Last week I attended the one-day conference “E-books and accessibility : ugly duckling or adolescent swan?” at Senate House in London. This was an excellent event organised by JISC TechDis, EDItEUR and the UCL Centre for Publishing, for librarians, disability resource staff and publishers. I was keen to find out more about providing a better service obtaining accessible ebooks for those students with some kind of print impairment, a service which the ebooks@cambridge team has been involved with since May 2012, in consultation with the lovely people at the DRC.
The event started with a powerful demonstration by James Scholes, a Computing undergraduate student from Leeds Metropolitan University who demonstrated using text-to-speech software on two ebook platforms. The first was inaccessible for his software as the PDF was locked by DRM, the text would not translate to speech and repeatedly we heard that access was denied (this is an ebook platform popular in Cambridge). The second ebook unprotected file was accessible and worked well, converting the text to speech, the images and tables in the book were alt tagged so also navigable.
Next we heard from Stephen King, President of the Daisy Consortium and Group Director at RNIB who explained how the Daisy Consortium was actively influencing publishers and standards to produce ebooks that were accessible for everybody. EPUB3, a new standard for ebooks (improving on the attributes of reflowable PDFs), has accessibility built in from the ground up. This version is for everybody, efficient and affordable for all, readable with eyes, ears and fingers, with no need for modification. Stephen said that publishers need to think seriously about producing ebooks in a format, i.e. EPUB3, from the start of the publishing process. Librarians need to tell ebook providers and publishers that accessibility is crucial and build this criteria into our procurement policies.
Alistair McNaught (JISC TechDis) then spoke eloquently about alternative formats in the real world of higher education and how they were obtained and used by librarians or disability resources staff. He mentioned that there are many more dyslexic learners than those with severe visual impairments, but due to lack of resources they are often ignored. Alistair focused on research carried out by CLAUD, a group of HE librarians in the South West, working to help create libraries accessible to people with a disability. He made the point that if publishers only receive a few accessibility requests they are not incentivised to invest in improvements, but if librarians started to besiege publishers with requests for accessible formats, they would start to improve for the sake of their business. Currently there is vast under-requesting for accessible texts by HE and a large majority of us working in libraries do not know if the ebooks platforms we are purchasing our ebooks on are accessible or not. The process of requesting accessible texts direct from some publishers is improving but can be a time-consuming, laborious process containing many steps and barriers. A revelation to me was the existence of a Publisher Lookup UK database containing key contact details of publishers, this will certainly make my life easier.
There followed a series of presentation by librarians working to support disabled learners in active and innovative ways; Liz Wyman works in an FE College library and by involving the academic staff at the very start of the process to support the needs of disabled students, teaching staff were forced to consider choices of textbooks for courses. The fact that students are far more likely to succeed if they are provided with accessible learning materials strikes a chord with teaching staff and promotes liaison between them and the library staff.
Aly Peacock runs a very proactive service mostly for visually impaired students or for those with mobility problems, with a team of 3 people within the library at Leeds Metropolitan University. Aly told us how the service had grown dramatically over 9 years and highlighted some of the difficulties they faced working with publishers. Her team was concentrating on putting the responsibility for support back on the academics, through pushing for standardised reading lists, and she was passionate about librarians needing to complain more vocally about bad inaccessible products.
Andy McMahon from Dundee University has costed the process of supporting disabled learners by obtaining accessible ebooks and in 2012 the service had costed the university @ £50,000. Andy’s conclusion was that it was imperative that ebook providers invest in accessible technology, he mentioned that Dundee was going to be switching ebook providers via the SHEDL consortium.
Paresh Raval is the Alternative Format Suite Manager at St Andrew’s University and with a team of volunteers he obtains and creates accessible books which are provided for free to those who need them for study. He stressed the need for building relationships and trust with publishers to try and ease the barriers to obtaining accessible texts.
The afternoon was for the publishers to tell us about what they were doing to make their ebooks accessible; Dr Alicia Wise spoke about Elsevier’s impressive formal accessibility framework and policy which went live in 2013; Chris Rogers of Penguin talked about the slow process of trying to address accessibility from the trade publisher’s perspective; Jenni Evans of VitalSource told us how publishers’ are using this technology to make their content very accessible and mobile friendly by loading ebooks on to the VitalSource platform, so entrusting the accessibility features to an expert provider without having to invest in-house; Veruschka Selbach of e-books.com talked of Ebook Services, aimed at publishers aiming to resolve the tensions between the use of DRM and accessibility tools; and Lynda Cooper of the Palgrave textbooks division in Palgrave Macmillan talked about how her team was working to initiate new accessibility workflows from the bottom up.
I learnt such a lot from this event, which explained in simple terms why EPUB3 was a game changer for accessibility.
I learnt always to ask for EPUB files when requesting accessible texts from publishers, reflowable PDFs are usually ok, but if librarians are asking for EPUB, the more likely the publishers will invest in this new standard.
I need to develop new accessibility criteria in my supplier’s checklist when evaluating ebooks platforms, and to demand accessibilty, and ask publisher’s about any user testing they’ve done for people with a range of disabilities using a variety of assistive technologies.
If more ebook publishers and aggregators were actively developing accessible platforms there would not be the need for librarians to make so many requests for alternative versions of books. To help convince publishers to invest, librarians (including me) need to SHOUT more!
There should be a shared approach, when one text has been made accessible (maybe through scanning) why could it not be stored in an international depository where it could be retrieved easily by others needing the same text for their students.
Most of the presentation slides from the day can be accessed from the conference website.
If you have any questions or want to know more about anything touched on in this blogpost please contact the ebooks@cambridge team at firstname.lastname@example.org.