BRAILLENET : Digital Document Delivery for the Blind in France

Dominique Burger, INSERM
INSERM U483 - Inova
9, quai Saint-Bernard, 75252 - Paris cedex 05
dburger@snv.jussieu.fr

Introduction

Digital techniques have created new and stimulating conditions to provide visually impaired people (VIP) with alternative solutions for accessing written, printed, computerised information. The development of a world-wide communication network (Internet), as well as the standardisation of formats (PDF, SGML, HTML, XML, …), and the invention of alternative access technologies (refreshable Braille displays, text-to-speech synthesisers, screen reading software programmes, non visual browsers,…) are an important progress for giving them access to information.
This paper illustrates how these techniques lead to new approaches for delivering adapted books to VIPs. It proposes a general scheme capable of adapting easily to a great diversity of needs. This scheme is currently implemented in France in co-operation with special schools, associations for/of VIP and publishing companies. Extensions of this services with foreign partners are expected.

The Origin of the Project

The BrailleNet project
The BrailleNet project aims at developing the potential of the Internet for the social and cultural integration of visually impaired persons. The project was set up in 1997 and links around 50 members all over France and a few members abroad : specialised schools, associations of/for VIPs, manufacturers, research organisations [1].

The Sedodel project
The SEDODEL project (Secure Document Delivery for Blind and Partially Sighted People) has been part funded by DGXIII of the European Commission under the Disabled and Elderly Sector of the Telematics Applications Programme (Project DE4001). It created, verified, and demonstrated a pilot secure document delivery service for visually impaired readers and proved it could efficiently guarantee rights and obligations of actors in the publishing chain. The members of the SEDODEL Consortium were: University of Bradford, British Library, Open University, Royal National Institute for the Blind (United Kingdom), EURITIS SA, INSERM (France), Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium) [2].

The Needs of the Visually Impaired Users

A study conducted by the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) and the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) in France and United Kingdom identified the needs expressed by blind and partially sighted people concerning the access to electronic information services. It evidenced a great diversity of needs in terms of presentations, technical platforms and services. This was observed at school and university levels as well. This constitutes a serious barrier to social integration of VIP in the society [3]. This section summarises the various needs that VIP may have concerning information:
Adapted visual presentations
Visual handicap may have different origins linked to a great variety of visual deficiencies, among them loss of acuity, difficulty to distinguish colours, loss of central or peripheral vision, photophobia,… Thus the magnification of the documents is not always the most suited answer to the difficulties encountered by VIP. Most of the time, a better reading comfort is obtained in tuning finely size, colours, contrasts. Each individual will need a combination that may vary in time, with personal or external conditions.
Adapted visual documents may be printed on paper or displayed on a screen.
Braille presentations
Braille documents can be either embossed or displayed on a refreshable Braille display.
Braille grade II abbreviating system can be used.
Audio presentations
Using the auditory channel presents some advantages when compared to the tactile modality. Spoken information can be received in parallel with other sources of information. Information can be conveyed rapidly. Messages can be received on the fly, without preliminary training. Spoken information can be pre-recorded or produced by a speech synthesiser.
A variety of access technologies
In order to be able to use a computer workstation a visually impaired user has to augment it with an appropriate access technology consisting of software and/or hardware. Examples of assistive technologies are magnification software, screen reader software, Braille display , speech synthesiser. Several manufactures over the world produce such technologies, but no standard has been established yet. For instance, Braille devices from different Braille manufacturers may have quite different numbers of cells and function keys. Also the rules for producing Braille from text vary from one language to the other. Even worse, concurrent rules can be used by different groups for the same language. Text-to-speech transformation obeys to language related rules.

A General Scheme for Producing Adapted Documents

The publishing world has defined new models based on digital technologies for the production of a wide range of document formats, from traditional print copies to files displayed on electronic platforms, called e-books. During the past years, a big issue for publishers has been to define digital coding methods making possible to produce several book formats from the same original data. This was the main reason for creating the Standard Generalized Marking Language (SGML), the extended Marking Language (XML), or setting up the Open Electronic Book Forum (OEBF) [4][5].
In this context the production of Braille and Large Print materials may be envisaged as nothing more than an extension of the potential of these coding languages, as illustrated on Figure 1.

Scheme of XML format transformations

Figure 1: illustrates how special book formats can be generated from the same initial data

Nevertheless, it shall be emphasised that the original data have to respect certain conditions to allow this scheme. These conditions are expressed in international accessibility recommendation such as those produced by the WAI Initiative [3] .

Implementing an adapted book service in France

The BrailleNet project links several organisation who have established a cooperation aiming at implementing such a scheme. These organisations are :
· Institut National de la Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique (INRIA)
· Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM)
· Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA)
· Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris 6 (UPMC)

Access to books currently in the Public Domain
A search engine was developed by INRIA whose main purpose is to collect accessible digital books on the Web looking at a series of predefined virtual libraries on the Web. The detected files are mirrored on a BrailleNet server with authorisation of the webmasters as to guarantee the permanence of resources. Currently more than 1200 books have been collected which are available at : http://www.braillenet.jussieu.fr/bv

Access to adapted sources of books
Also INRIA has opened a Webserver, called Hélène, for gathering files prepared by schools for Braille printing. Certificated users (schools, associations, …) are attributed a login and a password for accessing this server. New files can be sent to the server using a form on the Web. The system automatically maintains a list of the available resources.
Available at : http://www.braillenet.jussieu.fr/bv/helene

Access to original files
Currently, INRIA, INSERM and UPMC are implementing an highly secured server for storing original files that publishers provide to BrailleNet for their adaptation by transcription centres.
This server is insulated. It uses encryption services for coding the data it sends and communicates with the outside world by e-mails.
Cooperation between transcription centres
INJA has developed cooperative tools on the Internet. A web site has been opened in December 2000 with several facilities:
· A catalogue of resources in various adapted formats (Braille, audio, large print, digital files, e-books). This catalogue counts around 60 000 references. Transcription centres who have signed a charter commit themselves to declare their production on the Web site.
· A service allowing to follow the adaptation work made by the different centres. This service is currently tested. It should open in September 2001. It is expected to increase cooperative work between centres, which has always been a difficulty, because of their number and their diversity.
Available at : http://www.inja.fr

Cooperation with publishers
Discussions with publishers and specialists of the Ministry of Culture (Direction du Livre et de la Lecture) have conducted to write a model contract. This contract is the basis for negotiations with publishers who agree to provide original sources.

Conclusion

Various actors have to co-operate to address the needs of the visually handicapped, namely publishers, adaptation centres, printing centres. We have described a scheme that should satisfy all of them, and we are currently evaluating it.
· Publishers receive guarantees that their original files are unaltered and secured. They may have a unique organisation to discuss with. The use of their files can be monitored and an accounting system can be set up;
· Adaptation centres save a considerable amount of time in accessing digital data that are coded in structured and standard formats. Nevertheless accessibility recommendations should be respected by publishers [6];
· Printing centres can purchase directly pre-processed files ready large print or Braille printing.

Such services are not limited by geographic considerations so that they can easily be internationalised. An extension of the project is currently proposed to organisations in Canada, France, Switzerland, and Africa. Northern countries would harmonise their techniques (formats, protocols, adaptation tools, …). Southern countries would create printing centres and benefit from the services developed in northern industrialised ones.

References

[1] BRAILLENET: http://www.braillenet.jussieu.fr
[2] SEDODEL : http://www.snv.jussieu.fr/inova/sedodel.htm
[3] SEDODEL : "Report on requirements for technology integration and business model" & "Functional specifications for technology integration and pilot environment" (dissemination restricted to participants)
[4] W3C : http://www.w3.org/
[5] OEBF: http://www.openebook.org/
[6] WAI : http://www.w3.org/WAI