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  Access Today, Spring 2002 - Special Volume, Issue 3

What are Alternative Formats? How Do They Apply to Programs and Services?

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This is a photo of an alternate brochure used at the Lincoln Home NHP, formatted with Braille at the top of the page and equivalent text in the center of the page. Also shown is a swatch of tapestry used in the restoration attached at the bottom of the page, which gives visitors the opportunity to feel the fabric.
An alternate brochure used at the Lincoln Home NHP is formatted with Braille at the top of the page and equivalent text in the center of the page.  A swatch of tapestry used in the restoration is attached at the bottom of the page giving visitors the opportunity to feel the fabric.
In addition to physical and attitudinal barriers, people with disabilities also encounter barriers in the format in which information is presented. Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, federally conducted and assisted programs along with programs of state and local government are required to make their programs accessible to people with disabilities as well as provide effective communication. Effective communication means to communicate with people with disabilities as effectively as communicating with others. Alternative formats are auxiliary aids used to effectively communicate printed information to people who are blind or have low vision or people who have other functional impairments. Alternative formats include Braille, large print, audio, and computer disk.

Individuals with disabilities have varying needs and this should be considered while providing alternate formats. According to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Subpart E - Communications), "the public entity must provide an opportunity for individuals with disabilities to request the auxiliary aids and services of their choice. This expressed choice shall be given primary consideration by the public entity." For example, a facility may have only provided tour information in audio format. Although many Braille users can also use audio, Braille may still be the person's expressed choice because it may be what they typically use, it needs no additional equipment and it enables a higher degree of independence. Thus the request for tour information in Braille should be given primary consideration based on the individual's needs.


This is a photo of the Braille cell design.
The Braille cell design.


Braille consists of cells that contain a series of raised dots that can be read with the fingertips. Letters and numbers are represented by different numbers of raised dots in different possible areas of a Braille cell. Likewise, common contractions, such as "tion" or "ing" are represented in Braille.

Large Print

Large print refers to the point size for font; however there are many additional considerations. The Smithsonian Institute recommends a minimum 16-point font for the best viewing by people with vision loss while maintaining a small enough point size to include a good amount of information. The type of font is important as well. Fonts with embellishment lines and curves at the tops and bottoms of letters are difficult for a person with low vision to read and therefore should be avoided. Sans serif fonts are one of several (Bookman Old Style, Arial, News Goth, etc.) that the Smithsonian Institute considers to be the most legible. By definition sans serif means "without short lines stemming from and at an angle to the upper and lower ends of the strokes of a letter."

The Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG A4.30.5), identifies the need for a minimum of seventy percent contrast between background and text colors. Using an eggshell or other off-white paper will reduce glare. The Smithsonian Guidelines also indicate that characters per line should be held to a maximum of 60 with consistent letter and word spacing, the margins should be flush-left and staggered right while leading, or the space between lines of print, should be at least twenty percent greater than the height of the letters.

This is a photo of a park visitor receiving information on the wayside exhibit from a portable audio cassette.
A park visitor receives information on the wayside exhibit from a portable audio cassette.

Computer Disc

People with visual impairments may prefer to have information available in an electronic format such as a computer disc. The computer disc may be a preferred alternative format for information designed for home review. A person with a personal computer that has screen reader software or enlarged font capability can access the information on the disc and the information can also be printed out in large print or by using a Brailler. This format is for use anywhere the patron has computer access that will allow for the preferred choice of formatting.

This is a photo of an interpretive listening station with telephone handset.
An interpretive listening station with telephone handset.


Audio can be offered in a variety of delivery methods including audiocassettes, audio compact disks, interpretive or informational listening stations, external speakers or any additional audio technology as it becomes available. Informational cassettes and compact disks should be accompanied by a portable player (headphones recommended) for use at the facility. Interpretive and informational listening stations offer telephone handsets or head phones for the visitors to receive audio information without disturbing others. This is useful for many types of exhibits. External speakers may also be used for the information to be available to all visitors in a particular area. The visitor can use audiocassettes and audio compact disks at the facility and then take them home for future reference. Newsletters, play bills, selfguided tour brochures and other informational brochures are ideal for this type of format. Having the material available in a format that communicates effectively with the visitor will encourage the visitor to return time and again. An interpretive listening station with telephone handset. A park visitor receives information on the wayside exhibit from a portable audio cassette. To ensure effective communication, consideration to alternate formats should begin with the initial program planning process.


Facility Managers:  What you can do

No matter what type of facility, alternative formats must be readily accessible to people who request them. The facility manager and key personnel should develop accessibility policies to ensure quality service to people with and without disabilities. For example, performances are scheduled weeks in advance at performing arts venues. The venue manager or special event coordinator should assess the need for alternative formats and plan to accommodate the largest number of people. Assessing this need may be based on the accommodations or auxiliary aids identified in the past as well as current requests for alternative formats. Ways to identify and assess these needs should be part of the facility's policies and procedures.

Facility managers should make every effort to have the information available in alternative formats at the time of a request. Information that changes frequently may cause delays in providing alternative formats for that information. If this is the case, these delays should be publicized allowing the visitor to give advance request for the information. For example, if two weeks prior notification is necessary, this information should be publicized so that a visitor requiring an alternative format has ample opportunity to request it in time for the performance.

Additionally, the accessibility of the facility and its programs should be an integral part of the publications. Include information on the availability of alternate formats in program brochures and other marketing materials. People may not know that the facility is accessible unless it is publicized as such. The availability of alternate formats is a critical component to ensure programs and facilities are accessible thus enable a greater number of people to participate and enjoy the program offerings. People with disabilities not only visit; they bring their friends and families, too!


Additional Resources

    American Council of the Blind
    155 15th Street, NW, Suite 1004
    Washington, DC 20005
    Toll Free: (800) 424-8666
    Phone: (202) 467-5081

    American Foundation for the Blind
    11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300
    New York, NY 10001
    Toll Free: (800) 232-5463
    Phone: (212) 502-7600

    American Printing House for the Blind
    1839 Frankfort Avenue
    P.O. Box 6085
    Louisville, Kentucky 40206
    Toll Free: (800) 223-1839
    Phone: 502-895-2405

    National Federation of the Blind
    1800 Johnson Street
    Baltimore, MD 21230
    Phone: (410) 659-9314

    National Center on Accessibility
    2805 East 10th St, Suite 190
    Bloomington, IN 47408
    (812) 856-4422
    Voice (812) 856-4421
    TTY (812) 856-4480
    E-mail: nca@indiana.edu


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