April 24, 2017

Accessible publishing just got easier to get right

Student using assistive technology in library, accessibilityMany important developments in publishing that we take for granted today simmered for years before they became mainstream. One that has been on the back burner for decades is about to make that transition: accessibility.

Nobody disputes the importance of accessibility; of course everybody should be able to access publications, no matter what their limitations. Most publishers have long acknowledged that this is something they need to do a better job on—someday.

The result is that most publications are not accessible and need extraordinary measures to “remediate” them. This is not just for the blind. Only 15% of the users of Benetech’s remediation service, Bookshare, are blind. Most of them are dyslexic. Problems with hearing and motility can make publications inaccessible too.

When I tell people that in far too many cases, college and university Disability Support Services (DSS) offices resort to buying a copy of a book at the campus bookstore, and then chop the spine off, scan the pages, and spend an atrocious amount of time and effort getting that text into accessible, navigable form for the student who needs it, their jaws drop.

Here’s the good news: it has gotten way easier for publishers to provide accessible files as a byproduct of their standard publishing workflow.

What’s even worse is that those DSS offices can’t save or share that remediated file, which means that every other college with a student who needs that book remediated is doing the same thing. This is pathetic. What an enormous waste of time and energy! And it gets that student a less-than-optimal publication, later—sometimes much later—than her classmates.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking: this is ridiculous, there are good digital files upstream! Chopping spines, scanning paper? Give me a break!

True, sometimes the publisher supplies a digital file (there are services that facilitate this), but those files are often bare-bones text without the markup than enables the book to be properly structured and navigated. Even PDFs need remediation; very few are accessible as-is.

But here’s the good news: it has gotten way easier for publishers to provide accessible files—or at least way more accessible files—as a byproduct of their standard publishing workflow. Thanks to EPUB.

EPUB is the key to accessible publishing

EPUB 3 is now widely considered the optimal format for the interchange of accessible content. And as I discussed in an earlier blog, EPUB 3 has become an essential part of the publishing ecosystem, used not just for trade books, but for educational content, corporate and government publications, and even—at last!—scholarly journal articles. It’s native to the new Edge browser from Microsoft, meaning you can open an EPUB in a browser as easily as you do a PDF now. You can save a Google Doc as EPUB. EPUB support is native in iOS, and supported in Android as well.

All these EPUBs are tailor made for accessible publishing. A properly structured EPUB (meaning that it uses HTML5 markup properly and has proper navigation) is probably 80-90% of the way there to being fully accessible. Often, all that needs to be added are image descriptions. EPUBs for straightforward text-only books may be just fine as-is. (They should be!)

Technical content does need more work; but if the tables are HTML tables and the math is available as MathML, that’s way more accessible too. I asked my friend Jamie Axelrod, head of the DSS office at Arizona State, how much difference getting journal articles as EPUBs would make. He told me that probably half of the documents they need to remediate are journal articles; getting standard journal articles as EPUBs instead of PDFs will probably reduce the work by 85% for most articles, and 70% of the work for the more complex STM articles. That’s huge!

Knowing what to do to get it right

Another thing that has been impeding progress on accessibility is, frankly, confusion. Publishers know they should be making their content more accessible, but they just don’t know where to start, because there haven’t been clear, standard, well documented requirements. (That’s why we created the BISG Quick Start Guide to Accessible Publishing last year, which I discussed in this blog last March.)

More good news: we now have much clearer guidelines. This January, the EPUB Accessibility 1.0 spec was published, along with a helpful EPUB Accessibility Techniques 1.0 document, that provides the long-needed “baseline requirements” for accessible publishing. This spec is intended to be able to apply to any version of EPUB, now or in the future, and to be able to serve as a reference in other contexts, like procurement requirements at universities, colleges, schools, and libraries.

EPUB 3 is now widely considered the optimal format for the interchange of accessible content.

In keeping with EPUB’s fundamental philosophy, these requirements are completely aligned with the Web accessibility requirements governed by the W3C like WCAG and WAI-ARIA, while adding certain specific features required by publications. And now that EPUB has been brought into the W3C as part of the Publishing@W3C activity (the subject of an upcoming blog), the accessibility requirements for the Web and for publications will be ever more closely aligned.

Let the world know what you’ve done!

Accessible publications are better publications, period—for everybody. Publishers should brag about this! Plus, especially in contexts where purchasing decisions are being made, declaring and describing how accessible your publications are gives you a competitive advantage.

One simple but previously missing aspect of accessibility specifications is providing the ability to tell how accessible a given publication is. The new EPUB Accessibility spec provides metadata that documents the degree to which a publication is accessible, referred to as “categories of compliance”:

  • “Discovery-Enabled” means that it has accessibility metadata.
  • “Accessible” means that it has accessibility metadata, complies with WCAG 2.0, and meets the additional EPUB Accessibility 1.0 requirements.
  • “Optimized” is for publications that have the metadata and specific features optimized for a certain use (for example Braille) that may not in fact be fully compliant with EPUB Accessibility 1.0, but would be a mistake to consider inaccessible.

The accessibility metadata is of five types:

  • accessMode documents the way the content can be accessed (textual, visual, auditory, or tactile).
  • accessibilityFeature documents the accessibility features the publication provides.
  • accessibilityHazard alerts users to potential hazards; for example, flashing can cause seizures.
  • accessibilitySummary is a human-readable explanation of the accessibility of the publication.
  • accessModeSufficient documents what way of accessing the content is sufficient to consume the publication; for example, if the publication has only text and images, and there is alt text for the images, then the textual mode of access is sufficient.

Accessible publications are better publications, period—for everybody.

This accessibility metadata was developed in collaboration with the schema.org Community Group in the W3C. That means that the identical vocabulary can be used both within the metadata of the EPUB itself and on the Web, for example in a reference to the publication in an article or review, or the page describing a book on the publisher’s or a retailer’s site. So now a user can find out whether a publication works for her before buying it. Hallelujah!

Finally, Benetech is developing a process of certifying EPUBs for conformance to these specifications, which includes providing feedback to the publisher about what may still need work in EPUBs submitted for review. That is in the late stages of development and should be available within the next few months.

Publications should be “born accessible”

So we are now getting close to what has long been seen as the holy grail of accessibility:

  • Publications can be born accessible, created as a part of standard editorial and production workflows rather than needing special remediation.
  • People needing accessible publications can use the same publication everybody else does and get them the same time everybody else does.

This was the subject of a presentation I gave at a pre-conference at the AAP PSP meeting in Washington this February, and again at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore in March. You can view it below.

Accessibility: It’s never been easier to achieve — and never more important from Apex CoVantage


About Bill Kasdorf

Bill Kasdorf, kasdorf.bill@gmail.com, is Principal of Kasdorf & Associates, LLC, a publishing consultancy focusing on accessibility, XML/HTML/EPUB modeling, information infrastructure, and workflow. Bill is active in the W3C Publishing Business Group, Publishing Working Group, and EPUB 3 Community Group; chairs the Content Structure Committee of the Book Industry Study Group and is co-editor of the BISG Guide to Accessible Publishing; and is Past President of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP). He is a recipient of SSP’s Distinguished Service Award, the IDEAlliance/DEER Luminaire Award, and the Book Industry Study Group’s Industry Champion Award. Bill has written and spoken widely for organizations such as SSP, IPDF, BISG, DBW, IPTC, O’Reilly TOC, NISO, AAP, AAUP, ALPSP, and STM. General Editor of The Columbia Guide to Digital Publishing and Guest Editor of the January 2018 issue of the Learned Publishing journal devoted to accessibility, he is the author of the chapter on EPUB metadata and packaging for O’Reilly’s EPUB 3 Best Practices and the chapter on EPUB in the book The Critical Component: Standards in Information Distribution, published by the ALA in collaboration with NISO. He serves on the editorial boards of Learned Publishing and the Journal of Electronic Publishing. In his consulting practice, Bill has served clients globally, including large international publishers such as Pearson, Cengage, Wolters Kluwer, Kaplan, and Sage; scholarly presses and societies such as Harvard, MIT, Toronto, Taylor & Francis, Cambridge, and IEEE; aggregators such as VitalSource; and global publishing and library organizations such as the World Bank, the British Library, the Asian Development Bank, OCLC, and the European Union.