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Typefaces for the Blind

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I saw this traffic signal in Cambridge, Massachusetts last month. What does the red arrow in this traffic signal mean to you?

Photo of traffic signal showing a red arrow pointing left

We spotted some colourblind-killer traffic signals on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, Mass. (photo: Leslie Shelman).

To someone who is colourblind it screams “turn left into oncoming traffic, now!”
Eight percent of Canadian men have some challenge perceiving colours—and this number might be even higher if they weren’t being culled by such poor typography! Of course, even drivers who can see red can be confused by such a typographic miscue.
In 1996, thick smoke poured into Düsseldorf airport in Germany when its ceiling insulation caught fire. Exit signs were poorly designed and poorly positioned. Unable to find their way in the smoke, 17 people with temporary visual impairments died. It was the worst airport disaster in history, causing damage of over $900 million. Poor typography contributed to the tragedy.
On a less dire note, after perhaps 10,000 generations of humanity, we happen to be alive in the first generation where most information is available in electronic form.
This is liberating people with disabilities. A digital document can be manipulated and handled with assistive technologies that are becoming a larger part of all of our lives every day. From the microphone to the telephone to transistors to Siri, most of the communication technologies we use every day were invented to help include people with disabilities in society.
When humans commit language to paper, much meaning can be lost that would be expressed in the voice if that message were spoken. Skillful design and typography seeks to re-inject that tone of voice visually, as well as adding structure and priority to text elements.
Designers express emphasis by making letters thicker or switching to italics. We show the information hierarchy by making headings bigger than body copy.
These conventions are obvious to anyone who learns to read in our culture. But what about those with impaired vision or who can’t see at all?
Visually-challenged people can have a tough time reading text. With print, they may hold a page close to their nose to puzzle out what it’s saying. With an electronic document, they have better options. Text on an electronic document can be enlarged on screen to suit a reader’s need to see an extreme closeup .
Someone who can’t read at all can use a screen reader to have text read out loud. But how else can typography help in these cases?
Typography for All
If designers follow the emerging standards for markup, screen readers can access an overview of a document’s structure and know where the emphasis should be on a word. And there’s a great side benefit: since Google’s search engine is blind, a well-designed document or Web page will be better indexed and more frequently shared, an SEO boost.
Granted, the effort to structure your Web pages or InDesign and PDF files for accessibility takes some time to learn and apply. However, in most cases that discipline pays off with a broader audience, lower costs and simply doing the right thing.
It helps if everyone in the publishing process “gets it” because designing in accessibility every step of the way gives the best results with the least effort. Writers, editors, translators, designers, programmers, everyone has a part to play in creating inclusive, robust communications that even the blind can appreciate.
Of course, the basics of good typographic design (legibility, readability, size, avoiding justification) can help when documents become electronic. However there are new techniques and opportunities to consider when designing accessible PDFs, ebooks or HTML pages. For example:
Designing for the Web
In the early days of the Web, the limited set of fonts we could count on being installed on computers forced designers into lowest-common-denominator typefaces, or to painstakingly convert well-formed typography into text graphics—pictures of text. Pictures of text are not readable by screen readers nor search engines.
But today, we can stream typefaces (with Adobe Typekit, Google Fonts and Font Squirrel) and carefully control kerning and word spacing with HTML5. That gives us a much wider font selection so we can customize each message with less effort.
Designer electronic documents
Perhaps the most important change in our work is to become disciplined in rigorously structuring our InDesign files with styles. When you use disciplined styles, you can output an accessible PDF (or HTML or epub) that makes sense to a screen reader. Styles yield accessibility and productivity without compromising your design in any way.
There’s a side benefit here, too. The same properties that yield an accessible document enable your document to delightfully reformat itself. Whether a reader rotates a tablet, pinch-zooms a smartphone, searches with Bing, or asks Siri to read it out, the document is always ready in the appropriate format.
From spoken word to print … and back again 
Humans have been wired for spoken language for at least 50,000 years. Discovering how to share ideas in written form evolved about 6,000 year ago, and progressed to movable type 500 years ago. We now live in an age where everyone can be a publisher, and today’s screen readers turn back the clock to the spoken voice. But how can we convey all the richness and nuance of typography to a software-driven screen reader?
Anyone can pronounce a person’s name in different ways by changing the volume, cadence or emphasis of our voice… and change the meaning dramatically in doing so. But what does a screen reader do with bold, italics, or headings? Even when we follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and carefully mark up our text with <strong> for bold and <em> for italics, the voices in screen readers don’t necessarily transmit these nuances… yet!
Why not have typefaces find their voice?
Remember when a song was just a song? Then music videos arrived, and ever since every song is released with a companion video. Perhaps it’s time for typefaces to take a quantum leap forward, with each OpenType font designating the general or specific suggested synthetic voice to announce words tagged in that typeface… whether for a screen reader for the blind or for listening to an ebook on your iPhone.
Imagine the Wedding Script typeface speaking with an upper-crust British accent, while DIN could be voiced by Erik Spiekermann. And Comic Sans … okay I’m not going there… well maybe Chris Rock? … who knows? Maybe we’ll end up, for good or bad, with Mike Myers being paid by Adobe to do the voice for a Myers Bold. Disney may even release fonts as part of movie merchandising or their e-book release of a movie… Oy. Just sayin’…
My point is that we live in a time and place where there is a huge opportunity in inclusive design to rethink how everything in the alphabet works for us. We love our ligatures… but remember that ligatures were once a technological breakthrough rather than a charming anachronism.
The future of design is inclusive
Ten years ago, sustainable (green) design was considered radical; today it’s mainstream. By the time this decade is done, the majority of humanity will finally be online, and inclusive (accessible) design will be the norm.
As Canadians, we’re proud of how our society strives to leave no one behind. Canada is a world leader in universal design, and we’ll continue in that role with innovative design thinking and courageous legislation.
The future of human civilization is our common design project. As the one species that figured out how to record knowledge, typography has a huge role to play as our technology continues to evolve.
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If you’d like to learn all about how to create accessible, compliant Web sites and documents that can broaden audiences while complying with the new accessibility regulations, join David for hisfull-day workshop in Toronto (November 8). For more details:  www.wcag2.com

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Reviewed November 4, 2013


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