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The Future of Alternative Formats Content within the Higher Education Sector in Europe

ATHEN E-Journal Issue #3 (2007)

Noel Duffy
Managing Director of Dolphin Computer Access Limited, UK


Across Europe legislation and guidance exists to support the provision of course material in alternative formats to students with disabilities. This paper will focus on the provision of books in alternative formats to students with print disabilities. Increasingly one of large print, Braille, audio, or DAISY, or a combination of them, are seen as the preferred alternative formats for books or course material. At present, a cohesive approach to alternative formats is only happening in isolated areas. Although there is growing momentum for change and greater understanding of the issues, there is still much to be done.


altformat, alternative formats, DAISY


In the UK, it is estimated that approximately five percent of the student population has a disability, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. These include people who are blind and visually impaired and a large proportion that have specific learning difficulties, including dyslexia.

Throughout Europe legislative changes, such as the1995 Disability Discrimination Act in the UK, have placed greater responsibility on education authorities and higher education establishments to provide an inclusive learning environment. For many countries it is not economically viable or structures have not been set up to provide required material in accessible formats. In some European countries pockets of good practice exist and in a few rare examples a national policy holds the promise of a bright future.


DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) is a digital format that facilitates the inclusion of synchronised audio, text and graphics in one digital production. The material can be navigated and searched by word electronically. The production can include recorded or synthetic audio. DAISY technology represents a breakthrough for both students who struggle to read print and those who are visually impaired as in both cases it can enable combined text, audio and image feedback.

What currently exists?

Anecdotal evidence suggests there is no truly typical approach to creating alternative format material in Europe for higher education students. As in the States, a great deal of effort is invested in scanning and OCRing the files into an electronic format, usually a Word file, which can be distributed to the students to be read by their screen reader or magnifier, if they’re visually impaired, or if they are dyslexic, their assistive technology tool.

Problems with Current Methods

Studies carried out within the EU highlight the following weaknesses:

  • Format consistency
  • Trade off of entitlement and value for money
    • Disability legislation
    • Low population sizes
  • Quality and timely service
    • Lack of suitably trained staff
    • Reactive rather than proactive provision
    • Multiple transcriptions
    • No access to publishers’ files

Format Consistency

Little consistency exists in either process or output of alternative format content. In many cases this amounts to little more than a photocopied enlargement, carried out by unskilled staff. In other cases it can be recorded audio files or in other cases still, it can represent Word files of electronic data, which are passed on in CD format to the student to be used with screen reader or other assistive technology device. In some cases, the student is given the choice of his favored output: Braille, large print, audio or DAISY.

Tradeoff of Entitlement and Value for Money

The disability discrimination act in the UK places two key duties on local authorities: not to treat disabled pupils less favourably and to take reasonable steps to avoid putting disabled students at a substantial disadvantage. These sentiments are reflected throughout much of Western Europe.

Supporting minority concerns often conflicts with the greater education funding challenge, especially when numbers of people with print impairments represent very small numbers and the institution lacks the resources or know-how to deliver the service.

The RNIB Scotland report [The case for a National Educational Transcription Service for blind and partially sighted pupils and the outcome of the DAISY evaluation project] noted that there are almost 1,200 blind or partially sighted pupils across Scotland who require information in alternative formats, such as DAISY, large print or Braille. The research suggested that duplication of effort and lack of consistency of output led to ineffective use of resources, concluding that most local authorities were not meeting the requirement of the DDA.

It also noted smaller authorities with small rural populations often have less well developed facilities or staff that doesn’t have the time or expertise to produce alternative formats such as DAISY, Braille or large print.

Quality and Timely Service

In the UK and in many European countries, no formal training programmes exist for staff at transcription centres or DSA offices. The RNIB Scotland report found that staff are not adequately trained to a quality standard. Training for lecturers in the area of disability is sporadic, sometimes resulting in lack of awareness. Similarly, training for students depends on the level of awareness in DSS office.

Time and revenue constraints mean alternative format materials are often produced by cheaper under-qualified staff on an ad hoc basis and not in a timely manner. This often results in people with print impairments not getting access to course content at the same time as their sighted peers. Often only text is made available, while pictures, figures and complex structures are not made accessible or usable.

RNIB Scotland noted that having small isolated units is counter productive. The same files can be produced many times over by different local authorities or transcription services or universities.

Probably the most significant problem encountered by transcription centres or disability support offices is lack of access to an accessible electronic file. In Austria, Klaus Miesenberger and Reinhard Ruemner at the University of Linz identified that the publishers, prior to their co-operation agreement, failed to see the benefit of handing over and distributing the digital copies of books. In common with other alternative format agencies, development of alternative formats began with scanning, OCR or, when lots of graphics and or formal structures like maths are used, with typing.

By extension content generated within the University is not always available in electronic format.

Is the future any better?

Several initiatives are currently active in Europe at the moment to promote a better future for alternative formats. EUAIN, an EC project set up specifically to promote alternative formats, is the main knowledge base. A great deal of work has been carried out at Linz University in Austria, while in the UK, Holland and Sweden, where the best work is being done, the leaders in DAISY delivery are RNIB, FNB and TPB respectively.

Format Consistency

In Scotland, an independent evaluation was undertaken in September 2005 by RNIB Scotland to report on the success of DAISY as a format for visually impaired students in education. The key points of importance emerging from the report in relation to DAISY technology are as follows:

  • Daisy was seen as a valuable tool for education across all levels. Its potential for use in schools and universities with blind and partially sighted pupils and students is enormous.
  • The majority of the project objectives were met and in some cases exceeded (75 DAISY books were produced instead of 60, with 15 partners and over 100 students being able to trial the technology).
  • DAISY has wider benefits and is not specific to pupils with sight problems. Its use could be extended to dyslexic pupils/students, those with communication or language disorders, or indeed to all pupils/students.

The report offers recommendations for consideration on the best way to deliver educational transcription in Scotland, suggesting the alternatives should include Braille and large print as well as DAISY.

At the University of Linz, Miesenberger and Ruemner suggest using TEI, a digital talking book format that, although similar, is not identical to DAISY. The Meta data is compatible and convertible to DAISY.

Deeds speak louder than words and from April this year RNIB’s New Learning and Skills Library will convert 2,000 of its existing analogue educational titles and commence production at the rate of 150 titles per month. FNB in Holland has commenced production of 1,200 DAISY books a year for education. Four of twenty active transcription centres in the UK have been converted to DAISY.

Later this year, Royal National Institute of the Blind, The British Dyslexia Association and a host of other national educational advisory services are combining to promote DAISY as the cornerstone of its alternative format recommendation (refer to ).

Trade Off of Entitlement and Value for Money

Different proposals have emerged to satisfy different national needs. In Scotland, to overcome the inefficient use of resources associated with small populations and poorly trained staff, the authors of the RNIB Scotland Report came down in favour of a National Transcription Centre.

In Linz, Hengstberger and Petz made a similar diagnosis but their proposed solution was slightly different. They suggested the following:

  • An inter-university network of service provision for people with print impairments, providing what is often not affordable at local level. Integration needs to be facilitated at University, lecturer and student levels.
  • Co-operation with publishers but also that all university material be made available in electronic format.
  • Proper investment in training and equipment, including the organization of highly successful computer camps for young blind and visually impaired students before they go to university.

Quality and Timely Service

Lack of access to publisher files in an accessible format and staff training are the two biggest reasons for failing to produce alternative format material on time.

The RNIB Scotland report recommends that transcription centres be centralized to localize the knowledge. Hengstberger and Petz in Linz believe only co-ordination of resources amongst universities can guarantee an efficient use of resources. They suggest offering a service to member universities including counseling, support and integration into the labour market.

This author believes that forming an institute of alternative format and assistive technology practitioners could not only enhance the training and performance levels of all the staff in the industry towards the high levels set in some of the beacon sites, but could provide an invaluable service to universities internationally, in the manner outlined by Hengstberger and Petz in the previous paragraph.

The other key component of an efficient and timely service is the receipt of the XML files from the publisher. Across Europe, the European Accessible Information Network (EUAIN) aims to promote e-Inclusion as a core horizontal building block in the establishment of the Information Society by creating a network to bring together the different actors in the content creation and publishing industries around a common set of objectives relating to the provision of accessible information. EUAIN takes the broadest definition of content creators and aims to support the provision of tools and expertise to enable them to provide accessible information.

In the UK, the minister for Works and Pensions Anne McGuire announced recently that the Department Of Trade And Industry is currently facilitating discussions between publishers and organizations such as RNIB and National Library for the Blind (NLB) to increase access to all reading materials, including educational materials. The pilot scheme being worked on is aimed at creating and managing a repository of electronic files provided by the publisher, for the benefit of trusted intermediaries.

RNIB, in the UK, operates a database of already transcribed books called Reveal Web at which finds titles currently in production in an accessible format to avoid duplication.


Provision of alternative format services in the higher education space has a number of key challenges:

  • It needs to settle on a best practice model for alternative format output and this appears to be settling on a combination of Braille, large print, audio and DAISY, depending on the needs of the students.
  • The input method currently used of scanning books and OCRing the text is costly and inefficient. This has been recognized across Europe and plans are in place to have the publishers make files available into a repository in XML, facilitating automatic tagging and reconfiguration into Braille or DAISY.
  • The current processes are often haphazard and will benefit from having a more focused approach to service provision, such as integrated university networks, better trained staff and greater databases of existing alternative format content.


The case for a National Educational Transcription Service for Blind and Partially Sighted Pupils and the Outcome of the DAISY Project Evaluation.

  1. Hengstberger, B. & Petz, A. The HERN report – New research collaboration on teaching and learning strategies for blind and partially sighted students
  2. Miesenberger, K. & Ruemner, R. Co-Operation between Publishers and Service Providers in Austria, University of Linz.
  3. Miesenberger, K., Petz, A. & Stoger, B. Developing Academic Skills among Print Disabled Students.