Accessibility for Trade Book Publishers

The venerable world of trade books has had accessibility options since the early 19th Century invention of Braille. However, only in the digital age has it been possible to make all books accessible to the visually impaired.

Guest blog by John Parsons

In the 1820s, Charles Barbier and Louis Braille adapted a Napoleonic military code to meet the reading needs of the blind. Today’s familiar system of raised dot characters substitutes touch for vision, and is used widely for signage and of course books and other written material. By the 20th Century, Braille was supplemented with large print books and records. For popular books these tools became synonymous with trade book publishers’ efforts to connect with visually impaired readers.

However, these tools—particularly Braille—has significant drawbacks. Before the advent of digital workflows, producing a Braille or even a large print book involved a separate design and manufacturing process, not to mention subsequent supply chain and distribution issues. But that has changed with the digital publishing revolution.

All Books Are “Born Digital”

With notable exceptions, trade books published since the 1980s started out as digital files on a personal computer. Word processors captured not only the author’s keystrokes but, increasingly, their formatting choices. (In the typewriter era, unless you count backspacing and typing the underline key, italics and boldface were the province of the typographer.)

On the PC, creating a larger size headline or subhead, or a distinct caption, evolved from a manual step in WordStar or MacWrite to a global stylesheet formatting command. When these word processing files made their way to a desktop publishing program, all the 12-point body copy for a regular book could become 18-point type for a large print version—at a single command.

Other benefits of digital-first content included a relatively easy conversion from Roman text characters to Braille, although that did not solve the actual book manufacturing process.

What really made the digital revolution a boon to accessibility was the rise of HTML—and its publishing offspring, eBooks. Web or EPUB text content can be re-sized or fed into screen readers for the visually impaired, but that’s only the start. It can also contain standardized metadata that a publishing workflow can use to create more accessible versions of the book.

Workflow Challenges

Trade books tend to be straightforward when it comes to accessibility challenges, but there are caveats that publishers and their service providers must address. The simplest of course is a book that is almost entirely text, with no illustrations, sidebars, or other visual elements. In those cases, the stylesheet formatting done by the author and/or publisher can be used to create accessibility-related tags for elements like headlines and subheads, as well as manage the correct reading order for Section 508 compliance.

Where things start to get tricky is when a book includes illustrations, or even special typographic elements like footnotes. To be accessible, the former must include descriptive alt text, which is usually best provided by an author, illustrator, or subject matter expert. Increasingly, just as writers became accustomed to adding their own typographic formatting, they may also include formatted captions containing this valuable, alt text-friendly information.

For other visual elements, service providers must fill in the accessibility gaps that authors cannot easily provide. This may include a certain amount of redesign, such as placement of footnotes at the end, to ensure continuity of reading, and defining the logical flow of content and reading order for page elements like sidebars. Service providers also add semantic structuring, alt text image descriptions not included by the author, and simplification of complex elements like tables.

It’s All About Format

Book publishers are already well ahead of the curve when it comes to accessibility. As mentioned in a previous blog, the page-centric PDF format is problematic. Fortunately, except for print workflows, trade publishers do not use it for their end product. In most cases, books are also produced in EPUB format, which is a derivative of HTML. These formats are accessible by default, although they need to be enhanced to meet the requirements of WCAG 2.0 standards. The gap is small, however, and can be easily bridged by focusing on design, content structuring, and web hosting.

Book reading for the visually impaired is no longer restricted to the popular titles, and compensatory technology of past centuries. With the advent of digital publishing, and the workflows that support and enhance it, accessibility for all books is an achievable goal.

 


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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

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.

Workflow—Again

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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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