2010 Conference: Alternative Format Production at a New Zealand University by John Lambert

This paper was presented at the 2010 conference of the Round Table on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities. You can read the full paper below, download the Word version, flip through the slides or listen to an audio recording of the presentation.

Download this presentation

Word version of full paper

Audio recording of John Lambert’s presentation (MP3, 40.4 MB)

Presenter’s bio

John Lambert giving his presentation.
John Lambert has been a disabled student support worker at Auckland universities since 1987. This conference is a milestone for him, he says, as it is the first international conference that he has attended where the focus has been on alternative formats, and alternative formats are now central to his working life.

John Lambert is the Alternative Format Co-ordinator of the Disability Resource Service at the Auckland University of Technology. It is a half-time position he insisted be created as a separate job description from his other and prior role, as Adaptive Technology Co-ordinator. John believes these are complementary positions, but they are evolving roles and that the skill sets required in future appointees will increase and be more specialised.

Mindful of our conference theme, ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ John observes that he was born, lives and works within a 20 km radius of here. He credits the miracle of modern communication that enables him to feel connected, relevant, and part of a world community even though he rarely leaves Auckland.

So, as a true local, if not quite tangata whenu, he offers this greeting: Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.


The Disability Resource Service of AUT University creates and/or sources alternative formats. It has incrementally expanded from primarily ‘outsourcing’ alternative formats from the RNZFB to mainly producing ‘in-house’. The drivers for change have been technology and cost. Students who may once have listened to narrated audio or viewed large print, are willing and able to use listen and view digital files. Sourcing and creating digital files is far less time-consuming and achievable in a relatively short time-frame, a critical concern for students. This presentation reflects on the process of setting-up and operating an Alternative Format service in an environment of peaks-and-troughs of work; and restricted funding. Current and future issues are highlighted. The presenter has drawn upon global practice and trends, knowledge of assistive technology, and 20 years experience supporting disabled students in New Zealand universities.


Slide 1

Alternative Format Production at a New Zealand University
Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Slide 2

John Lambert, Disability Resource Service, AUT University

  • Currently part-time Alternative Format Production Coordinator
  • Also part-time Adaptive Technology Coordinator
  • Formerly Disabled Student Resource Officer, Auckland University Students’ Association 1987-1997

Slide 3


  • From card indexes to VDU search
  • From braille to text-to-speech
  • From volunteer readers to OCR assistance

Slide 4

Early 1990s

  • Laptop computer
  • Text-to-speech
  • OCR with Kurzweill
  • Internet


  • RNZFB provided alternative format
  • Volunteers on campus

Slide 5

Late 1990s

  • CCTV
  • Laptop computers
  • BrailleNote
  • OCR
  • Flatbed scanner
  • Magnification software
  • Ring-fenced funding for (generalised) disabled student support (SSG)
  • Funding for individuals in work or education (Workbridge)
  • Rising demand on (underfunded) services by adults of RNZFB

Slide 6

Late 1990s

  • CCTV
  • Laptop computers
  • BrailleNote
  • OCR
  • Flatbed scanner
  • Magnification software

Support (and issues)

  • Ring-fenced funding for (generalised) disabled student support (SSG)
  • Funding for individuals in work or education (Workbridge)
  • Rising demand on (underfunded) services by adults of RNZFB

Slide 7

AUT University

  • 1998 Adaptive Technology Coordinator
  • Single licence magnification software
  • Single desktop OCR (OpenBook) and flatbed scanner
  • Single user voice-recognition software
  • Desktop computers
  • DRS in scattered locations

Slide 8

Ungrading software and hardware

  • Multiple licence for magnification software
  • Multiple licence for OCR (for blind) software
  • Dedicated Adaptive Technology room(s)
  • Dedicated Adaptive Technology computer(s)

Slide 9

Alternative Format Production

  • Started as individual student support (SSG)
  • Simple OCR and flatbed
  • Then upgraded OpenBook OCR and flatbed
  • Model on RNZFB producing plain text
  • Photocopy enlargements (A4 to A3)

Slide 10


  • Look at disability support overseas
  • Familiarise with RNZFB functions
  • Model on RNZFB producing plain text
  • Upgrade photocopier to multifunction scanner

Slide 11

Funding changes

  • RNZFB provides AltFormat, no cost to TEI
  • 2002 Storm or Sea-change (Australia)
  • 2003 T.E.C funds TEI for AltFormat

Slide 12

Figure 1: AltFormat @AUT

Year Students DRS Hours Outsourced
2004 12 404 $10,777
2005 14 705 $7,693
2007 14 730 $150
2008 15 780  
2009 10 908  
2010 13  

Slide 13

Workloads and Workflows

  • Peaks, troughs and bottle-necks
  • Distributed task model
  • From plain text to structured Word
  • Guide for internal DRS use
  • Guide for wider distribution through ACHIEVE
  • RNZFB guidance and leadership

Slide 14

Publisher co-operation

  • At first just permission, scan from print, and OCR
  • Then some plain text and Word files, odd formatting
  • Now established procedures and commonly PDF files usable ‘as is’ by some
  • Future is accessible e-text

Slide 15

Future of AltFormat units

  • Niche transcription (maths, music, visual description)
  • Niche materials (braille, tactuals, audio, captions)
  • Facilitating access to accessible publisher material (DRM issues?)

[end of slides]

Full Paper: Alternative Format Production at a New Zealand University


In 1987 I was a rare employee, a paid support worker for disabled students at a New Zealand university. Assisting students with visual-impairment to assess information involved reading card indexes and content pages, and organising volunteer readers; and tape-recording lectures and readings of printed material. Braille and four-track cassettes were provided by the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind (RNZFB).

It was blind students who introduced me to electronic wordprocessors and text-to-speech. I was a ready convert and when the revolutionary Kurzweill OCR scanner arrived ion New Zealand the university brought one – for around $10,000!


The Internet, html and text-to-speech and dropping prices of computing hardware and software radically expanded possibilities of access to alternatives to printed materials. Mostly however this was unrealised potential except for the visually-impaired individuals with equipment, knowledge, and organising skills – and time. Generally university faculty and support staff were supportive but ignorant. Specific (rather than incidentally) alternative formats continued to be the preserve of the RNZFB.

Fortunately, technological change coincided with political victories by the disability social movement. Disabled people used the leverage of the 1990 Human Rights Act amendment to advocate for targeted support. This resulted in a Special Supplementary Grant (SSG) that was conditional on charter commitment and institutional support for disabled students. Soon every university had designated support staff and consequently with continuity of contact the barriers became apparent, and solutions sought.


By 2000 I was working in the Disability Resource Office [1] of the Auckland University of Technology as their half-time Adaptive Technology Co-ordinator. The core of this role is to facilitate the equipping of individual students with the hardware, software, and knowledge of the same, to support their studies. This role kept (and keeps) me abreast of the technology available to visually-impaired and blind students. The other half of my working life I supported individual students, including converting ‘urgent’ handouts from print to text using OCR software and a flatbed scanner.

The majority of alternative format requests, particularly for prescribed textbooks, were directed to the RNZFB. This made sense because it was the ‘status quo’, they had the expertise, and the technology (e.g. multi-function scanner, Braille embossers), however it was also unsatisfactory for a multitude of reasons, principally the turn-around time between a request and delivery. This was understandable as the RNZFB accessible formats unit received a formidable number of requests from tertiary educational institutions all around the same time, in addition to their expected role of supporting schools. Worse, they were not funded for this extra work.

A notable contribution to the discussion was across the Tasman, from the Australian Human Rights Commission. Their 2002 paper “Storm or Sea-change: Meeting the Challenges of Providing Tertiary Materials in Accessible Formats For Students with Print Disabilities” [2] recounted familiar and similar concerns. A commissioner was invited to a meeting of tertiary disability support staff and discussions held with the Tertiary Education Commission. Consequently a new funding model was announced in 2003: tertiary institutions would receive extra funding through the SSG and requests for alternative formats to support tertiary studies would not be by individual students, but be requested and paid for by tertiary institutions.

There was a transition period and within a few years, universities were doing far less ‘out-sourcing’ having concluded that there were cost and timeliness advantages in producing at least some forms of alternative formats ‘in-house’. Most commonly these were print enlargements by photocopying, and providing digital formats.

The Numbers

Below are some numbers I obtained from SSG reports and internal information at AUT. I know the figures of ‘DRS staff time in hours’ is inaccurate [3], but it illustrates the move from ‘out-sourcing’ to ‘in-house’.

Figure 1 Number of visually-impaired students supported at AUT University

Year Number of Vision-impaired DRS staff time in hours ‘Out-source’ payments (in dollars)
2004 12 404 $10,777
2005 14 705 $7,693
2007 14 730 $150
2008 15 780  
2009 10 908  
2010 13  

My Experience at AUT University

One advantage of ‘in-house’ over the ‘out-sourcing’ of alternative formats, is that as the person receiving requests, together with the student I would assess the material submitted, negotiate output (e.g. format, treatment of visual material), establish priorities, and timeframes. For example if the print material is poor, such as multiple pages reduced in size to fit one A4 sheet photocopy, I am well-placed to source the originals from the library, or lecturer. If the print material was created by an AUT staff member, I can usually get a digital copy and be in a position to facilitate delivery of future handouts direct to the student from the faculty.

Upgrading Hardware and Software

Thinking locally, I investigated through visits to the RNZFB, their production methods, and equipment. Thinking globally, I investigated online the ‘alternative format production’ of universities overseas. Fortunately, photocopiers are leased equipment at AUT. I made sure that the replacement photocopier was a multifunctional ADF and scanner too, and it remains the most productivity-enhancing equipment to date. In conjunction, I purchased the latest and professional version of OCR software, and keep it up-to-date.

I successfully lobbied for multiple site licences for magnification and OCR software designed for visually-impaired and blind-users. My primary role as Adaptive Technology Co-ordinator means I am in a position to upgrade the equipment, software, and skills of students too. The on-campus software enables me to train students in the effective use of assistive technology even if they arrive at university without any or much. Then I and the Disability Resource Service facilitate and support students to seek funding for their own. Students with their own equipment and software are more independent – and reduce the tasks they ask of staff.

Workloads and Workflows

At first there was difficulty managing the workload and workflows. There were peaks, troughs, and bottle-necks. Prescribed texts and reading lists are out before the start of semester, but sometimes barely. To manage, I had to have assistance at the peak times. I based my workflow plan on the the distributed task model of the RNZFB. The tasks that required specialised skills, hardware and software (e.g. scanning and OCR) were done by me, and simpler tasks by ‘casual’ staff. For example, a coursebook or collection of handouts, might be divided first into separate readings and separate files for each. Typically they would be converted to word format (doc. Txt, or rtf.), from there typing, proofing and simple mark-up can be done by ‘casual’ staff, on campus or at home. I remained the final editor and collator of the work – which became a ‘bottle-neck’ in itself.


My response was a global search for a ‘standard’ or ‘guide’ that I could leave for other staff to follow when I was not around. I found that there was no consistent standard, and that was consistent with my own experience. Students have a range of hardware and software, skill levels, and visual-impairment so they do have differing requirements. Nevertheless there did seem to be a de-facto standard, structured Word documents; an appreciation of the approach to accessibility and standards of the internet W3C Web Accessibility Initiative [4]; and a proposed standard, DAISY etext [5]. I concluded that structured word documents would be the most useful standard for our current purposes, and produced a guide on e-text production for the Disability Resource Service at AUT. My findings and guide were presented in 2008 nationally to other disability support staff in two workshops hosted together with Moira Clunie of the RNZFB and under the umbrella of ACHIEVE, a lobby group of those interested in disability issues in tertiary education [6]. Two years later structured word documents remain our ‘production base’ but for low-vision students with current magnification and screen-readers, structured PDF format is preferred. Fortunately, structured and accessible PDF files and other etext is supplied by publishers’ too.

Publishers and Etext

Thanks to publishers, there has been a significant change in what alternative format tasks we now do. A majority of our time is now spent on alternative format production of ‘internal’ material: conversion of print handouts, and image pdfs, powerpoints, description of visual material and so on. The majority of the reading material however is now provided by facilitating requests to publishers for a copyright license and digital files. Once communication with publishers was difficult, and while we may have got permission to create an alternative format, we seldom were provided with digital files. If I could not contact a publisher, commonly I worked to the limit of copyright, prioritising essential pages of a textbook and scanning using OCR software then marking-up. If I did get permission, but no files, I still needed to prioritise because conversion from OCR of print always has misrecognition of characters and proofing is time-consuming. Consequently this greatly restricted the available reading for visually-impaired students.

Lately however I have found the communication channels to publishers open, and the requirements of copyright permission for visually-impaired students acknowledged [7]. Not only has copyright permission been facilitated, publishers are providing digital files promptly and more commonly in structured and accessible PDF files. Further, major textbook publishers are now offering online access and/or subscription so potentially visually-impaired students can access a textbook as readily as their sighted peers [8]. This is causing me to re-think the future of alternative format production at AUT.

The Future of Alternative Format Production

As a disabled student support worker I have always been an advocate of an accessible, inclusive environment. When the environment is inclusive, then there is no need for an alternative. When print books are available as digital e-texts, is there then still a place for alternative format production? Of course there is. Digital text (or specifically, the letters on the qwerty board) are the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of alternative format production – relatively simple to produce and read by text-to-speech precisely even if pronounced oddly. Mathematics, and any visual material, require more.

Visual material

One of the first conversations I have with a student requesting an alternative format, is around visual material. The options we offer are:

  1. leave it as an image
  2. remove but retaining ‘markers’ (e.g. Figure number) and useful captions
  3. provide a written description
  4. provide time with a sighted assistant to discuss visual material

Actually option 4 is not counted as alternative format work and is always available to a visually-impaired student, but I remind blind students of this.

Option 5 is time-consuming, skilled work, and still may need to be supplemented with discussion with a sighted person.

An option not currently ‘on the list’ but that I periodically explore, is producing tactile materials.

In my initial years I was concerned at providing as many of the readings as I could in as short a timeframe as I could, for both low vision and blind students. Now more material is available in an accessible format, our time is predominantly on correcting the short-comings of print and online materials by AUT faculty; and attending to the specific needs of the smaller cohort of blind students. I do plan to expand into tactile materials

The Speculative Future

I am concerned at the increase of inter-active software programmes and embedded video and animations, but fortunately these are in limited use and when they have been available, are not core activities.

This month I attended the opening of a Virtual Reality lab here at AUT. Holograms and 3D excited the audience. This is a ‘see but don’t touch’ technology. On the other hand, put on a ‘sensor glove’ and there may be a ‘haptic future’ where one can ‘touch’ virtual objects modelled by this emerging software.

Too speculative? Lets wait and see.


[1] Since named Disability Resource Service
[2] Available Australian Human Rights Commission http://www.hreoc.gov.au
[3] The figures on staff time are under-reported because as well as a pool of regular ‘casual assistants’, I ‘re-deploy’ classroom assistants on to simple proofing tasks if they become available. As they have already been paid, there time was not initially counted and continues to be under-reported.
[4] Web Accessibility Initiative http://www.w3.org/WAI
[5] DAISY Consortium http://www.daisy.org
[6] ACHIEVE is a national network established to ensure equal opportunity and access to post-secondary education and training for people with impairments. http://www.achieve.org.nz
[7] For example the Publisher Look-up Service of the Association of American Publishers http://www.publisherlookup.org
[8] There are accessibility concerns, refer to the UK report ‘Towards Accessible e-Book Platforms’ March 2010 from http://www.techdis.ac.uk


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