Accessible publishing is good business

Dave Gunn on how ebook tech helps readers with disabilities and opens a new publishing market.

Accessible publishing has historically been a logistical challenge. Getting books printed in Braille or developing alternate formats to make books accessible to readers with disabilities were efforts that often fell to charitable organizations. Budget contraints and the sheer volume of work left a wide gap in the availability of titles.

Ideally, all books would be available in a variety of formats to accommodate the needs of any reader — a scenario that benefits publishers as much as it does readers. In the following interview, Dave Gunn (@AccessGeek), technical manager at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and a speaker at TOC 2011, talks about how far accessible publishing has come and how technological advancements are making accessible publishing easier.

How has accessible publishing evolved?

RNIB, DAISY, ePuBDave Gunn: RNIB’s work on accessible publishing standards began with our foundation in 1868 when we were known as the “British and Foreign Society for Improving Embossed Literature for the Blind.” Focused primarily on the provision of materials in Braille and other tactile formats, we were involved in leading work on the development of standards and production technologies.

At the end of World War I, many soldiers had lost their sight in action and returned home to a society ill-prepared for their needs. RNIB was involved in pioneering work to record audio versions of books, developing prototype technology called long-play recordings — a recording standard that was eventually adopted by the music industry. The technology at the time was a big leap forward, even if it wasn’t that practical, as a single “Talking Book” was typically played back over 10 double-sided 12-inch long-play records.

Standards and technology have moved on significantly, allowing us to offer a much more flexible and practical service to many more people. Over the years, there have also been considerable developments in technology for Braille and large-print production, for both hard-copy and electronic consumption, with electronic Braille displays offering a practical alternative to embossed pages for some users.

However, the current developments in ebook technologies present an opportunity for the most significant change to accessible publishing in decades. In fact, ebooks could benefit all users, irrespective of their preferred reading format.

Dave Gunn will explore the technologies and opportunities of accessible publishing at the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (Feb. 14-16, 2011).

Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD

What’s the current state of accessibility standards?

DG: The DAISY standard was developed by an international consortium to improve the availability and quality of mainstream publications to people with print disabilities. For the last 14 years, the DAISY standard has provided a common way for disability organizations, like RNIB, to convert print documents and create flexible resources to meet the needs of their client groups.

The vision of the DAISY Consortium, is “a world where people with print disabilities have equal access to information and knowledge, without delay or additional expense.” Developments in ebook formats and readers/players mean that this vision has come a big step closer to being realized.

The EPUB format has historically shared technology employed in the DAISY format, and starting this year, DAISY will adopt the EPUB 3.0 specification for delivery of the text-only configuration of DAISY. This is part of a scheduled path of harmonization between DAISY and EPUB formats. It is intended to enable publishers to produce publications that are accessible to people who have historically not had access to text, with little or no additional effort for either the publisher or end user.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires governments to provide accessible information. Are there current processes that publishers can adopt so they don’t reinvent the wheel?

DG: As each signing country has ratified the UN Convention, they have been implementing solutions based on the accessible formats and standards in use in that country. For example, standards for the coding of Braille varies from country to country, and there are some country-specific differences in implementation of DAISY.

Standards for accessible electronic documents, outside of web accessibility, are still very much in their infancy. In many respects the publishing industry is on — or near — the cutting edge, especially when considering emerging ebook technologies.

How will accessible publishing change in the near term?

DG: The convergence of DAISY and EPUB is just one of many positive steps for accessible publishing. Most of the major ebook formats have at least some mechanisms to support accessibility, and many of the popular reading devices and software have built-in features, such as text size adjustments, color variation, or synthetic speech, all of which provide essential access to people with disabilities. At RNIB we would like to see these features become standard.

Historically, there have been few opportunities for people with print disabilities to access their books of choice, until now. This presents an opportunity for publishers. Many people with print disabilities are hungry for books, having previously received limited access to just a small pool of best-sellers and classics.

The future of accessible publishing no longer needs to rest solely on the shoulders of charitable organizations, nor should it be driven by a moral obligation, corporate social responsibility, or legal drivers. People with disabilities are consumers who just want to be able to buy and read books at the same time as everyone else. For the first time, the technology is available to enable people to pay to read books in a choice of formats — all from a standard ebook. Now it is up to publishing and related industries to take up the opportunity, so they can see the benefits from making ebooks accessible to all.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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