I’m just one among many people who have been writing about accessibility for years. It has felt, frankly, as if our messaging was failing to register much. There has been virtually no overt resistance—nobody disputes that people with disabilities should have the same access to systems and content as everybody else—yet people have pretty much just kept going about their business, posting websites and publishing books with clear accessibility problems.
I’m a publishing technology consultant, so I get to see into the underlying code of a lot of books and websites. Though in my speaking and writing I’ve stressed how much easier it is to get accessibility right these days, thanks to advances in standards and technologies, the truth of the matter is that most books and websites still have accessibility issues.
So it was with what I can only characterize as shock to see a groundswell of interest in my recent column in PW, “How Publishers Can Get Alt Text Right.” As I usually do, I shared a link to it via LinkedIn. Within less than a day, it had been viewed a thousand times; as I write this, it’s up to 3,253 views. To put that in perspective, I would have been surprised to get 325 views, and not surprised to get 32. And that was just LinkedIn. PW reports the piece received about 1,400 pageviews—more than double that of the average number of views that week.
Apparently a lot of people are interested in knowing how to get alt text right!
There’s more to the story. A leading accessibility website, Inclusive Publishing, republished the column. It ran in the BISG Newsletter the following week, and a widely circulated publishing technology newsletter linked to it; an important publishing listserv linked to it, as well. It received lots of comments (one saying it was the best explanation on the subject the writer, an accessibility specialist, had ever seen), which means there was also sharing I would have no way of knowing about. I had nothing to do with any of these things except getting the permission for Inclusive Publishing to republish.
Maybe the messaging is finally resonating. Maybe people are no longer just nodding and going about their business. Maybe people—lots of people—are proactively working on dealing with their accessibility issues!
To get another perspective on whether there really is a jump in interest, I checked in with Charles LaPierre, technical lead at Benetech, a leading nonprofit that is a major promoter and enabler of accessibility. Charles has led the charge to make books that are born digital also be born accessible.
One of the key initiatives in the born accessible movement is Benetech’s Global Certified Accessible (GCA) program, which Charles runs with his colleague Michael Johnson. Benetech does an in-depth study of a representative selection of EPUBs from a given publisher to assess whether they are consistently properly accessible. This involves both intensive analysis and consulting with the publisher to help them address any shortcomings. Only when its books consistently pass muster does the publisher qualify for certification.
Benetech also analyzes the output from leading prepress and conversion vendors, the firms that create the majority of those EPUBs. While they can’t actually certify that any EPUB produced by those vendors is properly accessible—vendors can only do what their customers ask for, and pay for—they can approve a vendor as having demonstrated the ability to produce properly accessible EPUBs.
GCA has been underway for almost four years. For the first couple of years, there was little uptake. “Initially only a handful of publishers were engaging with us,” Charles confesses. “A lot of publishers said they couldn’t spend the money and didn’t have the bandwidth.” Same old story. Accessibility is just too much trouble.
But recently, there’s been a surge of interest. “When Macmillan Learning got certified,” Charles tells me, “our phone started ringing off the hook. The top management of the big higher education publishers asked their staff, ‘Why aren’t we getting that certification?’ Not being certified accessible became a competitive liability.” Now all those big higher ed publishers are in the process of getting certified.
While accessibility is a particularly critical issue for higher education publishers, Benetech is hearing from trade and scholarly publishers, as well. And it has begun to reach out globally: eBound Canada is now certifying Canadian publishers using Benetech’s GCA process, and Benetech is working with organizations in Europe and elsewhere to enable GCA certification to be done in languages other than English.
“It’s snowballing,” Charles says. “We’re at a real tipping point.”
It seems that the surprising reaction to my column was not a fluke. It appears that the tide has turned. Maybe accessibility is finally going mainstream.
Bill Kasdorf is principal at Kasdorf & Associates, a consultancy focusing on accessibility, information architecture, and editorial and production workflows. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.