The Case for Adopting Accessibility using EPUB 3

March 31, 2014

My topic today is “accessibility” and my brief is to talk about the business case for improving the accessibility of your publications. But first, we need to make sure we are talking the same language.

So, what does the word “accessibility” mean to you?

Do you immediately think of people who are blind, reading from those very bulkytomes of very thick paper, which result from Braille conversions? 

Think again.

When it comes to accessibility, readers of Braille are a minority of a minority – only a small proportion of those who are completely blind read Braille, and those normally people who have been blind from birth or early childhood.  It isn’t only eyesight that deteriorates with age, it is also tactile sensitivity and of course our ability to learn new skills.

Few who lose some or all of their sight later in life become Braille readers.

But people who are completely blind are themselves only a minority of those who have some sort of “print impairment” – people for whom some sort of disability hinders their access to printed materials. There are people with low sight. There is motor impairment – because of physical disability, some people cannot hold printed materials or turn pages. An even larger group suffer from cognitive problems with reading, typically labelled with generic term “dyslexia”.

What I have to say should not be seen as in any way ignoring or dismissing the plight of people with visual impairment –but to think about access to print only in terms of those who are blind or partially sighted is to miss a great part of both the challenge and of the opportunity that is available to us. It is estimated that 10% of the population in the developed world – and perhaps 15% in the developing world – suffer from some degree of print impairment – that looks like a real market to me, if only we can tap into it.

A real opportunity if we can find a way of satisfying that market, a way that enables us to make our mainstream products, available through mainstream retail outlets, accessible to an even wider number of readers.

A challenge because we have to learn some new skills; but a real opportunity delivered through technological change, an opportunity to become (as Jens Bammel, Secretary General of the IPA often stresses) better publishers – because making our ebooks more accessible for people with print impairment has the potential to improve the reading experience of everyone of our readers.

People with visual impairment have long been talking abouttheir right to parity of access. Fewer than 5% of printed materials have traditionallybeen made available in forms that they can make sense of – and when they are, it is typically a very long time after everyone else has them.  A child who has to wait 12 months to have access to the latest J K Rowling or Stephenie Meyer is excluded from much excited social interaction with his or her peers. The same is true of the adult excluded from the latest novel, whether Booker prize winner or 50 Shades of Grey.

 And of course, those in education – our particular topic today – faceeven greater challenges of exclusion.

There are two separate issues to address, one about access to the legacy and the other about access to the future. I am speakingtoday about the future rather than about the legacy, although some of the work we have been doing at EDItEURmay also be helpfulin understanding the challenges we still face with older books and converting these into accessible formats.

EDItEURworked on accessibility – particularly the accessibility of ebooks – for about four years, in a project funded by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, WIPO.   Our primary task was to develop and publish a document called Accessible Publishing: Best Practice Guidelines for Publishers – you can see a link to that document on the slide behind me; my very few slides will be made available to you.

This document, which compiled by Sarah Hilderley, then our accessibility lead and herself a former production director – and now doing some work for the IDPF – provides 60 pages of advice (in various formats) on how to be an accessible (or in the newer jargon “inclusive”) publisher. The guidelines are published in 8 languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Arabic, Hindi).

 All I can do today is to give you a taste of the guidelines, focused on making mainstream ebooks accessible to the widest possible public. If you are interested in issues of accessibility – and you should be – please download and read the Guidelines.

When I first became involved in the accessibility agenda, nearly a decade ago, it was in the context of large print books. The process by which large print books were created and distributed to readers – exclusively through public libraries – was esoteric, painfully slow, expensive and inflexible.

Who needs large print books? The answer is many, perhaps most of us – if welive long enough.

Now, rather suddenly and perhaps rather unexpectedly, we find ourselves in a position where an increasingly high proportion of newly published books are suddenly available to everyone in large print versions on the day of publication and at the same price they are available to everyone else. 

Not, of course, in a physical form but on our Kindle, or Kobo or iPad.  The flexibility of the interface makes every ebook a large print book “on demand”.

This helps not on people with macular degeneration and other age-related causes of deteriorating eyesight. It also helps all of us – every reader – through delivering a better reading experience when we are “situationally disabled” – for one reason or another (perhaps because of lighting or tiredness) struggling to read in what is normally our comfortable font size.

That flexibility of interface – which we think nothing about most of the time, because it has become so commonplace – is at the heart of the potential revolution in accessibility that the ebook represents. The file is entirely neutral to the way it is made accessible to the reader – the device mediates the presentation of the content and that presentation can be as flexible as the device allows.

So, the text can be converted to Braille, through a refreshable Braille display – an extraordinary device – here’s a not very good picture of one, but you should be able to get the idea.  It converts the file to Braille on the bar below the keyboard. For example, I have seen one of these devices being used with an iPhone by a young student with complete loss of vision, to read text messages.

An amazing invention, but with two slight drawbacks: firstly, as I have already said, the number of people who can read Braille is small; secondly the devices themselves, presumably because of the limited demand, are ferociously expensive (although there are promises of less expensive devices on the horizon).

Text can also be converted to audio through text-to-speech technology. This technology, embedded in many of the devices we have with us every day, is often the preferred mode of consumption of text by people with visual impairment.

Text to speech technology is improving all the time, but it is a long way from being a substitute for “narrated” audiobooks, particularly at the incredibly high playback speeds of TTS which are typically used by people with visual impairment.

So, are we already there in terms of making mainstream ebooks accessible to people with print impairment? The answer is neither an unequivocal “yes” nor an unequivocal “no”. It all depends – no two people’s needs are identical and not all books are equal.

For people for whom large print is theironly requirement, we have a universal solution, certainly for straightforward books – books that are continuous text – so long as readers are comfortable with using technology and are sufficiently affluent to buy a Kindle or an iPad.

Similarly, refreshable Braille is relatively easily achieved certainly on Apple platforms and on PCs – if you can afford the device and learn how to use it.

For people who need text to speech, we have seen a major improvement in the tendency of publishers to disallow text to speech through the application of DRM. In 2010, the Publishers Association, with the endorsement of the Society of Authors and the Association of Authors' Agents, recommended that text-to-speech should be routinely enabled on all ebooks across all relevant platforms, at least where there is no audiobook edition commercially available.

Now about 95% of books in the top 50 sellers comply with this recommendation – whereas the proportion was only about half that when the statement was published 3 years ago.

Sadly, you win some, and you lose some. At the same time as publishers were moving forward with enabling text-to-speech on the files, Amazon launched a whole generation of Kindles – the Paper White series – which had no TTS capability built in. They faced major agitation on the part of the advocacy organisations in the US. Perhaps as a result, at the launch of the most recent generation of Kindle Fire, Amazon majored on its accessibility features.

This points to a topic to which I will return – publishers cannot achieve mainstreaming of accessible ebooks on their own.  But nevertheless, there is a real challenge for you to face up to, something only you as publishers can do.

Adopt EPUB 3.

The EPUB 3 standard offers a major breakthrough in terms of accessibility because it sees a bringing together in a single key format the features that were previously only part of a specialist, accessible format – the so-called DAISY format (which is the audio format which has been widely used for so-called talking books) – with a mainstream format for publishing ebooks.

However, just putting your ebooks into EPUB 3 isn’t by itself enough. EPUB 3 allows accessibility features to be added to any ebook – but doesn’t mandate them.

What sort of things do you need to think about in terms of accessibility in an EPUB 3 file?  This is not a technical presentation. There are detailed resources I will point you to if you are technically inclined (or to which you can direct your technical support) which will tell you all you need about how to make your EPUB 3 accessible from the outset.

And that’s the trick.

Adding accessibility to an existing file is a bit like adding accessibility ramps to an old building – expensive and almost always a compromise. Add accessibility in the course of construction, design it in, and you will hardly notice you have done it.

What are the things do you need to think about?Here are a couple of important features you might want to bear in mind.

First of all, implement the enhanced navigation features that EPUB 3 allows. This enables readers – whether sighted or not – much better mechanisms for finding their way round the text.

Secondly, add textual descriptions of illustrations and other non-textual elements. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but not if you can’t see it. There are well-established techniques that for adding simple descriptions which will at least enable someone who can’t see to understand their significance.

This is of course more complex with more complex types of product and page layout, just as rendering these in EPUB is more complex – and as typesetting them has always been more complex.

And are other steps you should take, like adopting MathML for typesetting equations.

To find out more, here are three documents you might want to look at, listed on the screen behind me

First, a section of the IDPF website is dedicated to accessibility.

Next there’s an ebook published by O’Reilly on accessible publishing which is entirely free to download (it is also available as part of a larger EPUB 3 best practices guide which is I am afraid not free).

And finally a White Paper from the Association of American Publishers.The AAP has been working hard to promote the adoption of EPUB 3, at least in part because of its superiority as an accessible format.

But this brings me back to a topic I touched on earlier

Nosingle player in the supply chain between author and reader can singlehandedly make the supply chain accessible. As publishers, we need to work together with each other – and with platform and device providers, distributors, retailers, accessibility advocates, readers themselves – to ensure that the promise of universal accessibility of mainstream publications can be realised.

We have to have an accessible supply chain. We can’t get there alone. As an industry we need to work actively with other stakeholders to ensure we move forward in step. This theme is reflected in the AAP White Paper.

It is also the reasonfor the development of the “Joint statement on accessibility of ebooks”, agreed last year between the UK Publishers Association, the RNIB, Dyslexia Action, JISC TechDis and EDItEUR. You canfind a link to that statement on the slide.

As a “for example”: think about the requirements of people with dyslexia. They may not only require larger type, they may require the ability to change the interline spacing, what we used to call leading; they may need to change the background colour of the screen, or the colour of the type, or both. They may find highlighted text to speech really helpful (where the word being read aloud is highlighted on screen).

These are all features of the platform not of the file. As publishers, we might – for no good reason I can think of – want to stop them happening. But the only people who can make them happen are the platform providers. And those providers go beyond the obvious providers of ebook devices – Amazon or Kobo or Apple or Barnes & Noble – to take in providers of ebook platforms in educational institutions and academic libraries for example.

We need to work with everyone to bring accessibility into the mainstream.

There are good commercial reasons for publishers to aim maximise their markets; there are good corporate social responsibility reasons for publishers to aim to be good citizens; and increasingly there are good legal reasons in equality legislation as an underpinning of all of this (although I hope we will see compliance with legislation as the floor we build on, not the ceilingto which we aspire).

So, on a practical basis, what can you do tomorrow?

Please encourage everybody in your company to read and adoptEDItEUR’sBest Practice guidelines, andto use our very short and very simple (and completely free) online training resources (see the link).

Acquaint yourself with the topic, and (if it isn’t you) find someone who is sufficiently inspired and moved to take responsibility for accessibility right across your organisation. 

Publish a company policy on accessibility and make sure everyone is aware of it and that it is actively supported from the very top. This is not a technical issue for the production department to get on with, it is a policy issue which impacts everybody.

Make your accessibility contact available through your website and through your printed marketing materials – and through the Publisher Lookup service created by JISC TechDis in collaboration with the Publishers Association.

Finally, once you are committed to improvement, undertake an accessibility audit to understand what your business looks like from the view point of a customer with print impairment.

It may be salutary, it is certainly worthwhile.