March 28, 2018

XML to accessible

Building accessibility standards into your existing publishing workflow

The many publishers using or on track to adopt XML-first workflows are well-positioned to create accessible publications that meet current Accessibility requirements.

The 2017 Section 508 Refresh in the United States, the previously published EPUB Accessibility Guidelines, and the ongoing W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) advancements building on WCAG 2 standards, provide resources, and motivation,  for publishers to create accessible publications. For publishers, it means an opportunity and a risk. Accessibility initiatives open the door to a wider audience. Accessibility initiatives also carry a cost in terms of systems and process change.

It seems likely that creating accessible documents will become the norm. The question for publishers is an economic one – wait or act now.

While we typically think about accessibility in terms of providing access to people with disabilities, it may be a mistake to impose such limits. Voice-activated tools like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa are changing everyone’s expectations of interacting with technology. Accessibility standards applied to the web and to publishing lay the foundation for more people to discover and to interact with your content in more ways.

The good news is, if you have already done the work to create an XML-first workflow, you are already on the evolutionary path for making born-accessible publications. Improving accessibility can be an iterative change process incorporated into your existing systems.

There are a few important and immediate changes publishers can implement to advance toward born-accessible publications: enriching semantic tagging, adding descriptions to graphics, and engaging authors and vendors.

Example of a journal page with images, math tables, and side bar content.

1. Enrich semantic tagging

If you already have an XML workflow, it is relatively easy to add semantic tagging to enrich the document thereby improving navigation and logical reading order. A classic example is the presence of a sidebar in print that gets transformed into a section in a reflowable EPUB. Without clear semantic markup it may be very difficult for a reader dependent on assistive technology to differentiate the sidebar from main body text.

Such tagging can be built into a publisher’s existing workflow where content is already being identified by incorporating steps to confirm object assignments and verifying the order the content should be read.

2. Image descriptions

Image descriptions are text explanations of an image or graphic that an assistive reading tool would interpret for its user. These can range from a few words in a sentence, to a few paragraphs depending on the complexity of the graphic.

Some publishers already include some kind of alternative text (alt text) that provides an image is, but this is only halfway to true accessibility. Alt text may help the person who can’t see the image at all, but it may not help the person who has difficulty interpreting and understanding what the image means.

For example, consider a biochemistry student who needs to understand all the chemical steps in the Kreb’s cycle. If the student is a visual learner, then an image of a process flowchart may be the answer. However, if the student is not a visual learner, for any reason, he may need an explanation in a different form. A thorough, long description helps provide context and deeper understanding of an image that could meet this need. And, the long description is a benefit for all students – not just those who may not be able to see the image itself.

3. Authors and vendors

One of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to improve accessibility is to get authors engaged. Book authors in the education space have strong motivation participate.

Textbook authors are already creating well-designed pedagogical content to enhance the learning experience of student readers. They have the professional expertise to develop high-quality image descriptions and supplemental materials. They are motivated for their books to be successful. For publishers, engaging authors write alt text and long descriptions that go beyond simple captions is a much less expensive proposition than trying to retrofit descriptions into ebooks after the work is complete.

Vendors can also be a reliable alternative to source alt text and descriptions.  Finding the right partner means understanding the source, the desired outcome, and, having a systematic process in place to deliver semantic tagging in text or image descriptions. Your existing copyediting and production partners may already be familiar with the current WAI guidelines and be a good place to start.

Two excellent accessibility resources are Benetech’s Diagram Center, especially the Poet Image Description Tool and the Ace, by DAISY, EPUB accessibility checker.

Change is a constant in our industry.

The challenges many publishers felt daunting when considering change to an XML workflow were real, but the goals were achievable with care in planning and execution.

The same is true for improving accessibility and evolving toward born-accessible publications. Publishers are on the right course and if guidance is needed, there are experts available to help.

Get in touch to start a conversation about your workflow and accessibility.

About Greg Suprock

Greg is Head of Solutions Architecture at Apex. He has over 20 years of experience in XML workflows, content management, web application development, and prepress. Greg excels at collaborative efforts to achieve project and business goals. He has developed XML workflows for the Public Library of Science, HighWire Press, The Library of Congress, and many more.