E-books offer unprecedented opportunities for those with print disabilities. Alistair McNaught discusses how this can be applied and what the Aspire project is doing to improve accessibility.
In theory, books in digital format are more accessible to disabled people than a hardcopy alternative.
Hardcopy print books have their own pleasures, but flexibility is not one of them. Font size, typeface, line spacing or letter spacing, and colours are all fixed. Navigation options are limited. The text cannot speak to them.
By contrast, e-books can do some or all of these things, making them much more effective for people with a range of print disabilities.
Defining print disability
A print disability is any disability that impairs the normal use and enjoyment of hard copy print. It thus includes:
- Blindness: people with no sight can use screenreader technology to navigate the reading platform and have the text read aloud using synthetic speech.
- Low vision: this may include people requiring higher than normal magnification or people with a very limited field of vision due to a range of eye conditions. It may also include people with colour contrast difficulties who need to change background or foreground colours in order to read comfortably.
- Hearing impaired: although deafness has no impact on the visual process of reading it can impact on early language acquisition and, for sign language users, written language is effectively a foreign language with different grammar. Skim-reading can therefore be difficult so instant navigation by section and subsection headings is very helpful, as well as the ability to click on unfamiliar words for a definition.
- Mobility difficulties: aside from the difficulty of physically getting to a library, people with mobility difficulties may struggle to hold a textbook and turn the pages while making notes. Using a computer with appropriate input devices can help or mitigate this. Using text-to-speech tools may also reduce required physical activities.
- Cognitive differences: some people lack “automaticity” in reading. This may be due to neurodiversity (e.g. dyslexia) or coming from a different language background. Text-to-speech tools assist comprehension and reading accuracy.
- Concentration difficulties: these can arise from a variety of issues ranging from mental health to ADHD, dyslexia etc. Functionality such as navigation by headings/subheadings and text-to-speech can help readers remain focused.
- Learning difficulties: in the leisure reading market, adults with learning difficulties face a famine of age-appropriate reading material. They may lack the literacy to read adult fiction and non-fiction texts that would give them pleasure. Again, text-to-speech can open up new worlds of interest and opportunity.
If e-books are the solution, what is the problem?
Fundamentally, there are two problems: reliability and information.
Some e-books fulfil all the wishlists of disabled people, but many don’t. There are variables in the system, variations in practice and a dearth of information. These variables include:
- The accessibility practices of the production team and the formats they work with.
- Some formats like EPUB and HTML have higher “native accessibility” than PDFs.
- PDFs can be highly accessible but need active managing for reflow, navigation and reading order, otherwise accessibility is compromised.
- The reading tool through which the content is delivered.
- Adobe Reader can provide a high degree of personalisation for well-designed PDF, such as colour change, magnification and reflow, text-to-speech and screen reader compatibility. It won’t handle EPUB files.
- Adobe Digital Editions works well with screen readers but is hopeless for text-to-speech, colour changing or reflow with PDFs. It makes a poor job of displaying the accessibility benefits of EPUB files.
- BlueFire Reader gives good visual display options for EPUB but is poor on text-to-speech or screenreader access.
- Microsoft Edge is very good for inbuilt text-to-speech on PDFs or EPUBs but doesn’t give the range of display options that BlueFire reader provides for EPUB or that Adobe Reader provides for PDFs.
- Browsers do a great job with HTML files and can enhance accessibility using text-to-speech, colour changing or navigation plug-ins. There are also plug-ins to read EPUB files.
- The accessibility skills and awareness of the reader. Many students don’t experience academic e-book systems until their first year at university. Most students would not know what accessibility features they could or should expect.
A reasonable expectation
A publisher should know the accessibility features of their post-production file formats. They should also know whether digital rights management (DRM) will tie the reader to using a particular reading system (e.g. Adobe Digital Editions). Likewise, a platform provider should know the accessibility features of the interface through which the “online reading” option is delivered. Both parts of the supply chain are in a position to provide all the information a disabled reader needs in order to answer two fundamental questions:
- Which of your accessibility practices will help me access this content more efficiently and effectively?
- Will I need to request an alternative format?
The more information is available to answer the first question, the less need there will be to answer the second.
Some suppliers are already well down this road. Elsevier Science Direct proactively directs people with different access needs to the accessibility features of their platform. This is excellent practice. Unfortunately, it is also relatively rare.
What we learned through Aspire
From the start of the Aspire project in January 2018 to the launch of the Aspire website in October 2018 we learned many important lessons. These are the key ones:
1. We have mutual self-interest
Publishers, librarians, aggregators and disability support staff have worked together in collaborative, cooperative ways recognising that we all want the same goal—more people reading more books, and doing this more effectively and more independently.
2. What we need is achievable
Although it can take months or years for production processes to change, it can take less than afternoon to refresh accessibility information and let all users know what works, what works quite well, and what doesn’t work. This alone can help disabled readers and those who support them to identify opportunities and potential barriers. It can save wasted time and helps support teams triage different needs. The Aspire audit questionnaires list the information that librarians and support staff have told us they need.
3. We are currently underwhelmed with accessibility information
There are several publishers and aggregators who actively work to improve both the accessibility of the product and the quality and clarity of accessibility information. However, as seen in the two charts, we couldn’t find any accessibility information for 42% of publishers and 24% of platform providers. When we did find this information, it tended to be scant: only 4 of 54 platform providers got more than half marks.
4. We have an opportunity
The involvement of suppliers in the Aspire project meant that several were already in the process of improving their accessibility statement before the audit took place. Several more are using the audit results to argue internally for improved information on the website. There are marketing advantages for suppliers in pointing to high-quality accessibility information about their products. There are financial benefits for libraries in prioritising supplies with good accessibility information since it can streamline support and reduce costs.
We are planning a new opportunity for a mini audit to allow suppliers to improve their information and improve their scoring/ranking. This will enable them to demonstrate “distance travelled” as well as enabling the 140+ individuals who contributed to see the impact of their commitment.
We encourage all library staff with publisher/aggregator contacts to talk to them about their Aspire score. If it’s good, congratulate them. If not ask them how they are responding to it. Equally, we encourage all suppliers to work on actively improving the information and its discoverability, particularly before the follow-up audit.
About the Author
Alistair McNaught's background included 20 years teaching where his passion for making students independent learners led to close links with the library and early adoption of digital resources in teaching and learning. He accidentally drifted into e-learning, recognising the opportunities it afforded students, particularly student disabilities. Alistair worked at Jisc's TechDis advisory service for over 10 years. He now works as Jisc's accessibility specialist.
Please contact Alistair with questions or if you would like to be added to the mailing list.
The Aspire Project website and more information can be found here: http://tiny.cc/aspire2018
This article was originally published in the Winter CITE Forum Magazine.