Microsoft makes documents accessible to the visually impaired

Microsoft makes documents accessible to the visually impaired

New downloadable plugin allows users to save documents in DAISY XML

A new plugin will enable Microsoft Word users to save Open XML-based documents in a format that makes the content accessible to blind or visually impaired users.

The plugin, which is a free download, will make it possible to save documents in the DAISY XML format, a standard for reading and publishing multimedia content that is easy to navigate.

"It revolutionises information and consumption," said Julie Howells, director of accessibility at Fortune Cookie, a web accessibility provider. "Currently to get through a massive amount of linear audio is like reading the Yellow Pages from start to finish to find what you’re looking for."

Howells said the key to making DAISY a success was to raise public awareness of the standard: "To use DAISY, you need a DAISY player.The next step to ensure that the largest number of people benefit from it is to get the DAISY-playing technology onto products available on the high street." Although the DAISY format was sometimes used in school textbooks, she said, the majority of visually-impaired people lost their sight after the age of 45, and they also needed to be able to access documents in DAISY format.

Visually-impaired users can access web-based information through screen readers, screen magnifiers, Braille printers and text-to-speech synthesizers. But it is much harder for users to navigate complex page layouts because accessibility tools are usually unable to differentiate between different elements of the text, such as headings, tables of contents, indices and glossaries. For the visually impaired user, the text becomes an undifferentiated mess.

The DAISY standard addresses this by making it possible to navigate through documents by heading or page number and to use indexes and references. This means that users can scroll through audio or Braille content in the same way that sighted people might scroll through a document.

“It will make it much easier for someone to produce their document in audio or Braille or large print. You save in DAISY format, and there are a number of tools that will pick that file up and create well-structured, good, navigable documents,” said Stephen King, director of accessibility and innovation at the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB). Currently only five percent of the material available to sighted readers has been converted into accessible formats, according to RNIB research.

The “Save as DAISY” plugin will be available as a free download for Microsoft Office Word (Word XP, Word 2003 and Word 2007) customers early in 2008.

King said he thought the standard would be widely used, because it was now a legal requirement in the US for school textbook publishers to provide copies of books in DAISY format. The ability to convert to DAISY format would have wider uses, he added: “The DAISY format is good for any repurposing [of text]. People are repurposing for mobile phones and different types of presentation, and the DAISY standard has been designed for that.”