Accessibility to books for the visually impaired has long suffered from “sounds good, maybe later” syndrome. Everybody knows that books should be accessible to people who have disabilities that impair their ability to read, but few publishers have tried to do something about it.
Why is that? It’s because publishers think that making books accessible requires extra effort, that it complicates their lives—and that it costs too much. Who’s got extra time and money? We want things to be simpler, not more complicated. This is one of those perceptions that’s mostly obsolete but has just enough truth to persist.
The reality is that the current requirements for accessibility no longer entail special coding or special formats. Especially for trade books, the specs are pretty much what we already know how to do: basically, (good) HTML and ePub 3. The goal today is for books to be “born accessible”: rather than being special versions with special features, they’re the same books and e-books available to everybody, produced by our standard workflows.
To get on track with this, I suggest checking out the new “BISG Guide to Accessible Publishing,” which can be found here. The previous version of this resource was somewhat misleadingly called a “Quick Start Guide”—a misleading title for a 70-page document. It came out in 2016, and it’s widely used even to this day. But a lot has happened since then, including the alignment of standards that are enabling the current prospect of “born accessible”: an ePub 3 with proper HTML tagging, some ARIA attributes (not rocket science: simple semantics that label components such as chapters and footnotes so that assistive technology can recognize them), a bit of accessibility metadata, and good image descriptions for books with images—that’s basically all that’s required now for many trade books.
The new BISG guide is almost twice as long as its predecessor and is only available digitally. That’s to enable it to be updated frequently and accessed online (though, yes, it will be available as an accessible ePub 3 too—duh!). The size is due to the fact that it is incredibly comprehensive and useful.
It’s the work of an all-star BISG working group of accessibility experts led by the late Robin Seaman of Benetech. Their combined expertise has resulted in a rich and reliable resource that is accessible to nontechnical people, even people unfamiliar with the issues, and is also useful to editorial, legal, and production people, as well as to others who need more in-depth guidance. And it provides links to a wealth of resources.
After an introduction by yours truly, it begins with a “Did You Know?” section that provides brief but compelling facts that build the case for why making books (and other publications) accessible is so important. It also describes why accessibility is practical and beneficial to publishers—since without a business case, nothing happens. It’s not just an obligation or legal requirement; making books accessible expands a publisher’s market and makes the product better for everybody, as it’s easier to discover, navigate, and read in more ways.
That’s followed by an overview of the ePub ecosystem, along with sections describing resources that make it easier to get things right, such as Ace by DAISY for automated testing of an ePub’s accessibility, the Accessible Publishing Knowledge Base, a description of accessibility testing of ePub 3 Reading Systems (what works where?), and Benetech’s Global Certified Accessible program, which certifies that a publisher or vendor is doing things right.
Then comes the big how-to section, “How to Create Accessible Content,” which begins with 17 “top tips” explained in clear, nontechnical language, followed by more technical detail and actual code samples for each one. This is incredibly useful. And to actually make it work within an organization, there’s a section on setting up internal teams and processes.
That’s followed by an extensive section on the legal aspects of accessibility, including descriptions of a broad range of laws and regulations, both in the U.S. and internationally, such as ADA, Section 508, and the Marrakesh Treaty (recently ratified by the U.S.), as well as discussions of copyright issues in various countries.
The main section of the guide ends with an extensive glossary of terms, which will be invaluable in helping people wade through the welter of acronyms and jargon. And finally, there are 36 pages of resources, with live links, to everything one might want to know more about: organizations; standards; resources for creating accessible images, math, and metadata; publications and conferences; training resources; sources for accessible materials; and much more.
Publishers will want to bookmark this guide. I guarantee they will find it useful.
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.