January 29, 2018

All about accessibility in the January Learned Publishing

Colorful circles with profiles all connected to each other with lines.

I had the great pleasure during the last half of 2017 to serve as Guest Editor for the January 2018 issue of Learned Publishing, which is devoted entirely to the subject of accessibility. (And which, not incidentally, Wiley has made 100% open access for 2018—thanks, Wiley!)

Accessibility is an area I’ve been doing a lot of work in over the past few years, and I have become quite passionate about it. So when Pippa Smart and Lettie Conrad, the UK and US editors of Learned Publishing respectively, asked me to help with this issue, I jumped at the chance. (Another shout-out to Pippa and Lettie: they are fantastic to work with.)

If accessibility has gotten so much easier, why is it still so hard?

Of course I contributed an article, and it would be disingenuous not to mention it. It’s entitled Why accessibility is hard, and how to make it easier. Those of you who have read many of the other things I’ve written or have heard me speak on this subject the past year or two might take exception to that first clause; I’ve gotten a reputation for pointing out how much easier accessibility has become now that so many relevant specs and standards are in alignment and are based on things publishers already do.

Every time I say “accessibility is way easier than you realize!” somebody (usually my good friend Tzviya Siegman) says “Bill! Quit saying it’s easy! It’s not easy, it’s hard!” I’m sure many people reading Lettie’s recent post in The Scholarly Kitchen on accessibility rolled their eyes when she quotes me as saying “nobody said it was easy,” thinking “Kasdorf, you yourself always say how easy it is!”

So my assignment was to dig deeper into the things that do, in fact, make it harder than we would like it to be, and to point out how best to address those issues. I won’t go into it here; you can read the article (though I’ll point out the fundamental conclusion: make accessibility part of your standard workflow).  Instead, I’d like to call your attention to some of the other articles in the issue. Every article is good; I’ll just point out those that I had a hand in recruiting.

A compelling first-hand account of growing up blind

Accessibility has long been an issue that publishers realize they should be addressing but find it all too easy to ignore, or to put aside for another day. One reason for this is that most people don’t really know what somebody with a print disability goes through. George Abbott’s article, “How publishing has helped and hindered me: Experiences and advice from a blind reader and publisher,” is, for lack of a better word, illuminating.

I guarantee that you will be moved to read his personal experiences growing up blind, wanting to do what the other kids were doing, yearning for culture and connection, needing special versions of publications to pursue his education and to just simply participate as a normal citizen of the world. If this sounds depressing, it’s not: you will be amazed and cheered at his success, “thanks to advocacy efforts, opened-minded publishers, and advances in technology.” He’s a publisher now.

One of the clearest overviews of accessibility standards I’ve seen

My favorite sentence in the “Advice to publishers” section of George’s article won’t surprise anybody who knows me: “I implore anyone producing electronic content to be relentless about implementing accessibility standards.” That’s why we included the excellent article from Madeleine Rothberg, “Publishing with accessibility standards from the inside out.” She makes it crystal clear how both accessibility standards and accessible publications are created in layers.

At the foundation of accessibility standards are the Web accessibility standards from the W3C. These start with the structural semantics of HTML, as George Abbott mentioned in his article. This is augmented by specifications like W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and WAI-ARIA, which provides semantics (recently enhanced for publications) that delineate important features of content that guide assistive technology in processing it.

Accessible publications have accessible content at the core, wrapped in semantic structure, and topped off with accessible metadata.

On top of this structural foundation and semantic layer is EPUB 3, which defines all the components of a publication (content documents, navigation between them, images, metadata, and other resources) all packaged up in a .zip container called an EPUB. To quote Madeleine, “Accessible publications have accessible content at the core, wrapped in semantic structure, and topped off with accessible metadata.”

The resulting specification, documented as “EPUB Accessibility 1.0,” is now considered the baseline specification for accessible publications. Best of all, it uses technologies that publishers already use and that their suppliers know inside-out: HTML and EPUB.

So now it’s possible for a publication that is properly accessible to somebody like George Abbott to be the same product that is made available to everybody else—the EPUB—instead of being a special version that costs more and has to be created after publication.

Getting to “born accessible” publications

It also means that this accessible EPUB can be “born accessible”—accessible as a natural result of a digital publishing workflow—a concept advanced by Benetech, a nonprofit that provides a number of useful services to help publishers make their content accessible. This is spelled out in an article by Brad Turner, “Benetech global literacy services: Working towards a ‘born accessible’ world.” Best known for Bookshare, the world’s largest library of accessible titles, Benetech is actually working to put Bookshare out of business. Instead of having to “remediate” books and journals and provide them in special versions (Bookshare has over half a million titles and adds over 5,000 every month), the publications should just be accessible in the first place.

Benetech can help you make that happen and get it right. Their DIAGRAM Center is a research and design organization that works on some of the most complex and important problems, such as math, multimedia, 3D, and STEM content. They provide standards, tools, and examples to teach authors and publishers how to create proper image descriptions. Their MathML Cloud is an invaluable resource in helping publishers create accessible math. And their Global Certified Accessible program provides in-depth analysis and recommendations to help publishers get their workflows to create properly born accessible content—formally certifying a workflow that gets it right.

What colleges have to deal with because publications are inaccessible

Sadly, few publishers get it right today. Jamie Axelrod’s article, “Making materials accessible to students in higher education institutes,” is a real eye-opener. Jamie is Director of Disability Resources at Northern Arizona University and President of the Association on Higher Education and Disability. He relates the incredible hurdles colleges and universities have to overcome to provide properly accessible course materials to students who require them.

Ideally, publishers would be able to provide a properly accessible EPUB 3 and the student would have her textbook or journal article pretty much at the same time and at the same cost as her classmates. But this is virtually never the case. Instead, the university needs to see if one of several services like Bookshare, the AccessText network, and others that provide accessible publications, or at least source files for them, has the right version (yes, the current edition; an older one won’t do) of each needed publication.

Colleges and universities have to overcome incredible hurdles to provide properly accessible course materials to students who require them.

Often, the best they can get is a PDF, which they have to “remediate”: converting it to text, which they then have to properly structure and tag so that assistive technology can navigate it and make it usable by the student—work that is largely manual and laborious. This usually includes adding image descriptions, which for scholarly and technical content may involve consultation with faculty to properly explain each figure and image. Even more work is required for multimedia content. Sometimes, they can’t even get a PDF and have to buy, scan, and clean up a print book. Imagine how much time and cost are eaten up before that student has what she needs. This is a pathetic situation. And this doesn’t even get into the bureaucratic hurdles that Jamie describes.

It’s not just about text and images anymore

Two other articles really augment and expand on the issues Jamie’s raises: Rick Bowes’ article, “An overview of content accessibility issues experienced by educational publishers,” and Violaine Iglesias’s article, “Beyond the mandates: The far-reaching benefits of multimedia accessibility,” both of which provide incredibly valuable information and insights.

Rick has been providing consulting on accessibility to publishers for decades (he’s who first turned me on to this over fifteen years ago). He brings an incredible breadth of experience and depth of understanding to the discussion, encompassing societal, legal, technical, and experiential issues, including the challenges of multimedia and interactive content that are increasingly essential to the educational experience.

And Violaine’s very engaging article is invaluable in explaining what is required in order to make audio and video resources accessible. She provides the basics, the why, and the how in a way that will clear up a lot of confusion around these issues. She makes a particularly compelling case for why making streaming media accessible makes it so much better for everybody—which I think is an important principle to keep in mind for all types of content and all publications.

It’s also not just about the publication

Finally, George Kerscher’s article, “Do you have a broken link in your accessibility chain?,” calls attention to an often overlooked issue: making sure the devices and systems that create, disseminate, find, deliver, and render accessible publications are themselves accessible. Like George Abbott, George Kerscher is blind; in his article, he describes the barriers he personally encounters when attempting to engage with a library’s or publisher’s website and properly consume the content he’s after.

These go well beyond the accessibility features of the publication itself. As he points out, if there is a single point of failure in the chain of tasks required to obtain and consume a publication, it’s game over. Just think of how many steps in that process involve finding a button, distinguishing something by color, selecting a book or article on the basis of an image of the cover or a page, things sighted people take for granted. Then think of the number of click-throughs required to actually get to it. George cites one popular library system that requires 19 links over half a dozen pages, after login, to get to the content. Each of those steps has to be accessible. Fixing that makes it better for everybody.

There’s lots more in the January Learned Publishing

I’ve mentioned only half the articles in the issue. There are excellent articles on a major UK e-book audit of 44 e-book platforms; case studies from JSTOR, SAGE, the Calibre Audio Library, and ScienceDirect; and a really comprehensive overview from the UK policy perspective.

Let’s hope this issue of Learned Publishing helps publishers not only get a handle on the critical issue of accessibility but also helps them to make their own publications and workflows accessible. We are getting very close to realizing the ideal of “born accessible” publications, and to a world where those who need accessible content can simply get the same publications everybody else does.

Ready to start a conversation about your publications and accessibility? Contact us.

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