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Accessibility Has Never Been More Accessible to Publishers

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by Bill Kasdorf, Vice President, Apex Content Solutions

Bill Kasdorf

We are all about to benefit from the mainstreaming of accessibility.

Accessibility has long been one of those issues that most publishers realize they should be paying attention to but hope they can put off a while longer. While we’ve all admittedly had our collective heads in the sand, important advances are making it easier than ever to make our books accessible. Almost all books are now created in digital forms (even if published only in print), providing the basis for what assistive technology requires.

We’re not far off from many books being “born accessible” as a natural consequence of how they’re published. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting a lot closer. And the good news is that there’s help for what still requires some extra effort.

Everybody Deserves Access

Before we get into the “how,” let’s look at the “why.” The moral imperative is obvious. Everybody should have equal access to books, no matter what their abilities. The number of books that are natively accessible to print-disabled people today is shockingly low. The term “print disabled” is not just about books for the blind. Here’s a statistic that may surprise you: Bookshare, a service that creates accessible versions of books for publishers (for free!) and distributes them only to those who qualify for them, sends only about 15 percent of its accessible books to the blind. The vast majority go to the dyslexic. This is a much bigger issue than most people realize.

Accessible Books Are Better Books

The simple fact is that accessible books are better for everybody. They can even give a publisher a competitive advantage. This should not be a surprise. We all benefit from curb cuts on our sidewalks, closed captioned video in noisy places, and Siri on our iPhones—all of which were first developed for accessibility.

Accessibility features can be as simple as making the navigation through a book clear, presenting the content in a logical reading order, and even letting us listen to a book on our evening commute in the car and then pick up where we left off on our favorite e-reader, tablet, or smartphone after dinner.

Even something as basic as letting a reader change the font size and enabling the content to reflow so it’s optimized on a laptop, tablet, e-reader, or phone is an accessibility feature. That same text will work well in virtually any screen reader used by a print-disabled person, and can even expedite the creation of Braille.

So Why Aren’t Publishers Just Doing It?

Publishing workflows have been print-centric since the time of Gutenberg. We’ve spent centuries evolving the standards of typography and layout that we take for granted today.

But now we’re living in a digital world. The same workflows that produce our print books can, and should, produce their digital versions as well. Production technology became entirely digital decades ago. But we persist in focusing on print and then spending extra time and effort creating e-books or getting content online.

That’s changing fast. Some books benefit from the new capabilities the digital world offers—multimedia, interactivity, adaptability. But ironically, it is the books that are most straightforward that are the easiest to make accessible with little or no extra effort or cost.

EPUBs Are Designed to Be Accessible—But Many Aren’t
EPUB is the distribution and interchange format standard for digital publications and documents based on Web Standards

EPUB is the distribution and interchange format standard for digital publications and documents based on Web Standards

One of the biggest factors in mainstreaming accessibility is the fact that the format in which most e-books are created today, EPUB, was designed from the ground up to be accessible. EPUB 3.0 is based on the Open Web Platform, the suite of technologies and specifications (like HTML and CSS) that govern web publishing in general—which itself is designed for accessibility.

Most people who need assistive technology will tell you that virtually any EPUB is significantly more accessible than a PDF. But we all know that some EPUBs are better than others. The better ones are the more accessible ones. They have a complete navigation document (basically a digital table of contents) that enables readers to find their way around the content easily. They use the sections and headings of HTML5 to provide a logical reading order. They use the structural semantics that are inherent in HTML5—and supplemented by EPUB—that enable users of assistive technology to know what the components of the text are. These things are just basic good practices for all books.

But There’s More to It Than That, Isn’t There?

While novels and straightforward nonfiction books are easy to make accessible, the more features a book has, the more effort it takes to make it properly accessible. If it has images, they should have text that describes them. This takes two forms: the “alt text” that typically says what the image is, and, for content-rich images, an extended description that conveys to a non-sighted user what the image conveys to a sighted user. If the book has math, it should be in MathML, the long established XML standard for math. Tables should be HTML tables, not just images. There should be alternative content for media. There should be metadata documenting what accessibility features have been provided.

These may seem to be huge obstacles, but they’re not as hard to overcome as you might think. For example, Benetech, the organization behind the Bookshare service mentioned earlier, provides “MathML Cloud” and “POET” to help publishers make their math and images accessible.

Coming to Consensus on a Baseline for Accessibility

One of the biggest obstacles to accessibility finally becoming mainstream is simply the lack of clarity and consensus around what is required. Thankfully, a number of organizations are working together now to develop such a baseline consensus.

  • The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has many specifications for making web content accessible. These standards—most prominently WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) and ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications)—are used worldwide, often referenced by governments and educational procurement offices, to ensure that publications provided to them are accessible. Recently, some of these specifications have been updated to better address the needs of publishers.
  • The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), the organization responsible for the EPUB standard, is developing a stand-alone specification for how best to make EPUBs accessible. Although the current EPUB specifications are designed to enable accessibility (fully aligned with the Open Web standards), they don’t say enough about how to do it. The new EPUB accessibility profile will provide that guidance in a form that can be referenced by other EPUB-related specs, from the IDPF or other organizations.
  • The DAISY Consortium is working with organizations around the world to develop a formal consensus on a baseline for accessibility. They are also developing an online resource, inclusivepublishing.org, that will serve as a hub for curated information and resources about accessibility—like all those mentioned in this article.

It has never been easier to make books accessible. And it has never been more obvious that doing so makes them better for everybody.

Bill Kasdorf is vice president and principal consultant at Apex Content and Media Solutions.

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