Who can benefit from alternative formats?

The short answer: Everyone! Alternative formats can have unexpected benefits and by making multiple formats available for everyone, individuals can choose how and when they might best access and express learning.

  • Audio can support those who experience visual strain from extensive print reading can benefit from audio books, podcasts or a recorded lecture.
  • Audio can benefit commuters who listen to books or class notes while in transit.
  • Audio can support those who are learning English as a second language who may find the auditory feedback helpful while following along with print material.
  • Barriers to reading can include cognitive differences, learning differences, or physical differences—using multiple formats aims to support inclusion of all by offerening multi-modal access to the same information as peers or colleagues.
  • Alternative formats are also a solution to help struggling readers access and understand text content. Struggling readers are “students who read below the grade level and struggles with comprehension, phonics and vocabulary.” (Martin & Pappas, 2006, p. 4)

Potential Benefits Based on Exceptionality

Below are examples of various exceptionalities that could affect an individual’s access to learn, teach, and work with conventional technologies in an educational setting. Although the types of exceptionalities are organized under the five categories in the Education Act definition of “exceptional pupil”, alternative formats can benefit everyone in obtaining equal access to information. 

It is important to learn how an individual best accesses and outputs content (learning demonstration), remembering that each student is unique and may require different formats from one day to the next. Having multiple formats available for all students has broader beneficial impact, creates an environment of inclusion, and supports a diversity of abilities. 

Communication differences

Autism spectrum

Students on the autism spectrum may have difficulty relaying information to others or comprehending class content provided by instructors in a classroom setting. They may also have difficulty interpreting symbols and understanding what images represent. Possible alternative formats include providing text description describing images in e-text or print.

Broader beneficial impact: ESL students and culturally diverse backgrounds could benefit from clear descriptions of the meaning of symbols and images used in curriculum delivery.

Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing

Students may have differences in language and speech development due to diminished or non-existent auditory response to sound. Students may benefit from alternative formats that draw on their tactile and visual senses, such as Braille and easy-to-browse electronic documents to follow along during lectures (inclusive by design: see Accessible education material and media: Three strategies for simplifying educational digital content, Text simplification guidelines, Resources on simplifying educational digital content).

Broader beneficial impact: easy-to-browse electronic documents can support learners with cognitive differences.

Language and Speech

For those who have some language differences that involve language delay, dysfluency, or voice and articulation development, they may benefit from combined audio, e-text, or large print to receive both auditory and visual input. Students who face challenges with articulation, rhythm and stress in language can benefit from audio recordings or e-text with text-to-speech software (Link to appropriate section on SNOW). This enables students to review educational material outside of the classroom and practice their speech with auditory feedback.  

Broader beneficial impact: Having access to educational material before and after classroom time can benefit a learner who is managing anxiety or stress by giving them the opportunity to asynchronously review concepts or listen to an assigned text for later discussion in class.

Learning Difficulties, Mild Intellectual Disability, and Developmental Disability

These conditions may impact reading, writing and spelling and can be experienced by a wide range of people, including those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities or developmental disabilities. Factors such as low literacy or difficulties understanding information may affect a student’s educational growth in the school environment.

With various technologies and alternative formats to choose from, it is critical for educators to recognize the diverse needs of all learners and to provide learning in various formats to meet students’ educational needs. Working together with students is critical in finding their optimal learning format.

Broader beneficial impact: Alternative formats benefit all students. For example, research has shown that audio books increases content acquisition and improves performance in students’ reading skills, regardless if they have been diagnosed with or without learning disabilities (Boyle et al., 2003).    

Vision spectrum

When someone cannot access the same information as their peers, because the format is only on printed paper handouts, they will not be able to participate independently and fully in everyday educational activities. Various technologies to create alternative formats such as Braille, large print, audio players, and electronic text may assist students to independently access the academic material they need. When text is converted into an audio format, people who are blind are able to listen to the content, while someone with low vision could benefit from large print to read more comfortably and with less eye strain.

Broader beneficial impact: Students with short focus and attention spans could also benefit from audio format.

Physical differences

Students with varying types of physical disabilities often experience barriers to accessing information. Limited arm or hand movements, co-ordination or sensory deficits may affect a person’s ability to hold and manipulate conventional printed materials or impact the way they interact with a conventional keyboard. Audio formats or digital formats that are screen reader accessible would be an alternative choice to access information.

Broader beneficial impact: It is important to also consider temporary physical disability. An arm fracture or mild concussion can change how a person usually accesses information for a period of time. Alternative formats may be required to meet their reading, writing and educational needs.

Behaviour differences

Students with learning disorders characterized by specific behavioural differences can affect educational participation. This can be characterized by excessive fears, anxieties, or compulsive reaction to events. Some people are challenged with focus and processing information. Students diagnosed with ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) will often present with these behavioural differences but it is important to remember that students without diagnoses may also require alternative ways of accessing and expressing content.

Broader beneficial impact: Introducing alternative formats that match needs or help to calm anxieties may assist in everyones academic growth.

Multiple exceptionalities

Combination of two or more exceptionalities can include intellectual, physical mobility, communication, and behaviour. Examples of multiple exceptionalities can be conditions that affect both physical and intellectual or communication functions, such as Cerebral Palsy and Multiple Sclerosis, where students may benefit from additional auditory inputs when they are reading text.


Boyle, E.A., Rosenberg, M.S., Connelly, V.J., Washburn, S.G., Brinckerhoff, L.C., &  Banerjee, M. (2003). Effects of audio texts on the acquisition of secondary-level content by students with mild disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 26, 203-214.

Martin, P. & Pappas, P. (2006). Strategies for struggling readers.

How Alternative Formats Relate to the AODA legislation

Who uses Alternative Formats relates to the following sections of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Integrated Accessibility Regulation

Accessible Formats and Communication Supports

Producers of Educational Training Material

Training on Accessible Course delivery and instruction

AODA Significance:

  1. Learning about who uses alternative formats and how these are used, assists educators with integrating inclusive approaches to teach, communicate and share information.
  2.  People interact, learn and communicate in diverse ways. Learning opportunities are increased when flexible ways of engaging with learning materials are provided. Considering how people communicate is important for knowledge to be exchanged. Alternative formats take into account diverse ways of exchanging information.
  3. The AODA legislates that educational institutions and its employees know how to produce accessible or conversion ready versions of textbooks and printed material. Educators, teachers and staff are to learn about accessible course delivery and instruction and be knowledgeable at interacting and communicating with people with disabilities who may use alternate formats.

Additional Resources:

To learn of ways to innovate, develop & design for accessibility, visit OCAD University’s Inclusive Design Research Centre website.     

To learn how this section relates to the core principles of the AODA Customer Service regulation, visit the AODA page on SNOW.