The Challenge of Accessibility & New Media
Meeting the legal challenge of accessibility to information for all in the new age of information will only get more difficult and complicated with the rise of new publishing models and formats. However, with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we have little choice but to find the best possible solutions for our clients.
Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell (Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) point out that the problems that people with disabilities have with the web are rooted in the early 1990s when issues related to accessibility were ignored in design, despite the rhetoric of the web bringing a ‘superhighway’ that would eliminate barriers. “Technological solutions are held out for the potential to abolish or ameliorate the disability that is seen to lie within the individual…the discursive shaping of technologies proceeds via a promissory note that they will confer countless benefits upon people with disabilities. In the case of telecommunications, now becoming a technology of the utmost significance for belonging to a persuasively digitally networked society, disability is created when telecommunications systems are designed in accordance with ableist norms—making it difficult for people with disabilities to communicate with each other, and other people in society” (p. 41).
In 2007, in anticipation of the release of the new Kindle DX, Amazon met with college officials at the EDUCAUSE conference, garnering their support for both the new ebook reader as well as their participation in a pilot project using Amazon ebook readers on their campuses. At the time of the Kindle DX release, officials from Arizona State University (ASU), Case Western Reserve University, Princeton University, Reed College, Pace University, and Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia had all agreed to participate. However, the ereaders were not accessible; they did not meet ADA requirements. The U.S. Department of Justice stepped in, with universities agreeing not to purchase, recommend, or promote use of the Kindle DX, or any other dedicated electronic book reader, unless or until those devices are fully accessible to blind and visually handicapped students. DOJ noted that: “Advancing technology is systematically changing the way universities approach education, we must be sure that emerging technologies offer individuals with disabilities the same opportunities as other students.”
Chuck Hitchcock, director of the National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials and chief policy officer of CAST, Inc., tells ATG “the DOJ has communicated a clear message, but the impact is not readily apparent. The recent petition to be exempted from accessibility requirement for specific devices by Amazon, Sony, and Kobo is especially distressing.” The petition—a rare show of cooperation amongst ereader companies—made the request using the argument that the waiver would be in the best public interest: “Rendering ACS accessible on ereaders would require fundamentally altering the devices and it may not be possible to meet that requirement and maintain ereaders as inexpensive mobile reading devices, and yet the necessary changes, if they were made, would not yield a meaningful benefit to individuals with disabilities.”
The Law and Enforcement of the Law
Any institution, agency, or company working with the public needs to be aware of the legal frameworks that have been developed to guarantee access to information, all information, to all people. Until the 1990s, disability accommodation was based more on a ‘charity model’ than on a foundation based on equal rights. Volunteers would read books to create audio files; special braille editions would be created for people needing or preferring this type of access. Both of these are limiting in terms of functionality. Publishers’ concerns with DRM inhibit access for people with disabilities even further by allowing few options to meet user needs.
Disability organizations have long championed the needs and interests of their communities in the U.S. and U.K. Initially, these needs were met with largely separate and poorly-funded special services and programs targeted to serve visual, hearing, or other types of disabilities; however, things are changing. Because of the market-driven nature of much of the consumer electronics sector, people with disabilities have been among the most at risk for exclusion from access to information. Laws continue to lag far behind technological advances in the information sector. Even with the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1998, and the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines— amongst others—adherence has been slow and enforcement lax.
The disability community has made inroads globally as well. Under leadership from New Zealand, the United Nations ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006, which seeks “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” The document goes on to assert that access to the written word is a human right and that any barriers—whether economic, legal or technical—are inherently unjust and discriminatory. Interestingly, the U.S. signed the human rights treaty, but never ratified it. Another paradox in the confusing matrix of accessibility.
Innovation & Technological Change Lead to Multiple, Disparate Solutions
Throughout the relatively short history of the ebook, competing standards (AEH, AZW, CHM, DAISY, EPUB, iBOOKS, KF8, MOBI, PDF, and others) formed to distinguish competing ereading devices have created inevitable dead-ends and market confusion. The PDF/Adobe Reader creates problems of its own. “Although it can be authored and tagged in ways that make it reasonably accessible,” Hitchcock notes, “PDF that is saved as an image or not properly tagged will present problems to individuals who require accessible documents. Most distressing is the use of PDF by digital textbook distributors such as KNO since their PDF files are not accessible to individuals who rely on text-to-speech and logical navigation of content using keyboard commands. The PDF-UA group is developing accessibility standards for making PDFs accessible, and adoption of these guidelines is voluntary. EPUB and HTML5 options are definitely playing a larger role in ebook and web presentation of content but much work remains to be accomplished to ensure that authors consider accessibility when authoring optional formats.”
“Sure, we will have legacy PDF collections to support,” Hitchcock admits, “although there are products that are able to generate speech from image PDFs by converting content to live text using optical character recognition (OCR). Such products are a bit expensive for many but we should expect that the costs will be reduced significantly as the technologies mature and the needs are fully exposed. We would not expect that EPUB and HTML5 will replace PDF document[s] for selected document types such as academic papers, industry bulletins, etc. Our hope is the PDF will not be used in place of EPUB when generating an electronic book. We would also hope that when PDF is appropriate, that care will be taken to make it accessible and/or that alternative accessible formats will be provided such as Microsoft Word and HTML.”
EPUB 3 along with HTML5 represent options that would go far beyond the limits of the printed text for all readers and users. Today we are just at the beginning of the application curve for products based on these new standards; however, people in the industry are very bullish on the prospects for enhancing the ‘reading’ experience for all users. Although Amazon continues to hold to its existing proprietary standards, it is expected that it, too, will move to EPUB 3 and HTML5 in the future.
“For resizable and reflowable text and things like access to math, EPUB 3 is the new gold standard,” explains Ken Petri, director of the Ohio State University Web Accessibility Center. “As for market share, we are seeing a lot of EPUB and it is starting to move into textbooks as well. When EPUB 3 takes hold, there will be essentially no reason (beyond entrenched production workflows at the publishers/distributors) for not moving full ahead with EPUB 3. EPUB and variations such as MOBI (Amazons preferred format—though they are moving toward KF8, which is an EPUB 3 rip-off) are already the dominant mass market book electronic formats.”
We Are All Stakeholders
“Compliance will never drive innovation,” accessibility developer Chris Maury cautions ATG readers. “Efforts to drive compliance from large companies to make their existing products more accessible will continue to move forward at a snail’s pace. However, I see massive innovation in tools available to the blind as their needs become more aligned with mainstream users. Much as how the internet has had a huge impact on the amount of information available to the deaf, mainstream applications utilizing voice interfaces, while not designed specifically for the blind, will drive massive improvements in usability for the blind community.”
“Hopefully we will see a trend that readers will be less tolerant of poorly formatted electronic documents,” Tom Smith, Accessible Information Consultant with the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind, believes. “The world would be a better place if we had a ‘save as EPUB’ in Microsoft Word—and OpenOffice, Google Docs, etc.—whether we ever see this, I am not sure.”
In a speech to the October 2012 ARL Membership Meeting, Nancy E. Weiss, general counsel for the Institute of Museum and Library Services noted that we now live in “a quickly-changing technological landscape [as we] transition from print to digital materials.” However, this is also “a moment of great opportunity to expand access to people with disabilities.” She encouraged librarians considering ereaders (or other related technologies) to follow these best practices: “Build accessible services from the outset; make accessibility a key service criterion; ask pointed questions of vendors, and have vendors demonstrate and document their responses.”
The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) has led efforts to force publishers to allow better access and the ability to serve their communities in their Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries. The code, “a clear and easy-to-use statement of fair and reasonable approaches to fair use developed by and for librarians who support academic inquiry and higher education,” includes as its Fifth Principle, the fair use right for “reproducing material for use by disabled students, faculty, staff, and other appropriate users.” In the past year, ARL member libraries have been working to implement the Code for the benefit of all of their clients.
Through the American Library Association (ALA), librarians have established a clear message and information structure to reach the public, legislators, disability communities, publishers, and the technology industry. ALA is now actively “advocating for free access to digital content in libraries, with a keen focus placed on ebook format.” To accomplish their aims, ALA has created ‘scorecards’ rating ebook products and media kits for use by their members.
Publishers have a natural interest in these communities because they can result in increasing sales of their products. “The AAP recently initiated a national EPUB 3 Implementation Project with a commitment to accessibility,” Hitchcock reveals, “and is encouraging all ebook publishers to create products compliant with EPUB 3 accessibility standards.”
Technology companies would also have a stake in this arena, opening up new markets and deepening their access to the educational markets that require accessibility. However, for each of these, the market share has proven too small to offset the investments needed. Hopefully, with increased legal pressure, this will change. “I am encouraged by the AAP initiative,” long-time disability rights advocate George Kerscher notes. “This should help move the industry more quickly. Publishers (and readers) are asking for very rich, precise layout and this work is taking longer than expected. So, to some, things are moving slowly, but they are progressing with quality.”
Disability activists have recently initiated another project to reinforce the need for universal acceptability: A We the People petition that would require ADA compliance as a metric in any college rating system in the U.S. “The inclusion of these elements will help to protect the opportunities for higher education for students with disabilities, improve all students’ learning, and increase the diversity on campuses nationwide.”
Ending the ‘Book Famine’
In June 2013, Stevie Wonder spoke to 600 negotiators meeting at a United Nations forum in Marrakesh to finalize a new global treaty easing access to books for blind, visually impaired, and other print disabled people. He implored the delegates that “the time has come. Today. Not tomorrow. Today. The world’s blind and visually impaired are counting on you. I am counting on you. Don’t let me down. But most of all, please don’t let them down. This is our legacy. Your gift to future generations. So, let us at last finalize this new agreement and open the doors to the world’s written treasures, moving toward a future where there are no barriers to the expansion of knowledge and the enjoyment of culture. Even for the visually impaired.”
The U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) director general Francis Gurry reminded the assembly that their objective was straightforward: “To alleviate the book famine that causes over 300 million visually impaired persons, the majority of them in developing countries, to be excluded from access to over 90 percent of published works.” Their goal: To establish “an enabling legal framework that will facilitate the production of accessible formats and their exchange across borders.” Their work to create a landmark opportunity is bound to be as complicated and difficult to enforce as existing standards and laws in the West.
“As long as we remain diligent while new materials and tools are emerging,” Betsy Beaumon, the VP and General Manager of Benetech’s Global Literacy, believes, “holding publishers, reading tool makers, online courseware producers, content creation platforms, and assessment creators accountable (and helping them to get there), the next few years can transform the reading and educational landscape for people with disabilities. The same technologies that have been used to dramatically improve the lives of people with disabilities also have the power to solve challenges and create new opportunities for all users. While voice-to-text software has been used for years by people with disabilities, tech companies are now in fact doing quite a bit with voice-driven commands, since there is a mass-market demand. As voice recognition and speech output from devices continue to improve I believe we’ll see more breakthroughs in these areas, and an overall improvement in quality and speed.”
“What I want to see is Universal Design—everything that’s designed and posted for the public should, from the very beginning, be accessible from the start,” UC Berkeley doctoral candidate and special education advocate Yue-Ting Siu proposes. “Unfortunately, I feel like the pressure to do this can only come from the consumer. For example, in my own practice, I will more likely support web sites, products, or programs that are built on the principles of Universal Design (and accessibility) from the start. And if they aren’t, I don’t hesitate to write the company a letter about it!” Clearly, the marketplace is ready—and let’s hope there is room at the table for everyone this time around.
Nancy K. Herther is Sociology/Anthropology Librarian at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.