Supporting Structure

picture of this post as a structured document including navigation pane and table of contents

this post as a structured document including document pane and table of contents

What does it mean to have structure in a document?

When a document is properly structured, various tags are embedded that a computer or similar device can recognize and use to generate useful accessibility tools such as a table of contents, a navigation panel/document map, and supplementary descriptions for pictures and graphics.

So how much difference can these tools make?

I buy a lot of ebooks to read on my kindle. As a reader, I do a lot of jumping back and forth within a book. What drives me crazy is that a lot of the new ebooks aren’t properly structured. So, instead of being able to use a contents page to give me an overview of what the book is about or to find a target page, or being able to access navigation shortcuts and activate a link to take me to a specific chapter or section, I’m often limited to just searching backwards and forwards on a line by line, page-by-page basis. Very irritating and time consuming.

Imagine then the potential for frustration of a similarly unstructured document, for users who already find print difficult to access, such as those with a visual impairment or dyslexia. Their use and understanding of a document be dependent on the way it’s been formatted and it’s potential for accessibility.

But it sounds like it’s hard to do.

Actually, it’s really simple – so simple you wonder why we all aren’t all doing it already. Just apply:

  • heading styles to headings (it also cuts out the usual hassle involved in highlighting, setting the font size, activating bold, activating underline etc);
  • lists styles to lists;
  • some simple alternative text (alt text) to your images and graphics so that a screen-reader provides a description for a reader who cannot see it
  • care with the labeling of your hyperlinks for the same reason.
  • and if using tables, structure them for easy navigation

In case you’d like some quick and easy tips about how to use the above the following link is a useful ‘how to’: create accessible word documents

Word 10 even has a useful accessibility checker that can help test your document for you. You can check out how it works with find-and-fix-accessibility-issues-in-word-2010

A couple of other tips

Taking a bit of extra care with your document’s layout and text can also improve its accessibility. Just follow a few easy rules such as left align your text, use a font size of 12pt or bigger, line spacing of 1.15 -1.5, and lighten up on the use of underline and italics, and your document will not only be easier to read but it will also benefit from a clearer and cleaner design. http://rnib.org.uk/tips for accessible print

So give it a go

There’s no disadvantage to structuring your documents. It’s straightforward, takes minimal effort and you can even save your formatted document as an accessible PDF (for PDF conversion advice for Windows, see Katrina’s blog post Windows and accessible pdfs and for PDF conversion advice for Mac, see Carol’s blog post  Mac and accessible pdfs).

You’ll be creating documents that can be more easily used by everyone, an important attribute in this day of digital documents.

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Cue card evolution

The task:
To adapt a keyboard shortcut cue card for a student with a visual impairment

The history
Providing cue sheets is standard for my work with VI students and I’ve followed on with the established historical pattern of providing them in tabular text form with word descriptions eg. Select All :  Control + A. As the students are able to use them, I’d never really considered that perhaps a redesign could make a difference to their accessibility, so this exercise has proved really interesting and I definitely moved from a ‘here to there’ position by the end of it. 

Original type of cue sheet:

Original tabular text form cue card

Initial decisions
To simplify the visual access by making it a ‘cleaner design’ with more high contrast white space. This meant removing the lines of the table  and the + symbols (which aren’t really needed as a combination of keys is always an ‘and’ process).

Rather than everything looking as the same, I also decided to trial the use of different high contrast colour cues as an aid to differentiation, and to also include a memory tip.

First evolutions 

Keyboard short cut cue card in new format including additions of the colours black and yellow Revised cue card with the the colour additions black, red and yellow

Next decisions

Initially I was quite happy with the redesign. However, I found once I’d starting re-evaluating, I kept having more thoughts about trying to make them more accessible.

For the VI students the complication with the cue cards is having to access the words. Was there a way to make this a simpler task?

I decided to trial cards with an initial key and so remove the need for writing on the instruction keys. I also used a light edging around the instruction key that contained text, so it didn’t distract from the text contained within.

For two of the cards I included blocks of high contrast colour cues, but for the third I use just black, but with the addition of a shape cue ( would have tried white rectangles divided by a line horizontally or diagonally but my tech skills weren’t that advanced – all advice gratefully received).

I’d noticed on the original cue cards that the instruction keys were presented on the left and the explanation on the right, so I also decided to reverse my usual presentation to this format and see which the students preferred.

I also removed my memory tip, as on further consideration I felt the students’ memory tip should be their own. I’d mention my thoughts, but the students could use the back of the card to write whatever was meaningful to them.

Second evolutions

Cue card with key and reduced text. Colours black and yellow.Cue card with key and reduced text. Colours red and yellow

Black and white shape cue card

The outcome
I trialed all the cue cards with four of my students:  2 from Key Stage 2, 1 from Key Stage 3, and 1 from Key Stage 4. (None had any diagnosed colour difficulty).

  • All preferred the cards with the initial key and no writing on the subsequent keys, and said they found them easier to work with than those with writing on every key. (One student remarked that having to think rather than try to read helped reinforce his memory.)

Having decided on the format of the cards they preferred we then moved on to the colour/shape options.

  • All liked the differentiation offered by the blocks of coloured keys and felt they helped with quicker access and discrimination.  2 preferred the black and yellow combination and 2 the yellow and red.
  • All of them thought the shape card could be useful, but felt that for them the colour cards offered them preferred cues.

The final decision was in regards to the placement of the explanation and key cues.

  • All preferred the explanation to be placed first, with the key instructions following.
  • All stated it was easier to access with this layout, and one of the students who explained more fully, said that it was difficult for him to visually track back from an explanation on the right, to the instructions on the left. (This would tally with practiced reading habits, in which we track along text from left to right – presumably it would be different for pupils in China).

Final thoughts
What looked like a simple task has ultimately reminded me that even when things seem to be going well, it’s always useful to review accepted practice.

Although the original cue cards were usable, the redesign process has shown they could be better. The new sets will follow the reduced text format and will incorporate colour cues/shapes (or perhaps other ideas) as identified by the pupils themselves, and will hopefully prove a more accessible, user friendly resource.