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.

 


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Mike Groth

Michael Groth is Director of Marketing at Cenveo Publisher Services, where he oversees all aspects of marketing strategy and implementation across digital, social, conference, advertising and PR channels. Mike has spent over 20 years in marketing for scholarly publishing, previously at Emerald, Ingenta, Publishers Communication Group, the New England Journal of Medicine and Wolters Kluwer. He has made the rounds at information industry events, organized conference sessions, presented at SSP, ALA, ER&L and Charleston, and blogged on topics ranging from market trends, library budgets and research impact, to emerging markets and online communities.. Twitter Handle: @mikegroth72

NIMAS: Opportunities With XML-Based Accessibility Specifications for Publishers

Since the early nineteenth century invention of braille, the concept of making written content available to the blind or visually impaired has been a noble aspiration of civilized society. Making that concept a practical reality is another matter. Even as new, more automated, technologies arise, the challenges of accessibility remain formidable. For educational publishers, accessibility is particularly important. In the United States, schools receiving federal funding support are required to provide accessible content to any student or parent who requests it.

National Center for Accessible Educational Materials (AEM)

According to the National Center for Accessible Educational Materials (AEM), there are four major specialized output formats for adapting printed instructional material to the diverse needs of the visually impaired:

  1. braille
  2. large print
  3. audio
  4. digital text

While the first three are self-explanatory, "digital text" is a general category, encompassing any text and image descriptions that can be rendered by specialized or general-purpose digital devices. Each of these four output categories follow predictable rules and logic, there is a definable way to use a structured “master file” approach—creating the content once, and outputting as needed to as many formats as the market requires.

Let's Talk About Text

Of course when we talk about text, we must talk about structure. And when we talk about structure, we must talk about XML. In the context of accessibility, NIMAS is the XML-based specification that is the gateway (and the federal mandate) for K-12 and higher education content (i.e., textbooks and ancillaries). In a significant step forward for students with disabilities, the U.S. Congress adopted NIMAS as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, a reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

While some may view NIMAS as a costly regulatory barrier that must be overcome simply to maintain existing business, it is also possible to view NIMAS as providing an opportunity to assume a leadership position while retooling internal workflows to leverage the benefits of XML. Done right, these benefits include improved quality, enhanced flexibility, and increased speed to market.

Good vs Valid XML

Cenveo’s Senior Vice President of Content Solutions, Kevin Burns, reiterated the importance of creating “great” NIMAS compliant files instead of “good enough” files. “There is a distinction between a valid NIMAS compliant file and a great one,” he said. “You can have a NIMAS compliant file that is valid but doesn’t really achieve the spirit or the goal of what the content is supposed to be. What happens too often is that budgets demand, or conversion teams choose to do whatever is easiest (i.e., cheapest) instead of doing the right thing to create a good NIMAS compliant file.”

You can have a NIMAS compliant file that is valid but doesn’t really achieve the spirit or the goal of what the content is supposed to be. What happens too often is that budgets demand, or conversion teams choose to do whatever is easiest (i.e., cheapest) instead of doing the right thing to create a good NIMAS compliant file.

A common example is the long description for images—a NIMAS requirement for any visual element in a book. If the published caption or call-outs in the main text (words meant to enhance a sighted person’s understanding of an image) is simply copied and pasted into the long description field, it isn’t truly meaningful for someone visually impaired. Although this certainly saves on costs, and the resulting file will be NIMAS compliant because there is something in that field, but in some cases words could have little or no utility to someone who cannot see the image clearly, or at all.

Automation + Human Intervention = Quality

Yogesh Jedhe, Business Manager at Cenveo Publisher Services, outlines the basic process of creating NIMAS file sets---“The input is often a combination of Word files, hard copy, PDFs, application files, or XML—depending on the publisher.  We also receive existing metadata for the publication. Our teams leverage robust transformation technology tools to extract data from the source files, apply and edit XML as needed, and process and tag images. Finally, a team of content analysts at Cenveo spend time to make sure that the elements that require human judgment, like image descriptions, are created in a way that aligns with the true intent of the NIMAS standard. The team then uses tools to validate the resulting XML against the NIMAS schema, as well as against a series of business rules, which are designed to check the file beyond simple compliance with the NIMAS standard."

The team also works with subject matter experts to make sure that image description fields are populated with alternate text that truly help a visually impaired student. Other elements, such as math equations in MathML, are captured in such a way that they accurately and effectively convey information to the visually impaired.

NIMAS compliant files created by Jedhe’s group are rigorously tested and refined using a Cenveo-developed tool. However, the object is not simply to create technically valid files, but to ensure that the resulting content will communicate information to a visually impaired student as effectively as its core counterpart does to other students.

 

NIMAS White Paper

Read more by downloading our white paper on this topic. By the way, we made it accessible!


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Mike Groth

Michael Groth is Director of Marketing at Cenveo Publisher Services, where he oversees all aspects of marketing strategy and implementation across digital, social, conference, advertising and PR channels. Mike has spent over 20 years in marketing for scholarly publishing, previously at Emerald, Ingenta, Publishers Communication Group, the New England Journal of Medicine and Wolters Kluwer. He has made the rounds at information industry events, organized conference sessions, presented at SSP, ALA, ER&L and Charleston, and blogged on topics ranging from market trends, library budgets and research impact, to emerging markets and online communities.. Twitter Handle: @mikegroth72

Content Accessibility 101: NIMAS Basics

Since the early 19th century invention of braille, the concept of making written content available to the blind or visually impaired has been a noble aspiration of a civilized society. Making that concept a practical reality is another matter. Even as new, more automated technologies arise, the challenges of accessibility remain formidable.

Overview of documents and content required for the NIMAS fileset.

The rise of digital media has made the problem more acute since, like print, digital is an intensely visual medium. In his 2012 book Accessible EPUB3 (O’Reilly/Tools of Change), author Matt Garrish cites the phrase “digital famine,” meaning that only about 5% of books produced in a year are ever made available in an accessible format. “Although there are signs that this rate is beginning to tick upward with more ebooks being produced, the overall percentage of books that become available in accessible form remains abysmally small.”

For K-12 and higher education, the accessibility gap has dire consequences.  However, accessibility can mean significantly different approaches. According to a recent report from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), not all those 21 and younger who are legally blind use the same reading medium. Only 9% use braille, while 29% are visual readers and 8% are auditory readers; alarmingly, 35% are non-readers. In other words, compensating for visual impairment can take many forms: tactile, auditory, and assisted or enhanced visual techniques for those with partial sight.

One source; many outcomes

Thankfully, these differences all point to a data-centric approach which can, in theory, resolve the accessibility issue for publishers. Words and images, particularly images with rich, descriptive metadata, are almost all inherently digital today. By authoring or converting this digital source data to a structured, machine-readable format, publishers can output to multiple formats as a matter of economic feasibility and even profitability—not just because accessibility is a compliance mandate.

According to the National Center for Accessible Educational Materials (AEM), there are four major specialized output formats for adapting printed instructional material to the diverse needs of the visually impaired. The first is braille, an alphabet of dot patterns that can be embossed on paper or rendered via a display device. Large print is self-explanatory—and theoretically most adaptable to ebooks and other digital display media. Audio—particularly the computerized text-to-speech variety—is third, followed by “digital text,” a general category encompassing any text and image descriptions that can be rendered by specialized or even general-purpose digital devices.

Since each of these four output choices follow predictable rules and logic, there is a definable way to use a structured “master file” approach—creating the content once, and outputting as needed to as many formats as the market requires, with a minimum of manual intervention.

Enter NIMAS

By authoring or converting this digital source data to a structured, machine-readable format, publishers can output to multiple formats as a matter of economic feasibility and even profitability—not just because accessibility is a compliance mandate.

AEM is the developer of the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard or NIMAS (pronounced “nai-mass”), an XML-based specification for organizing and structuring textbook and other educational content. NIMAS is in turn a subset of an older XML standard known as Digital Accessible Information SYstem, or DAISY, used to create Digital Talking Books or DTBs. Books stored in NIMAS XML can be easily rendered in any of the four basic output formats, and made available to schools or programs for visually impaired.

In the U.S., schools receiving federal funding support are required to provide materials in NIMAS format, and to facilitate the resulting output formats for their students. Increasingly, publishers must meet that requirement, and are looking for ways not only to comply with the federal mandate but also to increase the output flexibility of their overall operations.

We can help

Interested in learning how Cenveo Publisher Services can help your publishing organization manage content conversion to NIMAS and generate NIMAS filesets for delivery to the National Instructional Materials Access Center? Just click the button below and let us show you how we make it easy to support all your readers.

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Mike Groth

Michael Groth is Director of Marketing at Cenveo Publisher Services, where he oversees all aspects of marketing strategy and implementation across digital, social, conference, advertising and PR channels. Mike has spent over 20 years in marketing for scholarly publishing, previously at Emerald, Ingenta, Publishers Communication Group, the New England Journal of Medicine and Wolters Kluwer. He has made the rounds at information industry events, organized conference sessions, presented at SSP, ALA, ER&L and Charleston, and blogged on topics ranging from market trends, library budgets and research impact, to emerging markets and online communities.. Twitter Handle: @mikegroth72