The e-book accessibility audit, which launched in August 2016 and was completed in November 2016 was a joint project between several UK Higher Education Institution (HEI) disability and library services, Jisc and representatives from the book supply industry. The audit supports an inclusive approach by seeking to introduce a benchmark for accessibility in e-book platforms. The focus is on key areas of practical user experience to measure basic accessibility functionality and guide targeted platform improvement.
The audit itself was a "non-technical" accessibility survey restricted to features that can be quickly and easily checked by a non-specialist with responses crowd-sourced by the UK university library and disability community.The testing was done by 33 universities and 5 suppliers with 44 platforms tested, covering 65 publishers with nearly 280 ebooks tested.
The audit focused on e-books supplied to the education sector in the United Kingdom (rather than books for mainstream commercial consumption e.g. popular fiction).
Text in digital format should significantly benefit learners with print impairment because digital information is inherently more flexible than hard copy. It should be possible to change colours or magnify text and have it reflow to fit the page. The user should be able to navigate easily and orientate themselves within the context of the content. It should be possible to use assistive technologies to read the text out loud with or without being able to see the screen.
It doesn't always happen. Depending on the aggregator, the publisher, the format, and the hardware/software available to the learning provider, print impaired students can have very different experiences when trying to read a book.
Funders expect learning providers to make accessibility and inclusion a mainstream service, not a bolt-on afterthought.
In addition, resources that give disabled learners a better experience almost always give an improved user experience to all other learners.
Careful procurement processes (and strategic reading lists) can make the majority of course content accessible to a disabled learner. This makes them more independent and more productive. It can also save the organisation in support costs. Accessible procurement policies also reduce an organisation's risk of litigation under the Equality Act 2010.
Changes to the Disabled Student Allowance in England in 2016 add an extra urgency for Higher Education Institutions who find that many print impaired learners are now relying on resources being accessible at source.
As publishing becomes more competitive, opportunities to stand out from the crowd become more valuable. Accessibility credentials are increasingly important, particularly when learning providers have a legal obligation to provide resources in accessible formats.
In this context, each player in the industry needs to be confident that the accessibility investments they make are not undermined by other parts of the supply chain. They need to be clear what accessibility benefits a user can expect to find so that academic institutions can make positive choices about their products.
Good accessibility also makes good business sense. The features that make e-texts flexible enough to meet the needs of disabled readers also make them flexible enough for different platforms, different display devices and even different business models.
While there are publishers and aggregators who deserve to be congratulated the purpose of this work is not about congratulating, and definitely not about naming and shaming. It is primarily about communication; giving all stakeholders the common language on which to build meaningful conversations.
Most importantly, we would like to see more library and disability staff being aware of the power of good e-book platforms to support disabled students and we would like to see suppliers more actively identifying and promoting the accessibility features of their products.