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How to make your textbook more accessible to students with disabilities

Sandra Ho and Tamara Rorie
Sandra Ho and Tamara Rorie presented a session at TAA’s 2012 June conference titled, “How Authors Can Help Students with Disabilities.”

During the 2008-2009 school year, 2,266,000 students with disabilities were enrolled in U.S. postsecondary educational institutions, comprising 10.8 percent of the total undergraduate student body. These students represent a significant textbook market segment with specific requirements that need to be addressed by authors.

At TAA’s June conference, Sandra Ho, manager of the Student E-rent Pilot Project (STEPP), and Tamara Rorie, Esq., contracts and compliance manager for the Alternative Media Access Center, shared ideas for how to accommodate this student population with e-textbooks in a presentation entitled “How Authors Can Help Individuals with Print Disabilities.”

Top on their list is to ensure that the e-textbook is well-structured to provide easier access for all students, especially those with disabilities. Unfortunately this is not always the case. According to Ho, while print textbooks have an accessible structure in terms of headings, table of contents, etc., that structure often does not translate to the electronic version of the book.

“Most e-textbooks give you a replica of the print textbook on screen,” explained Rorie. “If they do that and the content is provided as an image file, then it’s totally inaccessible to students with disabilities. If it’s a print conversion, someone will need to go in and embed the headings, so if the structural levels are obvious, it makes it easier for the structure to be carried over to the electronic version.”

“Giving a textbook an accessible structure is something an author can do very early in the writing process, while the book is still in its manuscript form,” said Ho. “If the author puts all the formatting, headings, etc. in the Word document, it makes it easier for the publishing side to see it and convert it.”

A few key elements that aid in structuring an accessible e-textbook for students with disabilities include:

Organized Hierarchy: The most accessible structure includes a logical flow of content, an organized hierarchy of chapters and sections with named headings, and a system of semantic tagging, which involves marking key words for improved searchability. All of these features allow readers to use various technologies to assist them in navigating through the document.

Alternative Text: Since images are inaccessible to readers with certain print-related disabilities, authors can include alternative text, or alt text, which is a textual description of an image. These descriptions give all students access to the important information in graphs, charts, maps, and other images that is needed to gain a fuller understanding of the textbook’s content.

“It’s important for the author to provide the alt text themselves because they are intimately familiar with the text,” said Rorie. “If the author provides the alt text, it won’t be a repeat of what is already in the chapter content.”

In addition, both Ho and Rorie noted that if authors provide the alt text themselves, they won’t have to worry about an outside writer providing a different interpretation than what the author originally intended. For example, an image of a person intended to explain the human muscular system could instead be described as just a picture of a man if an outsider were to write the alt text.

Technological Advances: Ideally, authors should also keep abreast of technological advances that help students with disabilities, such as text-to-speech programs, so they can better tailor their textbooks to meet the needs of all students and include their textbooks in the emerging market of students with print-related disabilities.

However, keeping up with new technologies can be difficult, so perhaps the best course of action for authors is to let their publishers know that they are interested in doing all they can to make their books universally accessible: “The most important thing,” Rorie said, “is to have a level of awareness and make sure the publisher knows about your awareness so you are the go-to person and can make any changes to your textbook yourself rather than your publisher recruiting someone who doesn’t know the material.”

In addition to educating authors and publishers on ways to make their textbooks more accessible, Ho, Rorie, and their colleagues at STEPP aim to increase the accessibility of e-textbooks. In order to help educate as many postsecondary students as possible, STEPP rents out cost-effective and universally accessible e-textbooks, providing students with disabilities the opportunity to save money while participating in a mainstream textbook rental program.

To learn more about STEPP, please visit More information on how to write an accessible textbook can be found on the following websites:

Dionne Soares Palmer