Accessibility: Because the Internet is Blind

Like the visually impaired, the Internet cannot “see” content the way a sighted human being does. It can only discover relevant content via searchable text and metadata. When publishers take the right steps to make content accessible, they also make it more discoverable.

Guest blog by John Parsons

In the past four blogs, we’ve discussed how to make different types of published content accessible to visually and cognitively impaired users. Throughout the series, we’ve covered the reasons why publishers should do so, including the moral argument and its related compliance requirements, such as Section 508, NIMAS, and WCAG 2.0. While digital workflows and service providers have made such compliance affordable and practical, there is another argument for accessibility—one that is a compelling benefit in the age of digital content: discoverability.

The Nature of the Internet

We tend to think of the Internet in general—and Web content in particular—as a visual experience. We view the screen as we would a printed document, albeit with far greater capabilities for interactivity and connection to other information. The tools for searching and discovering content are all visual as well. Typing in a phrase, scanning the results, and choosing what we want, are all familiar, visually-dependent habits.

However, what we are seeing is not the content, but an on-screen rendering. We’re seeing the programmed user interface. It may be highly accurate and functional, but it’s a product of underlying data. The technology itself does not “see” or experience the content as we do. It only handles data and its related metadata.

Discoverability Is the Key

In order to be found on the Internet, a piece of published content must have a logical, and keyword-prioritized structure. It must not only have text strings that a search engine can find, it must also have standardized and commonly used metadata that correspond to what human users expect to find. Well-structured XML serves that purpose for nearly all types of published content.

The good news is that accessibility and discoverability have the same basic solution: well-structured content and metadata. Best practices for one solution are applicable to the other!

Every area of publishing benefits from greater discoverability.

This changes the equation for publishers faced with accessibility compliance issues. If they apply a holistic approach to well-structured XML content, they will improve their overall discoverability, and lay the groundwork for systematic rendering of their content in multiple forms—including HTML and EPUB optimized for accessibility.

Multiple Benefits

Every area of publishing benefits from greater discoverability. For journal and educational publishers, well-structured content can be more easily indexed by institutions and services, leading to higher citation and usage levels. For trade book publishers, discoverability translates to better search results and potentially more sales. For digital products of any kind, it means a better overall user experience, not only for the visually impaired but also for all users.

This is especially the case when it comes to non-text elements of published content. The practice of adding alt text descriptions for images and videos benefits not only the visually impaired reader. It also makes such rich content discoverable to the world.

Best practices for structuring content do not happen automatically. They require forethought by authors, publishers, and service providers. More importantly, they require a robust, standards-based workflow, to include searchable metadata and XML tags—automatically wherever possible, and easily in all other cases.

The issues of accessibility are really only problematic when viewed in isolation. When viewed as a subset of a more compelling use case—discoverability—they become a normal and positive part of the publishing ecosystem.