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Accessibility at the tipping point: Opportunities for authors

Robert Martinengo
CAMI Project Director, Robert Martinengo, presenting to the National Task Force on Accessible Materials Innovation. Pictured are representatives from Pearson, Cengage, WW Norton, VitalSource, RedShelf, OpenStax, Scribe, Firebrand, the AAP, and the IMS.

In October 2012, The Academic Author ran an article entitled “How to make your e-textbook more accessible to students with disabilities”. Since then, demand for accessible materials has continued to grow. This article will briefly recap the need for accessible materials, describe the progress (and sometimes lack thereof) in addressing that need, and examine the opportunities and challenges this represents for authors.

As noted in the October 2012 article, there are several million students with disabilities attending college. About 10% percent of these students have disabilities that impact their ability to read (i.e., blindness, dyslexia, or other ‘print disability’). In order to ensure these students are not discriminated against, colleges are obligated to provide instruction, and instructional materials in an accessible format.

In the recent past, with most textbooks and other materials primarily only available in print, colleges prepared the accessible format themselves, or relied on non-profit agencies to do so. The reality was that neither the college nor the non-profit sector was able to keep up with the demand, but at least the responsibilities and procedures for creating accessible materials were well defined. All this changed when digital files and the technology to use them became widely available.

Currently, U.S. colleges and universities request nearly 100,000 files per year from academic publishers through the AccessText Network (ATN), which was established by the Association of American Publishers in 2009 to manage the growth in accessibility-related requests. Through ATN, publishers provide unsecured PDF files to the colleges, who then make any further alterations to meet the disabled students’ requirements. (Note: K-12 schools are under different legal obligations in regards to students with disabilities. See National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for more information.)

chart_martinengoBut this effort represents a stop-gap measure–students with disabilities will continue to be at a disadvantage until they are able to obtain their textbooks, assessments, and other study materials in accessible formats at the same time, price, and level of functionality as their non-disabled peers.

Authors have an opportunity to help shape the accessibility agenda in a way which benefits their profession, the industry, and students. There are many links in the chain, but for accessibility to be cost-effective, it must be consistent throughout the production process, from authoring through distribution.

There are some basic steps authors can take to address accessibility:

  1. Use the built-in tools available in Word or other word processing software, such as Headers and Styles, to establish a consistent and logical structure for the content. Think of this as the road map that a student who is not sighted can use to navigate the material. This structure must be maintained throughout the production process and into the final product, which is another story.
  2. Compose textual alternatives for all significant visual information. Authors are the logical source of this text but the realities of contracts and the production process make this a potentially major challenge, especially for image-heavy subjects. Currently, some publishers pay third parties to create the alt text after the fact. This task represents a potential additional revenue stream for the author that they are currently not tapping into.

The Center for Accessible Materials Innovation (CAMI), operated by AMAC Accessibility Solutions & Research Center with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, is developing a ‘nutrition facts’-type label for digital content to ensure that transparent and consistent information about accessibility is available throughout the production and distribution of instructional materials

Like the nutrition facts label on food packaging, the accessibility label (known as A11y Facts – A11y being an abbreviation for Accessibility), will provide information useful to the consumer, which in this case is a student with a print-related disability. The label will indicate which accessibility features are included in the digital content, and of any barriers they may encounter.

Publishers and other content creators will be able to create labels for digital materials, such as e-textbooks or even individual files. The labels will be accessed by consumers, and also faculty and administration officials. The goal is to make the label a useful determinant of accessibility for both the producer and consumer.

Extending this concept to authors, it’s possible this label could be used as a ‘job ticket’, created by an author at the earliest stages of product design, and then carried through the editorial and production process, on to sales and distribution to the consumer. CAMI plans to explore this potential with authors and publishers over the remaining grant period.

As part of this effort, CAMI has formed a National Task Force on Accessible Materials Innovation to drive the change towards accessible publishing throughout the industry. Members of the task force include Pearson, Cengage, VitalSource, and others. The task force is looking to strengthen its ties with the text and academic authoring community.

At a more fundamental level, the challenge is to embed the concept and principles of accessibility into the structure of education so that new technologies do not inevitably raise new barriers for students with disabilities. It is understandable that educators want to be able to use and experiment with the latest technologies, but not at the cost of further isolating students with disabilities.

While there are, and will continue to be, legal, social, technical, and economic factors impacting and perhaps limiting our ability as a society to provide a truly accessible and barrier-free education to every student, it’s important to look at accessibility as more than just a technical issue that will be solved with the next software upgrade.

In this new digitized world, authors have unprecedented opportunities to shape the content and distribution of their works. CAMI, with the A11y Facts label and other projects, hopes to provide the tools they can use to initiate and ensure that their content is accessible, and therefore usable, by all students, including those with disabilities.