Access All Areas: Why Accessibility will be Critical to the Future of Publishing

Through a string of journeys between 1819 and 1857, James Holman circumnavigated the globe during which time he helped to chart the Australian outback, fought slavery in Africa and survived the frozen wastes of Siberia.  His was a remarkable life and even more so in that he was blind.  Described by Sir Richard Burton as ‘The Blind Traveller’, Holman proved that being blind was no barrier to exploration, learning and discovery.

Holman was an exceptional case however and it has taken the emergence of digital publishing to truly open up learning to those with visual impairment and print disabilities. 

As the digital revolution in publishing gathers pace we are witnessing an unparalleled democratization of learning as new technology facilitates the availability of content to all that require it. The user experience has become central to the creation of relevant digital content and accessibility is a key component of successful UX. Accessibility, for so long an afterthought for publishers, has now moved centre-stage.

The key drivers of this change have been the emergence of mobile e-reading devices and the EPUB standard as the interchange and delivery format for digital publications. The plethora of devices now on the market necessitates reflowable content that can seamlessly transition from one sized screen to another without loss of fidelity. For publishers interaction with consumers has often been restricted to analysing sales reports but in today’s publishing climate the consumer or user is now someone who must be enticed with relevant content in an appropriate, usable form. To this end, publishers have a considerable amount to learn from their counterparts in the accessibility world.

It is thus encouraging to see the convergence of the EPUB standard with DAISY. On 6 May the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), curators of the EPUB standard, announced the latest specification of EPUB 3.0 with a view to release in mid-2011.  As outlined by Bill McCoy, Executive Director of the IDPF, in his 12 May webinar, the EPUB format enables structured, accessible content, interoperable across devices and applications for downloaded and online consumption. The new iteration of EPUB incorporates significant improvements including core content based on XHTML5, semantic tagging, enhanced global language support, metadata enhancements, video and audio support, Javascript controls and MathML support for improved representation of mathematical formulae. 

All great and necessary improvements but it is the accessibility aspect of the updates that will have the most long-term and far-reaching effects for publishers. EPUB 3.0 will replace DAISY DTBook as the standard delivery format for accessible content and it is the accessibility options of EPUB 3.0 that will improve the products that publishers offer to the market and increase the size of the market that is open to them.

Issues surrounding accessibility have largely been regarded as of secondary concern in publishing due to the difficulty and expense involved in making content available in appropriate formats such as Braille or large print for a perceived small market. The shift to digital has changed this radically and accessibility is now a central concern for publishers wishing to provide content in a variety of digital business models.  In a conversation last week, Sarah Hilderley, Accessibility Project Lead at EDItEUR and author of Accessible Publishing: Best Practice Guidelines for Publishers, described the change: ‘The publishing landscape is now user-oriented – accessibility by design rather than as a bolt-on option’. Hilderley warned that publishers need to learn to package EPUB 3.0 files correctly in order to reap the benefits of the opportunities it provides but that is was ‘an opportunity for accessibility to become the norm’. 

So publishing finally has an opportunity to provide accessible content but what are the possible benefits? Looking at this from a ‘traditional’ accessibility viewpoint it is naturally a good thing that the visually impaired and print disabled now have increased access to the books they need for their studies or their reading pleasure. But this is a big market and it has potential.  Robin Seaman, Director of Content Acquisition at Bookshare who provide accessible content to subscribers throughout the world, outlined the size of the market when she highlighted the fact that 80% of Bookshare users are not visually impaired but dyslexic. She went on to add that accessible content is also beneficial to English language learners through text-to-speech facilities and to those with learning difficulties such as autism and ADHD.  Seaman also noted that ‘25% of K-12 students would benefit from the accessibility options provided by digital content’. This is a large market and one that has been ignored for too long.

Seaman’s views are echoed by Helen Gunesekera, Publishing Strategy Officer at the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) whose paper, Can Everyone Read Your Books?, states that one in eight people in the UK have difficulty with reading. Dave Gunn, Technical Manager at the RNIB, speaking at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York in February this year outlined the necessity for publishers to adopt accessible publishing practices in order to extend the potential market and audience for their publications. His argument was supported by some arresting statistics on the changing make-up of the global population with over 34% of the world’s population being over 50 by 2050 and 21% of those having reading impairments. The potential market for accessible content is only going to continue to grow.

In recent times the death knell of the publishing industry has been sounded on an almost weekly basis due to the threat of piracy of digital content but the counter-argument is that digital is also creating the most exciting times in the industry since Gutenberg did some printing. Crippling content with draconian digital rights management will not solve piracy; it will only serve to alienate our customer base. The only effective response to piracy will be to create content which is focused on the user and seamless in its accessibility and purchase.

In his excellent article Portraits of an Industry in Flux: Digital Publishing and UX, Brett Sandusky, Director of Product Innovation for Kaplan Publishing, notes that ‘most of the traditional process of book publishing is insulated from the outside world…[and this] has led to an almost catastrophic denial of usability, and near complete impotence with issues related to customer satisfaction’.

In order to satisfy the demand for quality content in the format required by users it will be necessary for publishers to bake accessibility into their publishing workflows and their strategic decision-making.  Engineering an excellent user experience will be the key to success and it will be informed by a field that has been overlooked for too long by publishers: accessibility. 

James Holman utilised human echolocation to access his 19th century world.  Publishers will need to understand their environment and listen to their users if they are to stay relevant in the years to come.