Accessible documents for people with print disabilities

In prepping a PubPro 2015 talk about editorial and production considerations when creating accessible documents, I ran into information about both the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) and the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS). Confused about the differences between them, I emailed NNELS for clarification, and librarian Sabina Iseli-Otto wrote back: “Would it be alright to call you? I know it’s getting late in the day but 5 minutes on the phone would save 20 minutes of typing (seriously).”

That five-minute chat turned into an impromptu phone interview, and Iseli-Otto gave me permission to share with you what I’ve learned. (The information in most of this post I got from her, but I’m also including a bit of what I found through my own research for my talk.)

Print disabilities and copyright

Print disabilities include:

  • blindness or visual impairments,
  • physical impairments that prevent a person from holding or manipulating print materials, and
  • cognitive impairments, like ADHD, dyslexia, or learning or memory problems due to a brain injury, that impede reading and understanding.

Although colourblindness isn’t considered a print disability, documents should be created with colourblindness in mind.

About 10 percent (a conservative estimate) of Canadians have a print disability, but only about 5 percent of published works are accessible. Most people with print disabilities aren’t using public libraries.

Section 32(1) of Canada’s Copyright Act spells out an exception to copyright that lets people with print disabilities, and those acting on their behalf, create and use alternate formats of copyrighted print materials (with the exception of large-print books and commercially available titles).

Accessible formats

The following are some of the accessible formats for people with print disabilities:

  • E-text: plain text (.txt), rich text (.rtf), Word (.docx)
  • EPUB 2 & 3
  • Accessible PDFs
  • DAISY
  • MP3s
  • large-print
  • Braille

E-text, EPUB, and accessible PDFs can be read by screen readers such as JAWS and VoiceOver. Not all PDFs are accessible—Adobe offers a way to check a document’s accessibility and has guidelines for creating accessible PDFs.

CELA

CELA formed about a year ago following a change to the funding structure at CNIB (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind). CNIB had, over the past hundred years, amassed Canada’s largest collection of alternate-format books in its library, and CELA, with the support of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, took over administrating this collection. The CNIB library still offers services to existing clients but will refer new clients to their local public library to access CELA’s services.

The shift of oversight from CNIB to CELA will hopefully allow more people to discover and use this extensive collection. Although it was always available to everyone with print disabilities, given that it was under the purview of CNIB, people who didn’t have visual impairments may not have realized that they could access it.

CELA has also partnered with Bookshare, an American online library for people with print disabilities. Rather than owning its content, Bookshare operates on more of a licensing model, controlling pricing and the licensing fees.

NNELS

NNELS is also about a year old, with a lean staff of only four people, and, unlike CELA and Bookshare, is funded exclusively by provincial governments, which gives it more transparency. It has a much smaller collection but owns perpetual rights to everything in it. NNELS takes patron requests and works directly with publishers to add to their collection. Nova Scotia helped negotiate a fixed rate for NNELS with publishers in the Atlantic provinces, and Saskatchewan has funded an initiative to create accessible EPUBs for all Saskatchewan books, which will be added to the NNELS collection. Whereas CELA focuses on partnerships with public libraries, NNELS also works with public schools and universities—for example, it has a content-exchange agreement with the Crane Library at UBC .

Recent policy changes relevant to people with print disabilities

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act

According to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA),

Organizations will have to…provide accessible formats and communications supports as quickly as possible and at no additional cost when a person with a disability asks for them.

The law was enacted in 2005, but the regulations for information and communications didn’t come into effect until 2012, when all sectors had to make all emergency procedures and public safety information accessible upon request. For other types of communications, the AODA requirements were phased in beginning in 2013 for the public sector and beginning in 2013 and 2015 for private and non-profit sectors. (Respectively, I think? The website doesn’t make that bit clear.) If you work with Ontario businesses, you may be called on to provide accessible communications.

The Marrakesh Treaty

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities laid out exceptions to copyright so that signatories could freely import and export accessible content, obviating the need to duplicate efforts to convert works to accessible formats in different countries. Although Canada was instrumental in writing the treaty, it hasn’t ratified or signed it. However, in its 2015 budget, unveiled last week, the Government of Canada announced that it would accede to the treaty, meaning that people with print disabilities could soon have access to a lot more content.

Publishers and accessible content

I asked Sabina Iseli-Otto how publishers can make her job easier.

“We’d prefer to get EPUB files or accessible PDFs directly from the publisher. Actually, I’ve been really, pleasantly surprised at how often publishers will say yes when we ask for them. I mean, they can always say no—they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts—but it saves public funds if they send us those files directly.”

If a publisher refuses to provide accessible files, the copyright exception still applies, which means that NNELS would still be able to create an accessible format, but it would have to:

  1. acquire a hard copy,
  2. scan in the pages,
  3. run optical character recognition (OCR) on the scans,
  4. clean up the text file (e.g., deleting running headers and footers),
  5. proof the text.

“More than anything,” Iseli-Otto said, “we want to hear back quickly” from publishers, regardless of what they decide.

I asked if the files NNELS provides to patrons have digital right management (DRM) on them. “No,” she said, “but we make it very clear to them that if they abuse them that they’re putting our whole operation in jeopardy. Some of them appreciate having the access so much that they’re actually quite protective of their files.”

Our conversation had focused on books. What about periodicals and grey literature? “There’s certainly demand for it,” said Iseli-Otto. “We’d love to do more of that. And I’d like to turn your question around: what can we do for publishers to make it easier to collaborate with us? I’m not sure how to build those relationships.”

(Can you guess who I’ve invited to PubPro 2016?)

Publishers who’ve been in business for longer than a decade will recognize the steps NNELS has to take to create accessible formats from a print-only book: they’re identical to what publishers have to do if they want to reissue a backlist title that has no retrievable digital files. Could Canadian publishers partner with an organization dedicated to creating accessible formats so that, in exchange for digitizing the backlist for publishers, the organization could add those files to its collection at no additional cost?

Editorial, design, and production considerations for creating accessible files

In my PubPro 2015 talk, I mentioned a few things publishers should keep in mind through the editorial and production process so that the output will be accessible—especially since having to retrofit an existing document to adhere to accessibility standards is more labour intensive and expensive than producing an accessible file from the outset. I focused mostly on the effect of editing and production on screen readers.

Style considerations

Screen readers will not always read all symbols. The Deque Blog has a summary of how three of the most popular screen readers interpret different symbols. (It’s a bit out of date but still a good place to start; thanks to Ashley Bischoff for that link.) Testing on VoiceOver, I found that although the screen reader is smart enough to read “Henry VIII” as “Henry the eighth,” “Chapter VIII” as “chapter eight,” and “World War II” and “World War two,” it reads each letter in “WWII” as if it were an initialism. And it reads 12,000 as “twelve thousand” but “12 000” as “twelve zero zero zero.” I also found that it doesn’t read the en dash before a numeral if the dash is used as a minus sign, saying “thirty-four degrees” for “–34°.”  It’s best to use the actual minus sign symbol − (U+2112), which my version of VoiceOver reads as “minus sign.” The same goes for the letter x used in place of the real multiplication symbol × (U+00D7). My version of VoiceOver doesn’t read a tilde before a numeral, so ~8 mL would be “eight millilitres” instead of  the intended “approximately eight millilitres.”

In any case, if you’re editing and deciding between styles, why not choose the most accessible?

Language considerations

Plain language best practices apply here:

  • chunk text and use heading styles,
  • break up long, complex sentences, and
  • aim for a natural, conversational style.

Headings and short chunks of text offer context and digestible content to the listener. Screen readers are actually already quite adept at putting the stress on the right syllables depending on whether a word like reject is used as a verb or noun—when the word is in a short sentence. It can get confused in longer sentences.

Image concerns

For images:

  • Offer alt text—text that is rendered if the image cannot be seen—for substantive images but not decorative ones. (Add an alt attribute in the code, but leave it blank—i.e., alt = “”—or the screen reader will read the filename. You can add alt text directly in InDesign.)
  • Don’t use colour as the only way to convey information. Make sure colours you choose to distinguish between two lines on a graphs, say, will not occupy the same grey space when converted to greyscale. Alternatively, use different styles for those lines or label them clearly directly on the graph.
  • Don’t turn text into an image to fix its appearance. We often see this practice with equations. Screen readers do not read LaTeX. If you have equations or mathematical expressions, convert them to MathML or offer alt text using the Nemeth MathSpeak system.

In essence, because ebooks are like websites, applying the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 will ensure that your ebook will be accessible. The BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit also has useful guidelines for publishers. I would recommend at least spot checking a document with a screen reader to uncover possible ambiguities or reasons for misapprehension.

***

Huge thanks to Sabina Iseli-Otto for her eye-opening insights!

11 thoughts on “Accessible documents for people with print disabilities”

  1. Hi, Iva.

    One client, a federal government department, told me that they could no longer use tables to show information because these cannot be read. Apparently this was not just tables with data or symbols in the cells but even ones with words or phrases.

    Do you know anything about that?

      1. That is good to know, Robin, as tables are great for comparing and even just showing information quickly. My project lead must have been mistaken.

        And yes, I would like more details and will email you.

    1. Hi, Joanna,

      That’s not strictly true about tables. I am currently updating a course called Fundamentals of Writing for the Web for the Canada School of Public Service and have also been part of the Web Renewal Initiative (Canada.ca) in the Government of Canada as a content provider.

      Federal web accessibility rules allow for simple tables (in other words, no merged cells). This way screen readers can “read” the tables because there is 1 row for 1 column. Tables also need short or long descriptions (depending on certain factors) as alt text.

      There are also rules about providing raw data in expandable tables for charts and graphs, so that everyone has access to this information.

      I hope this helps.

      If you’d like to know more details (like the specific policies), let me know: kilroy.robin@gmail.com.

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