ANNEX C.3c: Communicating with blind and partially sighted people
Summary: Information about ways of communicating with blind and partially sighted people
Communicating with blind and partially sighted people
Blind and partially sighted people have the same information needs as everyone else. But many people with sight problems will not be able to understand information unless it is made available to them in a suitable format. It is important to remember that there is no single method which suits all blind and partially sighted people all of the time. Even the same person will use different methods at different times and under different circumstances.
Nearly half of all people with sight loss can read ordinary print, but only with great difficulty. Reading a long document can be laborious, slow, and exhausting. The main advantage of ordinary print is that information is widely available in this format. The main disadvantage is that most people with a sight problem can't easily read it.
Many people, especially those who have lost their sight in later life, can still write by hand, even if they can't read what they have written! This problem can be solved for some people by printing each character, using a thick black marker pen in order to make it clearer.
Signing documents and filling in forms can also be difficult, especially when they can't see where on the form they are supposed to write. This first problem can be solved by the use of signature guides which show the blind person where to sign. The latter can be solved by designing more legible forms.
Clear Print is an approach to designing and producing your printed materials which takes into account the needs of blind and partially sighted readers. Simply, a Clear Print document will find a wider audience. The solutions we propose are straightforward and inexpensive, focusing on some basic design elements, for example font, type size, contrast and page navigation. By following our guidelines, cutting edge design can also be inclusive design.
Clear Print differs from large print in the size of the type used (known as point size). Clear Print documents use a minimum type size of 12 point (although RNIB recommends 14 point to reach more customers with sight problems). Large print documents are produced in a larger type size, ranging from 16 to 22 point.
For more hints and tips on creating clear print see our See it Right pack. It gives details about creating accessible information in many formats.
For many blind and partially sighted people, larger print is essential. No single size is suitable for everyone but most people prefer their large print in the range of 16 to 22 point. If possible, for example with personal communication, always ask your customer which size best suits their needs. You can produce simple large print documents yourself in-house, but more complex jobs may need to be sent to a commercial printer. More information on producing large print is available in our See it Right pack.
Braille is a system of raised dots which people can read with their fingers. Many blind and partially sighted people prefer particular types of information in braille, for example information to be used in meetings or to be read silently.
Braille may be produced in-house if you have the right software, training and an embosser (braille printer). It is more common for it to be produced by a transcription agency.
For more information on producing braille see our See it Right pack.
Moon is a system of reading and writing in which tactile symbols based on lines and curves are used to represent letters, numbers and punctuation marks. Moon is used by a very small number of people, most of whom are elderly. The advantages of Moon over braille are that the system is easier to learn, the letters are easier to distinguish by touch, and it is easier for sighted people to understand. The main drawbacks of Moon are that it can't be written by hand, it is even bulkier than braille and there is very little literature available.
Magnifiers and access technology
There is a wide range of equipment which can be used by blind and partially sighted people to help them access information:
simple hand-held magnifiers
Closed Circuit Televisions (CCTVs) which magnify print up to 48 times the original size
speech software which can read the computer screen to the user
braille translation software which can translate information on a computer screen into braille that the user reads on a specially adapted keyboard
screen enlargement software that enables the user to magnify the text on their screen to a suitable size.
The advantages and disadvantages of each type of equipment depend on the type of equipment, as well as the manufacturer and model. Generally speaking the more hi-tech a device the fewer people who are likely to use it. Most blind people prefer low-tech devices. There are a number of reasons for this including fear of new technology, lack of training, lack of money (most hi-tech devices are very expensive) and the fact that hi-tech devices are not always appropriate. Many blind people, for example, prefer to listen to a human being rather than a mechanical voice. This said, hi-tech devices offer exciting new opportunities for some people with impaired vision to communicate on a level with sighted people.
The internet is one of the most significant communication developments since the invention of braille. For the first time ever, many blind and partially sighted people have access to the same wealth of information as sighted people and on the same terms.
For example, a blind internet user anywhere in the world can now read today's issue of The Times, locates the best restaurants in Paris or search records in the Library of Congress, in exactly the same way as a sighted person might.
However, to enable people using this technology to access information on a website, the website must be correctly designed. Information on designing accessible websites is available from the Web Access Centre.
There are various kinds of cassette recorder/players available to blind and partially sighted people. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Age is the key factor in determining use with few people over 65 possessing a tape machine of any kind.
Commercial cassette recorder/player
There are several advantages to this type of tape recorder/player. They are widely available, they can be used to record information as well as to listen to it, and there is an increasing range of materials available on tape. The main disadvantages are that commercially available tapes are often abridged, the tapes are not marked for ease of use by people who can't see clearly, it can be difficult to locate specific passages on the tape and many elderly people find the controls on the recorder/players too difficult to use.
Easiplay cassette player
There are a number of machines which have been designed to be as easy as possible to use. The Easiplay machine has a limited number of functions and all the keys are clearly marked with tactile symbols in contrasting colours. It is also sturdy and well-marked. The disadvantages are that it is relatively expensive, the sound quality is poor and it cannot be used to record information by the user.
There a number of tape machines which have been designed for the more sophisticated user. The Handi-Cassette machine has a four-track function, a tone indexing facility, variable pitch and speed controls, and is lightweight and portable. Four track machines allow twice as much information to be recorded onto the same tape as an ordinary, two track machine. Tone indexing allows the user to mark specific points on the tape with an audible bleep or message, making it easy to locate when winding the tape at speed. Variable pitch and speed controls allow the reader to listen to the tape at a speed and pitch that suits him or her. The disadvantages of these machines are that they are relatively expensive and many elderly blind people find them too difficult to operate.
RNIB Talking Book Player
RNIB's Talking Book Service is available to anyone who is blind or partially sighted. Members pay an annual subscription, for which they receive a Talking Book Player and as many books as they can read whenever they want them. There are several advantages to RNIB Talking Books. The Player is sturdy and easy to use, with free servicing by a local Talking Book volunteer. The books are recorded onto six track tapes, with a playing time of up to twelve hours, which means that an entire novel can be recorded onto a single cassette. There is a wide choice of books, with over 10,000 titles currently available. Books are delivered and returned, free of charge, by post. There are a few disadvantages. Members have to pay an annual subscription fee (although this is often paid by the local authority), the Player is not as portable as some of the more lightweight machines, ordinary commercial cassettes cannot be played on the Player and the Player cannot be used to record information by the user.
Many people with sight problems use other people to read to them on a regular basis. The advantage of using another person to read to you is that it is simple and effective. A drawback is that you have to rely on the other person and you may not wish someone else to read materials which are private or confidential.
The telephone is a lifeline for many people with sight problems, especially those who can't get out by themselves. The major plus point of the telephone is that people can ring other people, instead of relying on other people to come to them. The main disadvantage is that not all blind people can afford a phone and some blind people are also deaf or hard of hearing.
Word of mouth
Word of mouth is probably the most important method of communication used by people with sight loss. Its main advantage is that it is simple and effective. Its main disadvantage is that some blind people find conversation difficult because they can't make eye contact with the other person or read their body language. They may not even realise the other person is there.
If approach a blind person, say hello, who you are in case he or she doesn't recognise you or your voice. Address him or her by name, if you know it. If not, a light touch on the arm will indicate who you are speaking to. Before you move away, say that you are about to leave. Everyone feels foolish talking to an empty space.
Deaf blind people
There are around 23,000 people in the UK who have a severe loss of both sight and hearing. About 200,000 have less serious dual sensory loss. Some deafblind people have enough hearing to use the telephone if background noise is kept to a minimum, and the caller speaks clearly and at a pace which suits the individual. Other deaf blind people use text phones (or minicoms) or Typetalk, which is a free national relay service using operators. The deaf blind person uses a textphone to contact the operator and then the operator rings you and relays the message.
Systems for deaf people
Some deaf blind people retain enough sight to be able to use systems used by deaf people such as lip reading or British Sign Language or the Deaf Alphabet. It usually helps if the deaf blind person has the light to the rear so that he or she can see the other person's face and hands more clearly. The benefit of lip reading is that sighted people don't have to learn a new system although a drawback is that it requires a great deal of effort and concentration on the part of the deaf blind person. The disadvantage of British Sign Language and the Deaf Alphabet is that both parties have to learn the system. The Deaf Alphabet is quicker to learn than British Sign Language but the latter is much more flexible and faster to use.
People with additional disabilities
Many blind and partially sighted people have additional disabilities which may affect the manner in which they communicate. People with diabetes for example are less likely to be braille users if they have lost the tactile sensitivity in their fingertips. People with arthritis may find some cassette recorder/players too difficult to operate.
People with sight problems from ethnic minorities may face additional communication difficulties. There is very little material available in large print or braille or on tape in ethnic languages.