13 March 2024

How do visually impaired people access e-text documents?

By Dave Horwood

As a visually impaired person, I feel empowered when an e-text document is accessible. It means I can access information without assistance, on an equal footing with my sighted friends and family.

What is E-text?

E-text is text that can be read digitally such as e-books, pdf documents and even text messages.

E-text allows visually impaired people like me to access information which was previously difficult such as

  • my favourite magazines and journals,
  • listings for my local arts venue,
  • important legal documents like my housing tenancy agreement or employment contract, and
  • product receipts and invoices.

These are just a few examples of how e-text has made information in print much easier for me to access.

At A2i I help produce e-text documents in Microsoft Word and PDF format that can be read on a computer, smartphone, tablet or other devices such as refreshable Braille displays.

Dave sitting at his desk, smiling, in A2i's office. He is wearing a turquoise jumper and has headphones on


How do screen readers and refreshable Braille displays work with e-text documents?

I often listen to e-text documents through my headphones, using my pc or phone. Screen reading software converts the text on the screen into synthetic speech for me. I can speed up the speech or slow it down, depending how interesting or boring the document is!

The software has many shortcut keys or touch screen gestures so I can get precise information read to me. These shortcuts are especially important when reading and navigating e-text documents. If you ask a screen reader to read the entire screen from top to bottom, there is far too much information to take in. Read this interesting article from axess lab about how screen readers work and there’s also some videos of screen readers in action.

Screen reading software can also translate text on the screen into Braille which is sent to a separate device called a refreshable Braille display. The refreshable Braille display sits in front of the computer keyboard and produces Braille characters by raising and lowering small pins that I can read with my fingers.

A refreshable Braille display next to a computer keyboard. The photos also shows part of someone's hands, who is using the refreshable Braille display.


My four top tips for making e-text documents accessible

  1. Use a clear structure for your document with the correct heading levels.

Using correct heading levels means the screen reader can jump from one section to another easily. Without heading levels I have to listen to, or read everything on the page, which is really time consuming when I already find it very difficult to skim read.

  1. Include a contents page with links to each individual section of the document.

This means I don’t have to go hunting for the correct page, where often the page numbers in an e-text document do not tally up with the document’s original page numbers.

  1. Include alt text with your images.

Alt text is a written description of an image for visually impaired readers. The screen reader will read this description out loud when the cursor reaches the image. This information is also shown on the Braille display.

Here is an article from WebAIM that has some great tips on how to write alt text and asks you to think about the text you would write to describe some example images.

  1. Use proper list formatting for numbered or bulleted lists.

When the screen reader encounters a formatted list it will read it with the correct pauses. It also tells me how many list items there are and where the list starts and finishes.

What accessibility issue irritates me the most with online documents?

Many document creators use photographs or scanned images in place of actual text. For example, a photo of a restaurant menu, or a page from an instruction manual. Whilst most screen readers have an OCR function to convert images into text, this often returns an unusable result. If text is found, it can have errors, or the text is displayed in the wrong order. Naturally, this makes a document inaccessible and unusable and I would have to wait for a sighted person to read it to me, or reach out to the document creator and hope they can provide an accessible e-text version.

How can I find out more?

To take the stress out of producing e-text documents, why not speak to a professional transcription company like A2i, where I work? You can discuss your requirements with my friendly colleagues by

We normally transcribe your document to e-text, and send it to you in around three working days.

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