text formatting for the blind

Text formatting is used in many areas, from books, newspapers, articles, websites, and documents. Paragraphs, headings, lists, italics, bold, and many other characteristics are used to emphasize, denote chapters, and mark changes in scenes or actions. Sighted users can use formatting to find points of interest in text. What about people who are blind? Is formatting effective for us? Can it be useful?

In this article, I will explore text formatting, and how blind people use it or dismiss it. Like all of my other articles, this one will contain opinions. This area is one that I feel should be discussed, however, because it is an area of inclusion that I feel blind people have ignored, and sighted people haven’t generally approached.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Text formatting is pretty much just information about text to a computer. A bolded word, an italicized title, a heading line, or a list of items are all ways of formatting. Sighted people see all this in the context of their chosen font, but screen readers only read, by default, a small set of textual attributes, and only by describing what the attribute is.

If a screen reader user turns on the reading of styles or formatting, the screen reader will, italics on describe italics off, the formatting, which can become verbose, and sometimes doesn’t help because the screen reader doesn’t pause after speaking formatting characteristics, meaning that the user has to quickly parse what the screen reader is saying.

So, is that it? Is the only choice for a user to hear little to no formatting information, or hear it all in a quick procession of words? There are other options, better in fact than anything done by most visual interfaces so far.

How blind people format text

Blind people have a few ways of formatting text. The visual method requires users to press a command, write their text, press the command again, and review formatting with the screen reader. Braille allows blind people to feel formatting, if supported by the screen reader. Markup languages allow blind people to type formatting symbols around text, which they can review with normal text navigation functions.

Visual

The most popular way of formatting for sighted users, choosing a formatting attribute from a tool bar, is also how blind people format, most of the time, using keyboard commands. It is easy because it is familiar. All word processors support this, using similar keyboard commands for bold, italics, underline, and indentation. Some word processors, like LibreOffice on Windows, do not speak when these keyboard commands are pressed, so users have to trust in their keyboarding.

The problem with this approach is that one has to turn on the reading of font information, like styles, for a screen reader user to be sure when a particular formatting style begins and ends, and that a program may not speak when formatting commands are pressed. Screen readers do, usually, read headings and lists without needing settings changes, but that’s about all. JAWS for Windows can be configured to speak or play sounds for formatting, but most users do not realize that this feature is available, and so it is not used.

Not all is lost, however. Narrator now has the ability to read formatting using different speech settings, like a change in pitch, volume, or rate. VoiceOver on the Mac can “beep” for formatting changes, although that doesn’t tell us which formatting information was used. NVDA has begun working on refactoring its speech system, so in the future, NVDA may be able to do what Narrator does, and more. Imagine hearing sounds for each text attribute, instead of even having vocal indications.

Braille

Braille is a tactile way of reading, and has plenty of standards for showing formatting. If you get a book from a library in braille, it is likely to have been formatted very well. Reading braille via screen reader, however, is often a bland experience, with little to no formatting information. Screen readers do show abbreviated symbols for item types like headings, lists, and links, but not italics, bold, underline, or anything else. One can use Status Cells, dots at the end of a display used in a few screen readers to show text attributes, but these are imprecise, as a formatted word would show, on that status cell, as if the whole line were formatted. iOS uses this technique. The largest problem with this is that there are standard braille symbols for formatting, supported by the Liblouis translator at least; they simply aren’t used. In Safari, formatted text is often placed in its own item, but that still doesn’t tell us which text attribute was used.

The only screen reader that currently shows any text formatting is NVDA. It can show emphasized text, but that’s all I’ve found. It used to show more, and why it doesn’t now I don’t know. The Braille Extender addon adds the ability for NVDA to show paragraph indentation. All other screen readers just show words, just like speech, without any trace of formatting.

Text Markup

Text markup languages, like Markdown, Org-mode, and HTML allow the user to write a document, web page, blog post, or book using formatting that anyone can read. Screen readers may need to be set to speak most punctuation, and in the case of Markdown and Org-mode, set to repeat more than three characters. This is even used in contexts where it is not supported, like Email, forum posts, and texts.

This type of formatting, for now, is the most accessible. It can be read using speech or braille, and can often be previewed in a browser or other format if a user isn’t confident in using the markup style. Because of this level of accessibility, I believe that Markdown, or even better, Org-mode, should be a part of text editing, everywhere, in all operating systems. A user could write in Markdown, and the text would visually be formatted, allowing all those *italics* to not go to waste. If you use Emacs with Emacspeak, you hear formatting when reading websites, Markdown and Org-mode files, and syntax highlighting with source code.

Why blind people dismiss formatting

If you are sighted, imagine a world with no formatting. No italics, no bold, no underline, just some headings, lists, and block quotes, all practically the same, and absolutely no color. This is, even using braille display, what blind people get. There aren’t even any separate paragraphs, just chunks of text on mobile and Mac, and one long page with some headings for division on Windows. Would you enjoy this?

If you are blind, you already know this world, and probably don’t consider the possibility that at least one word on this page is italicized, because for you, there is no formatting; it simply doesn’t exist. Blind people don’t particularly like formatting because we can’t really use it on the most popular system, Windows, with the most popular screen readers, NVDA and JAWS, without much frustration. We don’t dismiss it because we don’t like the idea, we dismiss it because we don’t have access to that information, and don’t see the uses for it.

How formatting can be useful

Let’s start with the obvious. Headings can mark chapters of a book, sections of an article, and allow quick navigation through a page for blind people. Lists are useful for itemizing content. Block quotes are useful for long quotations.

What about the more invisible formatting, at least for blind people? Italics is great for emphasizing things, bold makes things stand out, and underlining is good for making something notable. If screen readers spoke these things using differing speech parameters, or even sounds, I’m sure that most blind people would find that they add some color to our Grey, lifeless text, and make things we write look much better to sighted readers.

Conclusion

What do you think, reader? Do you care about formatting enough to use Pandoc on just about every Word document, like me, in order to see formatting? Would you rather not know about formatting on your favorite websites? If you can see, do you not really notice formatting, or do you find it essential and beautiful? Please, let me know. I’d love to hear your feedback, whether it come through Email, Twitter, or even a contribution to my blog’s Github repository. Again, thanks for reading!

Written on February 23, 2020
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