E-Texts for All (Even Lucy) | Ebooks and Accessibility

A colleague's perspective helps guest columnist Char Booth see the difficulties librarians face in building their ebook collections

If digital literacy is exploding, the visually disabled are taking the shrapnel. I would wager that most librarians consider ourselves committed to accessibility and make individual and organizational efforts to comply with (and often exceed) the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in our buildings and the Rehabilitation Act Section 508 standards on our websites. We may not, however, have had the sobering experience of trying to access an ebook or e-journal using screen-reading software or other assistive technology. Despite our best intentions, this limited insight can lead us unwittingly to collection development and web design decisions that make digital literacy far more difficult for the print disabled.

Over the past year, I've been working closely with Lucy Greco, a colleague and disability advocate at the University of California-Berkeley (UC-B). Lucy, who has been blind from birth, has transformed my understanding of the word ­access. Not only do librarians need to understand the accessibility front of the ebook wars, we have the responsibility to embrace our advocacy role in shaping its outcome. As one of the few public sector agencies charged with recognizing the access rights of all, libraries must collectively examine how we can steer the e-text trajectory-from ebooks to e-journals to any other format-in a more universally usable direction.

Ebooks and DRM
Lucy is partial to a few sayings that have helped me understand the e-text accessibility paradox. The first is that "ebooks were created by the blind, then made inaccessible by the sighted."

Online text formats like DAISY and EPUB were pioneered in part by the accessibility movement as an alternative to expensive and cumbersome Braille texts. As ebooks have gained popularity, however, digital text became inexorably less accessible as for-profit readers like the Kindle and Sony Reader muscled onto the scene. A patina of digital rights management (DRM) has been added in order to protect the intellectual property of vendors, contrary to the open and accessible orientation libraries have long held toward literacy and learning.

Device- and interface-specific ebooks are often "locked down" to other readers, meaning that by default they block attempts to be read by JAWS and other screen-reading software. The Kindle—still the dominant hardware ereader—has text-to-speech capability, but its speech menus remain inaccessible despite a 2009 promise from Amazon. [The Kindle 3, announced last week, has addressed this particular flaw.—Ed.] Hence the recent Department of Justice letter to college presidents warning against inaccessible emerging technology use and a suit brought by the National Federation for the Blind against Arizona State University's Kindle DX pilot.

Dollars = leverage
While we might only represent a portion of the ebook market, our organizations are the largest collective subscribers to e-journal and other e-text vendors, meaning we have the clout to acquire from publishers in a way that effects positive change. This advocacy can occur at both an individual and programmatic level. For instance, in addition to pursuing EPUB, validated HTML, and other screen-readable formats, why not specify in our consortial licensing agreements that e-text and search interfaces must strictly adhere to accessibility standards, or we will not renew/purchase them? Already 508 compliant are many major vendors, such as Safari Tech Books (Proquest), EBSCO, and Ebrary, but countless others do not focus as clearly on textual accessibility.

We hand over the funds that keep content providers afloat. And, as anyone who has ever met a hard sell with a bluff and won a discount from one of these companies can attest, suggesting you might walk elsewhere with your dollars unless an interface becomes more usable is productive leverage.

We must also be careful not to take accessibility statements at face value, as some "508 compliant" sites are so in name only. We can collaborate with our disabled users to evaluate true usability, hands-on. Lucy and I are working together to develop a usability evaluation rubric, for example.

Usability is accessibility
Our own websites are some of the worst offenders. Library sites as well as e-text platforms and interfaces suffer from an abject lack of standardization, spawning a dizzying array of learning curves, tricks, and workarounds. Lucy's second saying is that "accessible design is usable design." What is the good of providing accessible texts if they are impossible to navigate to and through?

Beyond buying usable e-texts, we have to make a strong commitment to usability standards in our own sites and services. The same principles that make a digital document "visible" to a screen reader are universal design best practices. Screen readers rely on behind-the-scenes coding to narrate a page's structure to a visually impaired user. If that "invisible" underlying architecture is shoddy, the information access process breaks down-and in almost the exact same way it would for, say, a mobile device user.

Lucy's third saying is that when it comes to e-texts, "separate is not equal." Users with visual impairments should not have to request a separate file from a vendor, but that is often exactly what they are forced to do. More ebook and e-journal platforms than you might believe have deep accessibility flaws: Adobe Digital Editions and Flash texts have significant accessibility barriers as evinced by problems with OverDrive books; non-OCR PDF files have proven quite problematic; and CourseSmart, the largest online marketplace for e-textbooks, produces by admission what can only be characterized as dismally inaccessible e-texts (although, according to Lucy, it is working toward improvement).

Educating ourselves
There is a dearth of end user studies that evaluate the universal usability of research databases and ebook platforms. While not every librarian has the time or design expertise to evaluate individual resources, we can ensure that the tools our institutions provide and create follow core best practices: consistency, flexibility, accessibility, and simplicity. In this vein, resources like ASCLA's Think Accessible site and the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) are invaluable. For our own discovery interfaces, the WAVE Web Accessibilty Evaluation Tool and other WebAIM and WC3 products help validate websites for sound design.

There are already accessible e-text initiatives among open access content providers: the Internet Archive recently announced it is making one million books available in DAISY talking book format, while more vended ebook platforms are coming around to their responsibilities in this area. Open access texts in general are created accessibly-the open textbook movement led by Flat World Knowledge operates on an universal access model. The (hopefully) soon-to-be-released Blio is a promising cross-platform reader that could give the proprietary device paradigm a run for its money.

By making access-positive decisions and partnering with the Lucys of the world, we can resist ereading inaccessibility and promote universal usability.

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