Technology can underpin inclusivity, especially in online publishing. Reach, availability, (potentially) lower cost, content, and the medium of epublishing allows more people to share and access information, but is all digital content accessible to everyone?
I had an enlightening conversation about accessible publishing with Wendy Reid, accessibility and publishing standards lead at Rakuten Kobo Inc., who is immersed in the delivery of accessible publishing.
Accessible Publishing at Kobo
“I strongly believe reading is for everyone, and with digital reading, that is even more true,” began Reid. “Ebooks and audiobooks have reopened the world of reading to those with print disabilities, and I think it’s our responsibility as a retailer, publisher, and developer to ensure that the books we sell and the apps we build are as accessible as possible.”
“At Kobo our mission is to support readers from their first words to their final chapter,” shared Reid.
“I am lucky enough that I work for a company that not only shares that vision but encourages it enough to dedicate both a role and support for making that vision happen. Working on making more accessible products is simply the right thing to do, so I don’t often have to work too hard to convince my colleagues to put time into this.”
Reid also shared how her role also relates to almost every part of the business. Said Reid, “I’ve put most of my focus into the parts that are customer-facing, but I also hope to transform things internally, especially as we work to recruit more people with disabilities into the workplace.”
Accessible Publishing Best Practices
“First and foremost, all content should be born accessible,” remarked Reid.
“Building accessible content from the start is the best possible way to make your [content] available to as large an audience as possible. This means everything: books, blog posts, videos, podcasts, etc. Making content accessible does take a little bit of effort, but the return on investment is huge.”
Advised Reid, “My main advice to publishers is to use the standards. Ebooks are built using web technologies like HTML and CSS, so when publishing your books, focusing on how content translates into those is key. There is a lot of information out there on how to create accessible ebook files and publications, and more is being developed every day.”
“For our own publishing programs,” shared Reid, “we make sure to focus on the basics like structure, alternative text for images, and proper semantic markup. Beyond that, we work with vendors that are familiar with accessible ebook production and perform testing.”
“Testing …. can be a lot of work but catching issues before publication is a lot easier than receiving a report after.”
Added Reid, “another big thing to do is to work with people with lived experience. Hire them! Working with organizations that can connect you with people with disabilities will be a huge benefit to any publishing program.”
I asked Reid to share some of her expertise in accessible publishing standards.
“Working on standards is unlike anything I’ve done in other parts of my career,” began Reid. “It can be hard to explain if you’ve never done it. W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is a body that brings together various stakeholders of the web to solve problems and develop standards for those solutions. One of the core parts of that process is consensus, which means solutions aren’t built by the loudest person or the most convincing, but by everyone coming together and exploring options until we come to something we can all agree on.”
Explained Reid, “You also have to assess all possible angles to a problem or solution, something that is the most practical or simplest to implement might present issues in another language, or for accessibility, or raise privacy concerns. It takes a long time for something to go from initial proposal to published recommendation, which can be a strange experience in a fast-moving industry like tech. That slowness is often for the benefit of all, by the time something reaches “Recommendation” status it’s been reviewed by hundreds of people from around the world.”
“When it comes to publishing for the web, it’s challenging,” commented Reid.
“Publishing is a huge umbrella under which a number of businesses operate,” Reid said. “Just in book publishing we have to consider education, trade, higher education, comics, and the sub-categories within those. We are still working on this from a standards perspective as there are still more questions than solutions, especially when it comes to publishing on the web.
“Specifically, for EPUB and Audiobooks, we had more answers than questions. EPUB is a 20-year-old standard, so our current work on it (version 3.3), is mainly to clean up the document, fix some long-standing issues, and bring it into the family of W3C specifications. For Audiobooks, we did not have a lot to work from, as there wasn’t an audiobook standard previously, but we did have the benefit of looking back at EPUB and related standards to see what works and what doesn’t. Audiobooks is still quite new, and as I mentioned before, since publishing is slow-moving industry, there continues to be work to do to implement it as a standard throughout the industry.”
Accessible Publishing Innovation
So, what is relevant and new in this area?
Reid explained that in terms of technical innovation available for publishers right now, “there aren’t too many innovative tools or tricks! It’s really about the proper application of technologies they are already using, like HTML or CSS.”
Reid said, “There is some activity happening in terms of AI (artificial intelligence) in helping automate ebook production, but it’s still quite early”.
“The biggest opportunities are likely in time-consuming areas like formatting, applying markup, and image alternative text. The challenge with alternative text and AI is context, which still requires a human touch. AI can tell you that something is a flower, but if the book is a horticulture textbook, it is more important to know it’s a tulip.”
“In terms of software and hardware on the reading system side, there is always something happening,” added Reid. “A lot of reading system features don’t get marketed specifically as accessibility features, but many are.
“My favourites in recent years have been the addition of physical page turn buttons on our eReaders, audiobooks on apps and devices, and our work to build support for more languages.”
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