatov V., and Gardner, J.: Accessing Object-Oriented Web Graphics. Proceedings of the 1999 CSUN International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles, CA (17-20 March 1999)
[4] Gardner, J. A., and Bulatov, V.: Smart Figures, SVG, and Accessible Web Graphics. Proceedings of the 2001 CSUN International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles, CA (21-24 March 2001)
[5] Parkes, D.: Nomad: an Audio-Tactile Tool for the Acquisition, Use and Management of Spatially Distributed Information by Partially Sighted and Blind Persons. In: Tatham, A. F., and Dodds, A. G., (eds.) Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Maps and Graphics for Visually Handicapped People, King’s College, University of London, pp. 24-29 (1988)
[6] Parkes, D.: Nomad: Enabling Access to Graphics and Text Based Information for Blind, Visually Impaired and Other Disability Groups. Conference Proceedings, Vol. 5. World Congress on Technology, Arlington, Virginia, pp. 690-714 (1991)
[7] American Printing House for the Blind,
[8] Sahyun, S., Bulatov, V., Gardner, J. A., and Preddy, M.: A How-To Demonstration For Making Tactile Figures and Tactile Formatted Math Using The Tactile Graphics Embosser. Proceedings of the 1998 CSUN International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles, CA (March 1998)
[9] Walsh, P., and Gardner, J. A.: Tiger, A New Age Of Tactile Text And Graphics, Proceedings of the 2001 CSUN International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities, Los Angeles, CA (21-24 March 2001)
[10] SVG project of the World Wide Web Consortium,
[11] Gardner, J. A., and Bulatov, V.: Directly Accessible Mainstream Graphical Information, In: Miesenberger, K., Klaus, J., Zagler, W., and Burger, D., (eds.) Computers Helping People with Special Needs: Proceedings of the 9th International Conference ICCHP, Paris, France, 7-9 July, 2004, LNCS, vol. 3118, pp. 739–-744. Springer, Heidelberg (2004)
[12] Bulatov, V., and Gardner, J. A., Making Graphics Accessible: Proceedings of the SVG Open Conference, Tokyo, (7-10 September 2004)
[13] Gardner, J. A.: New Technologies for Accessible Tactile Math and Accessible Graphics, Proceedings of the National Federation of the Blind GAMA (Goals for Achieving Math Accessibility) Summit, (14-15 April 2005)
[14] Gardner, J. A., Bulatov, V., and Stowell, H.: The ViewPlus IVEO Technology for Universally Usable Graphical Information. Proceedings of the 2005 CSUN International Conference on Technology and People with Disabilities, Los Angeles, CA (16-19 March 2005)
[15] Gardner, J.,Stowell, H., and Bulatov, V.: The ViewPlus IVEO Scalable Vector Graphics Technology for Universally Usable Complex Information. Proceedings of the 11’th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA (22-27 July 2005)
[16] Gardner, J. A., and Bulatov, V.: Scientific Diagrams Made Easy with IVEO. In: Miesenberger, K., Klaus, J., Zagler, W., and Karshmer, A., (eds.) Computers Helping People with Special Needs: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference, ICCHP, Linz, Austria, 11-13 July, 2006 LNCS, vol 4061, page 1243 -1250. Springer Berlin/ Heidelberg (2006)
[17] ViewPlus,
[18] Dolphin EASY Reader for DAISY,
[19] GH DAISY Book Reader,
[20] Design Science MathPlayer Plug-in for Internet Explorer available from
[21] Audio Graphing Calculator available from ViewPlus
[22] Final Report on Small Business Innovation Grant Number 1R43EY018973-01, National Institutes of Health, December, 2008
[23] DAISY prototype articles were demonstrated in presentations to meetings of the Society of Scholarly Publishers, Boston, MA, May, 2008, the Special Librarians Association, Seattle, WA, June, 2008, the Council of Engineering And Scientific Society Executives, Detroit, MI, July 2008, the Academic Publishers of Europe, Berlin, Germany, January, 2009, as well as to the O’Reilly Tools of Change meeting, New York, February, 2009.
[24] Design Science Inc.
[25] Portico
[26] American Institute of Physics
[27] Aptara Corp
[28] Beacon PMG

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