Accessible publishers: celebrating success

Emma House
Opinion - Publishing Friday, 20th April 2018

Emma House reports on the great progress made in accessible publishing, and on what further needs to be done


The year 2018 is one in which to celebrate success in the world of accessible publishers. RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) celebrates 150 years, and the Publishers Association's Accessibility Action Group (which brings together publishers and organisations that are committed to improving the availability of accessible publications for print-impaired people) celebrates 10 years. There have been vast improvements, particularly in the last 10 years, in publishing for those with print disabilities.

Some of that success can be measured by statistics provided on RNIB's services, which in themselves mark a step change in the provision of accessible materials for both readers and learners. Since its launch in 2016, the RNIB Bookshare service, designed for schools and universities either to have direct access to accessible textbooks and curriculum materials or request accessible files, now has sign-up from more than 450 publishers and imprints, with almost 80,000 titles and images in their rapidly growing collection. It is used by more than 10,000 learners, and almost 5,000 schools are signed up. The number of RNIB Library customers (including Braille, giant print, music as well as Talking Books) is now at 50,572, within which the RNIB Library Talking Books service has more than 40,000 customers, who have access to a catalogue of 28,700 titles. The stats are starting to tell a good story.

Same title, same price, same day
We must remind ourselves, however, that this is a journey with an end goal of "same title, same price, same day" for all readers and learners, including those with print impairments, and we are a long way off this goal. Reaching it will only come about through greater collaboration between publishers, technology providers and organisations that assist with the provision of accessible materials. Recent developments here in the UK have seen the launch of inclusivepublishing.org - a web portal developed by the DAISY consortium as an "information hub for creating digital publications for all". This is a content rich site for the supply chain that needs to work together - publishers, educators, developers and consumers.

DAISY has also launched Ace, its accessibility checking tool. It helps content providers to evaluate the accessibility features of EPUB publications - by checking the files against WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) guidelines, W3C accessibility rules (for audio and video content) and DAISY-recommended best practices - to help make the best books possible.

Much of our development focus is and rightly should be on student and learner needs. Not only do they have a moral right to accessible learning materials, they have legal rights. Everyone in the supply chain from publisher to institution has a role to play in ensuring learners can access the content they need for their curriculums. As we've been learning through the work Jisc (a not-for-profit that works to provide advanced digital technology to post-16 education and research institutions) has been carrying out auditing textbooks, the platforms through which they are accessed and the guidance that is available, the job is not as simple as providing an accessible file that can then be manipulated.

Both publishers and readers are hostage to the accessibility of the industry standard delivery systems. Adobe Digital Editions and BlueFire Reader pose significant accessibility barriers for many print-impaired readers - barriers worsened by the lack of up-to-date accessibility guidance. Thus publishers who have created accessible files and universities who have purchased them both have to shoulder additional costs in making good the inadequacies of partially accessible delivery systems.

Focus on accessibility
From a publishing perspective, not only is a raft of expertise required to create a properly accessible file (which takes into consideration the accessible needs of describing illustrations, graphs, maps and non-text materials), but manpower as well, to answer requests for files. From a platform perspective, the platform needs to be accessible and not disable or strip out accessibility functionality from files, with proper guidance given on how to read the file - which reading apps work better than others. And institutions need trained staff and librarians to help disabled students negotiate the partially-accessible mainstream tools and systems.

With the impending implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty (drafted to facilitate access to published works for persons who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled) in Europe and in the UK, the publishing community would do well to ensure it has a focus on accessibility and is working towards a strategy of fully born-accessible publishing.

We have some great role models in the UK, and when we think about celebrating success we can look to the publishers who are winners of the ABC (Accessible Book Consortium) International Excellence Award in Accessible Publishing: SAGE, Elsevier, Cambridge University Press and this year's winner, Hachette Livre, all of whom have demonstrated real progress in the journey to a fully accessible publishing strategy. The 2018 ebook audit (involving Jisc, publishers, aggregators and university librarians) will identify where the accessibility blockages take place.

Many parts of the industry have made huge strides forward. Now is the time for the remaining elements of the supply chain to step up to the mark.

Emma House is deputy ceo of the Publishers Association.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.