Accessibility for Education Publishers

K-12 and Higher Ed publishers provide complex content that is deeply intertwined with Learning Management Systems and other digital deliverables. That makes accessibility harder—and potentially more rewarding.

Guest blog by John Parsons

Accessibility for educational publishers

In our recent blog, we tackled the issues of accessibility—for visually and cognitively impaired readers—in the realm of scholarly journal publishing. The solutions are (fairly) straightforward for that industry, because you’re dealing mostly with documents, and lots of text. Other types of publishers deal with a broader range of issues and output channels, so for them accessibility is more complex. Near the top of this difficulty scale are education publishers.

Even before the rise of digital media, education textbooks—notably in the K-12 market—posed significant accessibility challenges. Complex, rich layouts, laden with color, illustrations, and sidebars, made textbooks a rich, visual experience. Such books can be a treat for sighted students, for whom publishers have invested much thought and design research. For those less fortunate, however, a rich visual layout is an impediment.

Going Beyond Print

For printed textbooks, traditional accessibility fixes like large print and Braille are usually not cost-effective. Recorded audio has been a stopgap solution, but still a costly one, unlikely to handle the ever-increasing volume of educational material. Fortunately, the advent of digital media has far greater potential for making textbooks accessible.

When textbooks are produced as HTML or EPUB (but not PDF), the potential for greater accessibility is obvious. Type size can be adjusted at will. Text-to-speech can provide basic audio content with relative ease. Illustrations can be described with alt text—although care must be taken to insure its quality. Even reading order and other “roadmap” approaches to complex visual layouts can make digital textbooks more accessible than a printed version could ever be.

The real key is digital media’s inherent ability to separate presentation and content. Well-structured data and a rich set of metadata can be presented in multiple ways, including forms designed for the visually and cognitively impaired. Government mandates, including the NIMAS specifications, have accelerated this trend. Publishers themselves have developed platforms and service partnerships to make the structuring of data and metadata more cost-effective—even when the government mandate is outdated or insufficient. (The reasons for doing this will be the subject of a future blog.)

The LMS Factor

What makes accessibility for educational publishers far more difficult is not textbooks, however. Particularly in higher education but increasingly in K-12, textbooks are only part of a much larger content environment: the Learning Management System or LMS. Driven by the institutional need to track student progress, and provide many other learning benefits and related technologies, the LMS is typically a complex collection of text content, media, secure web portals, and databases. Although textbooks still form a large portion of LMS content, studies from the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) indicate that the field is undergoing a radical shift.

This has massive implications for accessibility. Not only must publishers provide reading assistance for text and descriptions for images, they also must deal with the interactive elements of a typical website. This includes color contrast, keyboard access, moving content control, and alternatives—probably alt text—for online video and other visually interactive elements. A sighted person might have no difficulty with an online quiz, but the process will be very different for the visually impaired.

Fortunately—at least for now—the online elements of most LMSs are deployed on standard desktop or laptop computers, not mobile devices. The BISG study indicates that this is because more students have access to a PC, but not all have a tablet or e-reader. This makes the publisher’s task “simpler”—with fewer variations in operating systems and interfaces—but that will change as mobile device use increases. LMS features on smartphones are the start of new accessibility headaches for publishers.


As I pointed out in the previous blog, service providers have a major role in making accessibility affordable. This is especially true for educational publishers. Automating and standardizing content and metadata are usually out of reach, even for the largest publishers. Even keeping up to date with government and industry mandates, like Section 508 and WCAG 2.0, are best handled by a common service provider.

As with journal publishing, the overall workflow will make accessibility cost-effective in the complex, LMS-focused world of educational publishing. Fortunately, given the size and scope of that industry’s audience, it also makes the goal of accessibility more rewarding.


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