Writing Richly

Whenever you read a text message, forum post, Tweet, or Facebook status, have you ever seen some one surround a word with stars, like *this*? Have you noticed some one surround a phrase with two stars? This is a part of Markdown, a form of formatting text for web usage.

I believe, however, that Markdown deserves more than just web usage. I can write in Markdown in this blog, I can use it on Github, and even in a few social networks. But wouldn’t it be even more useful everywhere? If we could write in Markdown throughout the whole operating system, couldn’t we be more expressive? And for accessibility issues, Markdown is great because a blind person can just write to format, instead of having to deal with clunky, slow graphical interfaces.

So, in this article, I will discuss the importance of rich text, how Markdown could empower people with disabilities, and how it could work system-wide throughout all computers, even the ones in our pockets.

What’s this rich text and who needs all that?

Have you ever written in Notepad? It’s pretty plain, isn’t it? That is plain text. No bold, no italics, no underline, nothing. Just, if you like that, plain, simple text. If you don’t like plain text, you find yourself wanting more power, more ability to link things together, more ways to describe your text and make the medium, in some ways, a way to get the message across.

Because of this need, rich text was created. One can use this in Word Pad, Microsoft Word, Google Docs, LibreOffice, or any other word processor worth something. When I speak of rich text, to make things simple, I mean anything that is not plain text, including HTML, as it describes rich text. Rich text is in a lot of places now, yes, but it is not everywhere, and is not the same in the places that it is in.

So, who needs all that? Why not just stick with plain text? I mean come on man, you’re blind! You can’t see the rich text. In a way, this is true. I cannot see the richness of text, but in a moment, we’ll get to how that can be done. But for sighted people, which text message is better?

Okay, but how’s your day going?

Okay, but how’s your day going?

Okay, but how’s *your* day going?

For blind people, the second message has the word “your” italicized. Sure, we may have gotten used to stars surrounding words meaning something, but that is a workaround, and not nearly the optimal outcome of rich text.

So what can you do with Markdown? You can do plenty of stuff. You could use it for simply using one blank line between blocks of text to show paragraphs in your journal. You could use it to create headings for chapters in your book. You could use it to make links to websites in your email. You could even simply use it to italicize an emphasized word in a text. Markdown can be as little or as much as you need it to be. And if you don’t add any stars, hashes, dashes, brackets, or HTML markup, it’s just as it is, plain text.

Also, it doesn’t have to be hard. Even Emacs, an advanced text editor, gives you questions when you add a link, like “Link text,” “Link address,” and so on. Questions like that can be asked of you, and you simply fill in the information, and the Markdown is created for you.

Okay but what about us blind people?

To put it simply, Markdown shows us rich text. In the next section, I’ll talk about how, but for now, let’s focus on why. With nearly all screen readers, text formatting is not shown to us. Only Narrator on Windows 10 shows formatting with minimal configuration, and JAWS can be used to show formatting using a lot of configuration of speech and sound schemes.

But, do we want that kind of information? I think so. Why wouldn’t we want to know exactly what a sighted person sees, in a way that we can easily, and quickly, understand? Why would we not want to know what an author intended us to know in a book? We accept formatting symbols in Braille, and even expect it. So, why not in digital form?

NVDA on Windows can be set to speak formatting information as we read, but it can be bold on quite arduous to hear italics on all this italics off as we read what we write bold off. Orca can speak formatting like NVDA, as well. VoiceOver on the Mac can be set to speak formatting, like NVDA, and also has the ability to make a small sound when it encounters formatting. This is better, but how would one distinguish bold, italics, or underline from a simple color change?

Even VoiceOver on iOS, which arguably gets much more attention than its Mac sibling, cannot read formatting information. The closest we get is the phrase separated from the rest of the paragraph into its own item, showing that it’s different, in Safari and other web apps. But how is it different? What formatting was applied to this “different” text? Otherwise, text is plain, so blind people don’t even know that there is a possibility of formatting, let alone that that formatting isn’t made known to us by the program tasked with giving us this information. In some apps, like notes, one can get some formatting information by reading line by line in the Note text field, but what if one simply wants to read the whole thing?

Okay but what about writing rich text? I mean, you just hit a hotkey and it works, so what could be better than that? First, when you press Control + I to italicize, there is no guarantee that “italics on” will be spoken. In fact, that is the case in LibreOffice for Windows: you do not know if the toggle key toggled the formatting on or off. You could write some text, select it, then format it, but again, you don’t know if you just italicized that text, or removed the italics. You may be able to check formatting with your screen reader’s command, but that’s slow, and you would hate to do that all throughout the document. Furthermore, dealing with spoken formatting as it is, it takes some time to read your formatted text. Hearing descriptions of formatting changes tires the mind, as it must interpret the fast-paced speech, get a sense of formatting flipped from off to on, and quickly return to interpreting text instead of text formatting instruction. Also, because all text formatting changes are spoken like the text surrounding it, you may have to slow down your speech just to get somewhat ahead of things enough to not grow tired from the relentless text streaming through your mind. This could be the case with star star bold or italics star star, and if screen readers would use more fine control of the pauses of a speech synthesizer, a lot of the exhausting sifting through of information which is rapidly fired at us would be lessened, but I don’t see much of that happening any time soon.

Even on iOS, where things are simpler, one must deal with the same problems as on other systems, except knowing if formatting is turned on or off before writing. There is also the problem of using the touch screen, using menus just to select to format a heading. This can be worked around using a Bluetooth keyboard, if the program you’re working in even has a keyboard command to make a heading, but not everyone has, or wants, one of those.

Markdown fixes, at least, most of this. We can write in Markdown, controlling our formatting exactly, and read in Markdown, getting much more information than we ever have before, while also getting less excessive textual information, hearing “star” instead of “italics on” and “italics off” does make a difference. “Star” is not usually read surrounding words, and has already become, in a sense, a formatting term. “Italics on” sounds like plain text, is not a symbol, and while it is a formatting term, has many syllables, and just takes time to say. Coupled with the helpfulness of Markdown for people without disabilities, adding it across an entire operating system would be useful for everyone; not just the few people with disabilities, and not just for the majority without.

So, how could this work?

Operating systems, the programs which sit between you and the programs you run, has many layers and parts working together to make the experience as smooth as the programmers know how. In order for Markdown to be understood, there must be a part of the operating system that translates it into something that the thing that displays text understands. Furthermore, this thing must be able to display the resulting rich text, or Markdown interpretation, throughout the whole system, not just in Google Docs, not just in Pages, not just in Word, but in Note Pad, in Messages, in Notes, in a search box.

With that implemented, though, how should it be used? I think that there should be options. It’s about time some companies released their customers from the “one size fits all” mentality anyway. There should be an option to replace formatting done with Markdown with rich text unless the line the formatting is on has input focus, a mode for simply showing the Markdown only and no rich text, and an option for showing both.

For sighted people, I imagine seeing Markdown would be distracting. They want to see a heading, not the hash mark that makes the line a heading. So, hide Markdown unless that heading line is navigated to.

For blind people, or for people who find plain text easier to work with, and for whom the display of text in different sizes and font faces is jarring or distracting, having Markdown only would be great, while being translated for others to see as rich text. Blind people could write in Markdown, and others can see it as rich text, while the blind person sees simply what they wrote, in Markdown.

For some people, being able to see both would be great. Being able to see the Markdown they write, along with the text that it produces, could be a great way for users to become more comfortable with Markdown. It could be used for beginners to rich text editing, as well.

But, which version of Markdown should be used?

As with every open source, or heatedly debated, thing in this world, there are many ways of doing things. Markdown is no different. There is:

and probably many others. I think that Pandoc’s Markdown would be the best, most extended variant to use, but I know that most operating system developers will stick with their own. Apple will stick with Swift Markdown, Microsoft may stick with Github Markdown, and the Linux developers may use Pandoc, if Pandoc is available as a package on the user’s architecture, and if not, then it’s some one else’s issue.


In this article, I have attempted to communicate the importance of rich text, why Markdown would make editing rich text easy for everyone, including people with disabilities, and how it could be implemented. So now, what do you all think? Would Markdown be helpful for you? Would writing blog posts, term papers, journal entries, text messages, notes, or Facebook posts be enhanced by Markdown rich text? For blind people, would reading books, articles, or other text, and hearing the Markdown for bold, italics, and other such formatting make the text stand out more, make it more beautiful to you, or just get in your way? For developers, what would it take to add Markdown support to an operating system, or even your writing app? How hard will it be?

Please, let me know your thoughts, using the Respond popup, or replying to the posts on social media made about this article. And, as always, thank you so much for reading this post.

Devin Prater @devinprater