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July 21, 2020, 1:36 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The New York Times’ special section on disability is available in Braille and audio and has its own style guide

“We are really trying to make strides as an organization toward accessibility but it was clear that if ever there were a reason to make a concerted effort to push the operation forward, it would be for this package.”

Thirty years ago, the United State passed landmark disability legislation known as the Americans with Disabilities Act or, simply, the ADA. To commemorate the civil rights law, the Special Projects desk at The New York Times has planned an extra-accessible special section filled with essays and first-hand stories about disability.

The special package, featuring illustrations by artist Hayley Wall, was published online Tuesday and will appear in print on Sunday. In its coverage, The Times looked forward (at gene-editing technology that may someday eradicate disabilities) and back (at the life of a Blank Panther member who organized a historic sit-in). At the heart of the project is the story of “the ADA generation,” the millions of young Americans who grew up under the act’s protections and who are quicker than previous generations to claim disability as an important part of their identity.

Amy Padnani — creator of a series that revisits notable lives overlooked by the Times’ obituary desk — said the anniversary project grew from an idea to collaborate with the opinion section’s Disability series. The project quickly grew in scope, especially once editors met with consultants in the disability community to help shape the coverage. Editors working on the project, including Padnani and Lynda Richardson, said they went out of their way to give writers with disabilities their own bylines.

“The more you talk to somebody about an issue, you realize there’s a personal connection there that a reporter cannot quite bring to life the same way,” Padnani said. She pointed to actors and musicians with disabilities sharing their first-hand experiences of navigating Hollywood or the stories of “coming out” as disabled to family, friends, and dating app matches.

Using “a set of language guidelines distinct from the rest of the The Times,” sources and writers were asked whether they preferred “people with disabilities” or “disabled people.” The newspaper also capitalized the D or B in deaf and blind upon request within the special section. (Last month, The Times announced they would capitalize Black when referring to someone’s racial or cultural identity throughout its pages.)

Editors have also seen the anniversary project as an opportunity to experiment with disability-friendly production and design. Dan Sanchez, a Special Projects editor who works with emerging platforms and technologies, said plans for making the package the Times’ most accessible to date began almost immediately. In 2019, a team at the Times made the homepage better navigable by keyboard and provided closed captioning for videos, among other changes, but, Sanchez said, “there was definitely more work that could be done.”

His team began by creating an audio version for every article in the project. Some were recorded by professional voice actors through the recently-acquired Audm, a few authors recorded their own work, and the rest were generated with text-to-speech software from Microsoft and Amazon with editors selecting “some of the newer, more realistic and natural-sounding voices.” (You can judge for yourself here.)

Improving alt-text — alternative text that allows descriptions of images to be read out loud to those using assistive technology like screen readers — was another priority.

“The Times provides alt-text by placing photo captions in the HTML through an automated process,” Sanchez said. For the ADA anniversary package, though, “We wanted to use our editorial muscle and have our story editors craft alt-text for the specific purpose of describing images for people who can’t see them.” The process yielded a style guide for alt-text that’s since been shared with editors around the newsroom.

The special section will be available in Braille, too. Working with Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, each article was converted to digital Braille files that can be downloaded and read with an electronic Braille reader. The Times also commissioned a limited run in hardcopy Braille that will be distributed through the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. (A few hundred copies will be available through The NYT Store, too.)

“We are really trying to make strides as an organization toward accessibility but it was clear that if ever there were a reason to make a concerted effort to push the operation forward, it would be for this package, knowing that there will probably be a large audience that would find value in that,” Sanchez said. “It’s also an opportunity to develop new processes and guidelines around things that we would love to do at a larger scale down the line.”

Sanchez added, “It’s difficult to create a completely new workflow that touches every part of the newsroom, but we’re looking forward to seeing how we can systematize some of what we’ve been doing and to keep the conversation going.”

Some of that conversation will emerge through a relatively new program at the Times called Your Lead, which asks readers about the types of coverage they’d like to see on issues that are important to them. (The National desk has used the program to shape coverage of California.) In addition to the online form, the Times created an email address and voicemail specifically for disability-related feedback. The project’s editors say they’ve already seen a “remarkable” response from readers, including more stories than they could possibly include in one special section.

“When you hear about the ADA, it sounds like some dry law,” Richardson said. “And yet it has had such power and it’s been so transformative in what it’s done to America.”

“We probably had a dozen other story ideas,” Padnani added. “We are hoping that there will be ongoing coverage.”

At Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired in Cincinnati, Brian Anderson collates pressed Braille pages. Photo by Lauren Hall.

POSTED     July 21, 2020, 1:36 p.m.
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