Aiming for Accessibility

As the manager of Ooligan’s digital department, I oversee the creation of our ebooks and help maintain our websites, and I also keep an eye on current technical trends and best practices in the larger publishing world. Lately, I’ve been struck by the importance of incorporating accessibility into the ebooks we create.

According to Accessible Books Consortium, 10 percent of people in the developed world and 15 percent in the developing world have some degree of impairment that can seriously affect their ability to read, such as blindness, low vision, dyslexia, or motor disabilities.

To learn more about current efforts to make books accessible, I spoke with Kristin Waites, digital products assistant at MIT Press. At last spring’s ebookcraft, a Toronto event that brings together ebook developers from all over the world, Waites co-presented “Creating a Roadmap for Accessibility,” a look at how to incorporate accessibility into a publishing house workflow.

“The most compelling argument for getting people inspired about accessibility is that you’re making your book better generally,” says Waites. “A lot of times, people say, how many blind people are there? How many customers are we going to gain? That’s not the right way to think about it.”

Waites compares accessibility to curb cuts, the little ramps from sidewalks into the street. The curb cuts were intended for people in wheelchairs, but once they were installed, other people used them for strollers, shopping carts, bicycles, and so on. “They benefit everyone,” says Waites. “But no one realized that until they were there.”

In the same way, we as publishers need to realize that the accessibility features we implement will help everyone, not just someone with a specific disability.

What are some steps we can take toward accessibility?

  • Structurally-tagged content—When we create our books, we can mark up elements of the text with tags that declare what function they serve. Is this a headline, a paragraph, or a list item? This structural tagging enables readers who aren’t able to use the visual cues of styling to still understand the meaning of the content.
  • Logical reading order—Tagging content with semantic markup also makes it possible for visually impaired readers to stay with the main flow of the book and not get stalled by every footnote and sidebar that a sighted reader would recognize as supplementary to the main content.
  • Use of color—We can make sure that we don’t rely on color to convey essential meaning and that there is adequate contrast between text and backgrounds.
  • Alternate text—For all illustrations and images, we can include a text description of the visual content so that reading devices can use that alt text to identify and describe images.

At Ooligan, our existing workflow—in which we tag all of our books during the editorial phase—gives us a great start toward accessibility. However, there are areas in which we could do better; fortunately, there are many resources available to help us do so. Here are some great starting points:

The tools and knowledge are out there for us to make reading more accessible to all; it’s essential that we start to use them.

[For a full Q&A with Kristin Waites, please visit StephanieArgy.com]

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