Accessibility has always been a goal for IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum), dating back to its foundation in 2000. By making the mainstream standard format for e-books and other digital publications accessible by design, says executive director Bill McCoy of IDPF, “it will help enable accessibility to be the default expectation for the reader, not the exception. As every book will soon be available in a digital edition, there is a huge opportunity to enhance the reader experience and accessibility for everyone.”

EPub2 was reasonably accessible, much more so than PDF, points out McCoy. “But it was limited in the types of content it could represent, being most suited to simpler text-centric content. EPub3 marked a huge leap forward both in ePub being able to represent all types of rich and interactive content, and in meeting all accessibility requirements of that content due to its close partnership with DAISY Consortium.”

EPub3’s key a11y features, for instance, include semantic enhancement of markup (for both new native HTML5 elements and epub:type), media overlays (enabling synchronization of audio playback and text rendering) and text-to-speech enhancements (including the ability to embed pronunciation lexicon dictionaries and inline hints). “The fall-back mechanisms in ePub3 also help to ensure that another form of content can be substituted when necessary. For instance, a text description instead of a bitmap image or video,” adds McCoy, emphasizing that the rise of mobile devices means that it is imperative that content be adaptable to different screen sizes and user preferences on type size display. “The general feature of being structure-centric that makes ePub a great format for mobile devices also helps for accessibility, particularly as mobile and accessibility often go hand in hand when organizations adopt ePub3. IBM, for example, made ePub3 their preferred portable document format a few months back, highlighting both mobile support and accessibility.”

As e-textbooks become more prevalent, there will be increased accessibility concerns and greater ePub3 adoption to ensure access is available for all learners. Says McCoy, “Government education ministries and educational institutions around the world typically have mandates to make content accessible that may not always apply to consumer e-books in certain regions.”

IDPF’s accomplishment (and influence) in accessibility can be seen from the dramatic increase in accessible titles. “In the U.K., RNIB [Royal National Institute of Blind People] has been measuring this for years. In 2012, for instance, 84% of the top 1,000 titles were accessible compared to just 45% and zero in 2011 and 2009, respectively. It is interesting to note that in 2009, there were already specialized a11y digital formats including the original DAISY DTBook format, charitable efforts on Braille production, and the possibilities of making PDF accessible. Publishers simply were not able to invest the time to create special accessible editions despite a clear need,” says McCoy, adding that the increase in practical a11y has been due to the rise of adoption of mainstream consumer e-books powered by ePub.

IDPF’s new community based site EPUBZone has a specialist area dedicated to accessibility in ePub3 and provides guidance and resources on how to improve the accessibility of your ePub documents ( “Accessibility is not automatic and publishers should make sure that they build these important enhancements at the beginning of their content creation. In this way, accessibility becomes second nature and will be something all readers can expect to enjoy and make use of,” adds McCoy.

For Chennai-based AEL Data, accessibility services have been a unique part of its portfolio for over a decade. The main clients, says executive v-p Aditya Bikkani, are a group of Scandinavia-based agencies which distribute finished product to the visually impaired, or people suffering from dyslexia or other learning disabilities. “Our core expertise is in XML-based DTB [Digital Talking Book], where DAISY standards are used to create full-audio text, text-only and audio-only products.”

AEL Data also specializes in tactile graphic image production. “Tactile graphics are images—maps, paintings, graphs or diagrams, for instance—that convey non-textual information to visually impaired people. While there are many methods of producing tactile graphics, AEL Data is only concerned about producing the images that go to the Braille printer.” This workflow requires both designer and developer to look at the actual image together and reproduce it as non-textual information. “The biggest challenge lies in interpreting a visual image into lines of varying thickness and textures. It is left to the discretion of the designer to interpret the image as he or she thinks will benefit the visually handicapped user. Such designer would have first-hand knowledge of various Braille formats such as BANA, CBA, Netherlands and Finnish Libraries.” Over the years, AEL Data’s tactile graphic team, which has been trained by European specialists, has grown from one to seven people.

“Once the publisher decides on a specific standard to follow for tactile graphics, the biggest challenge can be easily addressed. Our Scandinavian clients are world leaders when it comes to accessibility, and some of them have created their own standards for us to follow. Such practice, however, may not be feasible for most publishers due to the higher costs and longer turnaround time. It is definitely much easier to a publisher going into accessibility products for the first time to adopt an already established standard for tactile graphics,” Bikkani advises.

Accessibility testing for Web sites and PDF documents based on Section 508 Compliance is another related service. “To be ‘accessible’ means that the Web site has to be built using certain tags and elements that will allow screen readers to read the content aloud. For instance, each cell in a table must have a header associated with it. Background images should not be used to convey information unless that information is also available elsewhere on the same page. Content should not blink, flash or flicker, or cause the screen reader to do so. In other words, moving flash banners will not make a Web site accessible.” PDF accessibility, on the other hand, depends on the existence of “tags”. “Screen readers can only read the ‘tagged’ version of the document. So an accessible PDF is a properly structured document with its tags providing a logical reading order. Tables within the document must have headers and summary with all form fields described properly,” explains Bikkani, adding that proofreading the tags is a challenge especially for STM subjects.

His team creates accessible PDF documents from sources such as Word and InDesign files. The content, adds Bikkani, “is tested using test cases and plans as per the client’s requirements. Some of the areas that need accessibility testing are graphs, scripts, frames, tables, images, multimedia elements and page orientation. A 300-page book with pure text and few tables would easily take four to five days to convert into an accessible PDF.”

DysLektz, an e-reader created by AEL Data for people with learning disabilities, has special coding to replace regular e-book fonts with a dyslexic font. “This open-source font, opendyslexia, also serves as a large print for the partially-sighted as its typesize can be increased by 200%. The work-in-progress for this app is the media overlay, which helps in narrating the text along with word- and sentence-level highlighting,” adds Bikkani, pointing out that the app is available for download for free on both iOS and Android stores.