Emma House, 03 November 2014
A decade or more ago, the publishing industry was struggling to find solutions to the apparently intractable challenge of how to make more large-print books available, more quickly, and more inexpensively, to benefit the steadily enlarging cohort of the book reading community as the challenge of age-related visual impairment grows.
Now, technology has quietly, and without much fuss, come to our aid. e-Reader devices may not yet be for everyone, but anecdotally at least a growing proportion of people with age-related visual impairment are turning to ebooks – making it possible for them to have “large print” editions of almost every book published, available to them on the same day as to everyone else and at the same price as everyone else is paying.
Large print however does nothing for those who read Braille, or who can only listen to books – or the much larger group whose need to change a range of aspects such as spacing between letters, words or lines, text or background colours, to help them overcome dyslexia.
Totally inclusive publishing – mainstream publishing that is accessible to everyone – is, thanks to technological advance, potentially not far away. It will become unnecessary to produce versions of books that are created specially for people with print impairment. This should be our objective and as an industry we must all play our part in getting this to happen. It also makes good publishing sense: the quality, care and clean structure of e-books that persons with print disability require will make these books more flexible and useful to other readers as well. What faster way is there, for example, to learn a language than to read a foreign language book, while it is read aloud to you at a pace you can set yourself?
However, this isn’t a task for publishers alone. EPUB3 provides a format that will enable publishers to create accessible ebooks, but it will still be possible to create completely inaccessible ebooks. And even if e-book files are accessible, the technical platforms – e-readers – may not support accessibility features. The supply chain itself is also a potential stumbling block – the retail experience needs to be accessible.
In the UK, the Publishers Association has over the last eight years brought together a group of like-minded individuals and organisations to work together as the “Accessibility Action Group” (AAG), raising awareness and providing practical advice to publishers and the rest of the supply chain of the need to build accessibility into the publishing programme. The PA has developed Publisher Guidelines to meet the permissions needs of people with a print disability in further and higher education. The PA has also worked with JISC TechDIS to deliver “Publisher LookUp”, a service to help both educationalists seeking to source electronic formats of textbooks for students with disabilities; and publishers seeking to respond in a timely and effective manner to such requests. The PA, with support from the Society of Authors and Association of Authors Agents, has issued a recommendation that text to speech is routinely enabled on all e-books across all relevant platforms, at least where there is no audiobook edition commercially available.
Individual members of the PA AAG have equally made strides in developing other guidelines and services; most recently the RNIB has launched a new digital audio library for people with sight loss, opening up a greater range of titles to blind and partially sighted booklovers.
All of these are small steps towards attaining the inclusive publishing goal.
On a global scale, the International Publishers Association (IPA) has been working closely with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in joint projects with the World Blind Union and other advocacy groups. The most recent outward sign of this collaboration was the creation of the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC), launched in Geneva in July 2014 after the signing of the Marrakesh Treaty.
ABC is designed to advance a number of strands of work which have been in progress for a number of years, including facilitating the process of the managed sharing of accessible versions of books across borders; the building of capacity to support readers with print impairment in least developed countries; and advocacy and support for the inclusive publishing agenda across the globe.
As the first step in its inclusive publishing workstream, ABC has drafted a Charter for Accessible Publishing to which the IPA is encouraging publishers across the globe to commit.
Growing numbers of publishers are signing the charter and stepping up to the challenge to play their part in meeting the aspirations of people with print impairment to have the equality of access that is within their grasp through technology. This won’t happen overnight but slowly, then suddenly, and before too many years have passed, it will have happened.
Co-authored with Mark Bide, Special Adviser on Digital Publishing, Special Adviser on Digital Publishing, Standards and Accessibility Strategy, International Publishers Association.