Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Last night I dreamt that I was tagging the stars, the way one tags a PDF document for accessibility.  I would highlight a constellation with a special laser pen, and then I would give it a tag.  My partner Geoff, who is an armature astronomer, was there to give me the proper names of the heavenly bodies, and I would enter them into the properties of the tags.  Then when I was done, you could "look" at the stars using a Geordi La Forge type visor, and it would describe what you were seeing and project an image into your brain.

True, I've been doing a lot of document conversion and have developed a curious addiction to tagging PDF documents. True, I've been watching a lot of Star Trek TNG lately.  But it was a very cool dream, and it's stayed with me throughout the day.  When I woke up, I had a new idea.

Now, for those of you who don't know what I'm talking about when I refer to "tagging a PDF document"  here is some background.  I'll try to be brief so your brains don't glaze over.

PDF files can contain many things. At a minimum, a PDF contains the text, graphics, bookmarks, links and other elements of content that go to make up an electronic document. In addition to content, PDF files may also include "structure". Structure is the term for a set of instructions that define the logic that binds the content together - the correct reading order, for example, and the presence and meaning of significant elements such as figures, lists, tables, and so on. In PDF files, structure is expressed via "tags"

A PDF file equipped with well-formed tags may be "reflowed" to fit different page or screen widths, and will display well on handheld devices. Tagged PDF files also work better with the screen-reader devices used by many blind and other disabled users.

Imagine using your computer with the screen turned off, and you'll get some idea of how important logical text-flow is to anyone who needs a screen-reader to read your PDF!

Characteristics of a properly tagged PDF:
  • The PDF file includes a logical reading order for its content
  • Images are given correct alternate descriptions
  • Tables are correctly tagged to represent the table structure
  • Form-fields are authored to promote their utility to screen-readers
An untagged PDF is pretty much unreadable by a screen reader. And the automatic accessibility features in Adobe Reader. . .well, the less said the better.

Hello??? Anybody?
Are you still here?  Ah good.  You can check your tweets and FB status later.  This is the COOL stuff now!

Enough nerd talk.  I have a plan.

It's a pretty simple plan really.  I want to make an accessible graphic novel.  Not some token transcribed, boring old electronic voice read document.  But an awesome, exciting accessible piece of art!

I love the concept of the graphic novel, but alas, I can't read them.  At least not for very long.  The use of weird fonts and all-over-the-place thought bubbles and picture cells makes my head spin after a few pages.

I just can't look at them for very long.  Being a big ole geek, this drives me nuts.

It should be noted that these books aren't just inaccessible to people with vision issues.  Those with cognitive and perceptual disabilities as well must be exempt from the genre.

This idea has been discussed.  Mainly, how to make a braille graphic novel.  Really not practical.  It would be huge and cost a fortune to produce.  Transcripts are also usable, but boring.  As far as I know, no one has come out with a truly accessible graphic novel. I've been trawling the web, and looking at online examples of GN's in PDF format.  There is nothing that is accessible.  Can it be done?   Impossible?  Nah, no such word.

I have a plan.

Of course, the document would have to be designed properly.  I want to find some short "bad PDF's" to practice on too.  Most of the online stuff is set up so you can't actually access the document.  Even the free ones.  So, I'll have to keep looking for these.  I don't know too much yet about how they are done.  I have a program to create comics on my MacBook, but haven't played around with it in a long time.  I'm pretty positive that the authors of these books have never given accessibility a second thought, and that it will be a challenge to find something decent to work with.

As always, it's usually a good idea to create your own opportunities.  So, I'm a writer.  I'm an artist. I am an accessibility consultant.  I can do this.  And, mine won't be any old ordinary Perfect Paul reading of thought bubbles and describing indefinable gesture drawings.  I think I can incorporate a few creative surprises into what I create, to give a more inclusive experience and make it more entertaining. It should be artistic as well as accessible.

I once created an interactive HTML kids book called A Dragon's Tale.  This could be similar.

A couple of years ago, I started working on a graphic novel project for my play Common Criminal; an awesomely creepy tale, based on the true story of a blind woman who was stalked by a serial killer.  Perhaps I will see what I can do with that.  The imagery is already created, and so is the story. And it's AWESOMELY CREEPY!

I might also go through some short stories I've had sitting in the hard drive doing nothing for a long time.  Rest assured I will come up with something fantabulou!

Once I get the bugs worked out, perhaps a collaborative effort.  I'm sure there is grant money out there for this kind of project.   

Now, to get back to work.  A-tagging I will go.  Gotta feed the monkey. 

BTW: last week Dax, my awesome black cat was pestering me at 4:00 a.m. Seems he'd gotten his breakfast and "Daxi" times mixed up.  I put a tag on him in my sleepiness.  I made him an artifact.