Accessibility software raises funds for READ Initiative

David Berman has created an accessibility ribbon for Microsoft Word that highlights the features needed to make text documents readable for anybody who uses a screen reader. (Chris Roussakis Photo)

The chair of the Carleton Access Network — a working committee of Carleton’s Research, Education, Accessibility and Design Initiative (READ) — has a new project on the go that’s making digital content accessible to all.

David Berman has developed the Berman Accessibility Ribbon, an add-on for Microsoft Word. When installed, the ribbon appears in the Microsoft Word toolbar and highlights the features needed to make text documents readable for anybody who needs to use a screen reader.

“Accessibility is a basket of many different things, because people have different types of deficits… maybe their eyes don’t work in a typical fashion, or it could be because they don’t have the literacy to read, but either way we want it to be able to read out loud,” says Berman, a communications expert.

Accessible documents require that headings are written in the header section, detailed descriptions for any photos or graphs are available and that proper line spacing is used, among other things.

“If the document’s structured properly, a screen reader’s going to read everything out, it’s going to read it in the correct order, and it’s going to be able to find things… the relative importance of headings, versus copy, versus captions, will all be apparent, so that even if you can’t see the layout, you’d be able to know the hierarchy of the document,” he says.

Although the software is available to download for free, Berman is asking corporations and organizations who use it make a donation to the READ Initiative.

“We wanted to give it away to the world and we’re always looking for ways of helping to fundraise for accessibility projects, which are sometimes underfunded, so it seemed like a natural fit. I proposed it at our recent READ Initiative board meeting and people said: ‘That would be awesome.’”

Dean Mellway, acting director of READ, says he is excited about the development of features like the Berman Ribbon.

“READ aims to support every unit at Carleton, whether academic or staff, to get more involved in the accessibility agenda and to try to make the world a more accessible place… we’re like the cheerleader for accessibility,” he says.

“Of course a big part of what we’re trying to do is to make sure that people understand the value of making their documents and their communications accessible. David’s done a great thing by bringing this accessibility message right on to your Word document.”

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) says digital documents must follow provincially legislated accessibility guidelines if they have been produced by the public sector, universities or businesses of more than 50 people.

The ribbon has been especially popular so far with post-secondary institutions, including Carleton. Berman says approximately 100 universities and colleges have downloaded it so far.

Because of this success, Berman and his team are working on a version of the program for French Microsoft Word and he hopes to develop it for use in other languages in the future.

“This software is a little piece of the accessibility challenge. Ontario leads the world at this, and Canada’s federal government was the first in the world to insist that every government website comply with these standards. Ontario was the first in the world to have it apply to businesses and schools as well,” Berman says.

“It’s no coincidence that Carleton is a world leader at this, because we’re both in the national capital and we’re in Ontario. And Carleton was already a leader when it comes to accessibility and accommodating students with disabilities, so Carleton has been given a fantastic opportunity here to show the world what’s possible.”

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