Redefining Accessibility to Help Save Publishing

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


I have the honor of being on the National Task Force on Accessible Materials Innovation that is part of the Center for Accessible Materials Innovation (CAMI, Ostensibly, we are charged with aiding in the success of students with disabilities. The hope, of course, is that we can develop standards and methods to make books more accessible to students with print-related disabilities. The task force is comprised of talented professionals who bring a number of perspectives to the conversation. There is one thing that we all have in common: we all view accessibility as having application to the “able-bodied.” I, for one, believe that by expanding the definition of accessibility to be more inclusive, there are practical applications that will advance publishing and help make publishing professionals more relevant.

In the narrow sense, we consider accessibility to encompass the augmentation to a book to make it readable for a person who is blind, is sight impaired, or has some other print deficit. This usually means things we can do to electronic books to allow text-to-speech programs to read them. This implies making sure that the read order makes sense, tables are converted to lists, and alternative descriptive text is provided for images. It can also mean properly identifying head levels and providing semantic tagging for emphasis. All of these things are done so that text can be “read” in a way that is meaningful to those who cannot see the page. In publishing, accessibility is usually an afterthought.

Imagine if we broadened the definition of accessibility to mean constructing a book so that it is most easily accessed by everyone? Or if we thought of enhancements in e-books as augmentations to improve the readability of a book (with the expressed purpose of pulling readers into it) instead of additions like audio and video that offer distraction from the written narrative? We could do a number of things when publishing a book to meet this goal. We could make the book easier to locate (access, after all, implies the ability to find it). We could construct it to be read in any preferred format. We could design the book in a comprehensive way. We could connect the elements of the book together to draw in readers’ attention. And we could remove barriers that limit the range of the book to anyone interested in its contents. In other words, we would create a book that would reach its audience in any format—accessibility.

The first thing that we would do is create the print book in such a manner as to make it most easily read and converted into electronic format. This means setting up a book so that its organization can be discerned in an intuitive manner and its content can be transformed using an automated or algorithmic method. The print book would have predictable, sufficient style differentiation and be properly and consistently named. It would assume that variations in treatment (like font, size, indentation, etc.) had semantic value and were defined as such. And while we could still design a book to have the desired look and feel that we wish, it would mean a consciousness of what the design conveys and the recognition that all conventions in typography convey meaning.

Accessibility also would imply that a book could be easily searched from within or located from without. Finding a book from the outside would mean it could be accessed from any point from which people seek information (e.g., Google), not merely on a store’s site (e.g., Amazon). To be fully accessible means that a book could be found even if someone did not know that he or she was looking for it. This would mean properly (and consistently) structuring content so that it would be ranked high within search engines’ algorithms. We would build the book so that it was easily and faithfully converted from one format to another. We would not include frivolous components that impeded comprehension, were difficult to interpret, or could not be found. And we would naturally edit content so that it was optimized for accessibility. For images, this might mean changing the method by which captions are written. We would only use tables when they actually aided in conveying the meaning of the content (which is the rare instance) instead of including them to appeal to our sense of design.

Searching for information within a book requires that the text must fit the criteria of search engines and the tools available within the reading environments (e.g., e-book readers). These criteria not only provide the best way for something to be found on the web but also correspond to “finding” things within a book. Meeting search criteria implies properly structuring content based on its hierarchy and meaning instead of its appearance on a printed page. In the electronic world, it also means improving links to information. To automate this merely requires that elements be properly defined (you can use a style) so that they can be automatically linked. For example, internal references, glossary terms, hyperlinks, and so on would be identified as such, not merely treated as boldface or another type of augmented font style. If we are going to spend the time to index a book (after all, indexes are methods to improve accessibility), we would make sure to perform indexing in ways that properly delimited pertinent concepts. This would require that we alter the stage at which we index and approach indexing in a more deliberate manner.

Making books accessible might dramatically help improve the publishing industry. It is axiomatic that a book will not be purchased if it cannot be found. But we also know that well-crafted books inspire more reading. To accomplish greater accessibility means writing, editing, typesetting, and creating e-books with intention and planning. It requires developing a professional level of knowledge and application that is suitable to the contemporary world in which books are read. Minimally, all of us need to take care and think about how our books are found, read, interpreted, and connected instead of merely performing our sole function of changing grammar or designing pages. Almost four years ago, we published an article arguing that we, as publishing professionals, need not become redundant.1 Perhaps, in the crafting of accessible books we might make them more relevant—and reestablish our value.