Access to Visual Flexibility Including Word Wrapping


Regarding word wrapping, the web community has a double standard. Requiring horizontal scrolling is considered a worst practice in web authoring, but when it comes to the people who need enlargement to read, freedom from horizontal scrolling is viewed as a luxury. This prejudice combined with the sighted communities strong desire to conflate the needs of blindness and low vision to save resources, creates a situation in which low vision never has access to appropriate technology. This article discusses the history and technical issues faced by this profoundly neglected disability group.


When a crisis occurs for people who are blind or partially sighted, well meaning people along with some who are compelled to do so band together to solve the critical problems for people who are blind. This usually takes about all of the time and resources anyone is willing to give. People with low vision are left to apply whatever was prepared for the blind and it may or may not work. That is if nobody objects to giving the new access to people who are not legally blind. Usually the problem is declared solved for the Blind and Visually Impaired with great finality. The Blind have a solution that only the most functional 10% can use. Partially sighted have less than that. Talented people with partial sight generally cobble together solutions that are meant for other purposes. This is never a good fit, but as people with partial sight are frequently reminded, "It's better than nothing." If a person with partial sight complains that there is no adequate solution they are told that they are mistaken, the problem is solved. Generally a fully sighted person who never uses assistive technology for daily work tells the problem person with low vision that they are just using their assistive technology incorrectly.

Today we are at one of those turning points in history when blind users will get part of what they need and people with low vision will be left out. The US Acces.s Board is about to release its draft rules, March 18 2015. There will be 90 days to respond. The question is will accessible support for enlargement with word wrapping be required of content developers or will it just be an advisory best practice that gives people with low vision no legal protection. The advisory approach was the course chosen by the World Wide Web consortium in 2008. So far the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines of 2008 (WCAG 2.0) have been the biggest setback for people with low vision in this new century. If replicated by the US Access Board this mistake will leave people with low vision in the United States worse off then they were with the current 508. Today, 508 (1194.22(d)) protects the right to restyle content visually. This capability is explicitly missing from WCAG 2.0. The WCAG Working Group asserts clearly that they never intended to include visual flexibility in WCAG 2.0, at the level it is currently supported in Section 508.

It is this author's belief that the W3C spent enormous time and political capital ensuring rights for people who are blind. By the time they were done they simply did not put in close to the same effort for the other two thirds of the people with visual impairments.

The example of Talking Books will illustrate how this problem fits into an historic pattern. This example does differ in one way. Talking Book technology provided broad access to people with print disabilities even though this access was not realized for several decades.

40 Years Behind

The National Library Service for the Blind was expanded to include talking books in 1934. The talking book was the first format that enabled access to reading for all people with print disabilities who did not have hearing impairments as well. It was not until 1966 that Public Law 89-522 extended talking book access to all physical disabilities including those people with low vision who were not blind and could not read standard print. It took eight years for federal regulations to catch up. In 1974 Title 76 Section 701.10 delineated the extended policy on loans of library materials for blind and other physical disabilities. Thus, as a practical matter, access to talking book technology for people with low vision who were not legally blind lagged 40 years behind creation of this technology.

This lack of access to recorded material spanned my entire primary, secondary and post-secondary education. When I returned to complete my PhD. in Mathematics in 1978, there were some useful titles available from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. That was the first time in my life I could use free recorded material to assist my studies. Even that small amount of recorded material I received at the end helped me significantly.

The Next 40 Years: Lack of access to Flexible Visual Formats

Screen Magnification

In 1968 Sam Genensky's team completed the closed circuit television system to magnify printed materials for people with partial sight. This opened reading for many people because the largest practical magnification from a magnifying glass is 2.5x to 3.0x. The CCTV approach is the only tool available to achieve very large print from printed books, newspapers and magazines. CCTV systems became widely available in the early 1970s. This was the same time people with partial sight were given access to Talking Books. For a brief period, the decade 1974-1984, low vision was abreast of technology.

As the graphical user interface emerged use of CCTV for screen display gave way to screen magnification software, a soft extension of the zoom technique used in CCTV. The screen magnifier treats the screen as if it is a piece of paper that must be blown up. The screen magnifier is better than a CCTV because it can read a well structured document, and help users navigate using the document structures like headings and lists. A screen magnifier can mark off and save regions of the screen for cross-referencing. Good screen magnifiers perform smoothing so enlarged letters don't look jagged. However, two critical features are missing from screen magnification: (1) the text image does not word wrap which forces horizontal scrolling. (2) The page cannot be reformatted: font, spacing, margins and other presentation attributes cannot be changed. Users can change color, but this is generally confined to a handful of color combinations.

It is important to note that the only structures recognized by the W3C are ones that assist vertical scrolling. The WCAG 2.0 document suggest no structural solution to horizontal navigation.

Markup Language

1968, the same year the CCTV assistive technology appeared, William Tunnicliff introduced the concept of separating content from presentation. This enabled multiple data presentations of a single body of content. This was especially useful to publishers because it enabled changing the look of a publication in later printings. It also enabled purchase of full lines of publication content with the ability to bring them into conformance with a new publication format.

The idea was to place the actual text and images of publications, the content, in one location, and the information controlling style (presentation) in another location. Style includes information like font size, color, spacing, columns, margins and borders to name a few. If anyone ever wanted to change how content looked all one had to do was to change the information in the style container. The actual content could remain unchanged within its container.

This opened the era of markup language and flexible presentation. It took more than a decade to realize this vision, but in the 1980's SGML the first standard markup language became a standard.

This technology enabled the visual appearance of documents to be customized to meet the needs of each individual with low vision. To date, 35 years later, this capability has not been realized. Screen magnification, zooming the screen image of flexible data, remains the primary intervention available to low vision.

Although all text in literature today is created using some file format that enables flexible presentation, the formats provided to people for reading inhibit rather than permit visual flexibility. This is especially true for what should be the most flexible platform of all, the World Wide Web.

Visually flexible information is not covered by international standards or national law that harmonizes with the WCAG 2.0 guidelines. The World Wide Web Consortium asserts that the flexible data guidelines in their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines may look like they provide access to visually flexible data, but do not. They are very clear in their communications that visual flexibility was never intended when they refer to flexibility of data.

A great deal of attention today is paid to a web that supports active content, video and other non-text formats, but little attention is paid to access to written words. There is no need to do so for vendors, because at present denial of access of people with low vision to flexible visual presentation is declared accessible by the WCAG 2.0 and many national laws.

If the Access Board follows this pattern the denial of access to necessary technology will last longer than the denial of access to Talking Books. This author hopes that the US Access Board will allow people with low vision to catch up with technology as they did for one decade in the last century.