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Accessible college textbooks: From problematical to profitable

Designers should always keep their users in mindFollowing is an excerpt of an article published by Robert Martinengo, Founder, Consumer Accessibility Information Label Association (CAILA). The article explains how publishers can serve the needs of college students with disabilities while making, not losing, money.

For years, publishers have been encouraged to produce books that are accessible to students with disabilities. Those advocating for accessible books include people with disabilities, naturally, and organizations that represent their interests. But the sector with pressing legal, practical, and economic interests in the accessibility of educational materials are colleges and universities.

The messaging often given about accessibility to publishers usually includes the familiar refrains that being accessible is ‘the right thing to do’, and that people with disabilities constitute an ‘untapped market’. But without any compelling economic evidence to support them, these messages have failed to make a significant impact on how publishers approach accessibility.

‘Do the right thing’ tries to guilt publishers, implying they have been doing something wrong or shameful. This is a bad way to encourage accessibility (and those who use it should be sure their own house is in order – see the Afterword). There is also the perception that doing the right thing inevitably means losing money, which, as I endeavor to explain, doesn’t have to be the case.

Referring to people with disabilities as an ‘untapped market’ disregards the long history of government and non-profit publishing in ‘specialized’ formats, such as audiobooks and braille. Organizations such as the National Library Service, Recording for the Blind (now Learning Ally), and the American Printing House have been serving this market for many years on a non-profit basis.

It’s time to move beyond these tired messages and get serious about how to make accessibility manageable and profitable. If you are a publisher who is ready to do the right thing by your customers and your business, read on.

Note: I recommend the BISG Guide to Accessible Publishing (referred to below as ‘BISG Guide’), which is available for free from the Book Industry Study Group.

The Law is On Your Side
If you are a publisher of college textbooks who would like to make money by serving students with disabilities, the legal obligation of educational institutions not to discriminate against those students works in your favor.

Colleges spend a lot of time and money converting commercial textbooks in to formats needed by disabled students attending their institutions. One reason they do this is because it is their legal obligation not to discriminate on the basis of disability. They also do it because no one else is doing it for them.

Publishers are not providing accessible materials, and the non-profit sector is incapable of meeting the demand. Colleges try to provide disabled students with accessible materials, but they often fall short, which has landed more than one college in trouble with the Office for Civil Rights.

Instructors adopt materials for students to use, then disability service offices scramble to provide access for students with disabilities, in a predictable cycle that has been repeating for years. My question is, why don’t publishers sell products in the formats colleges desperately need? There is nothing preventing them from doing so. The law requires colleges not to discriminate, so they have a built-in, compelling interest in acquiring accessible materials in the most efficient method available, which could be, and should be, directly from the publisher.

To be clear, instructors must continue to have the academic freedom to choose the most effective materials for their purposes, but once a book is adopted, the law gives publishers an opportunity to supply (at a profit!) whatever format the college needs to ensure that their students with disabilities are not discriminated against.

The next sections (The Law is On Your Side, Making Accessible Products, Selling Accessible Products, Conclusion, and Afterword) are about what publishers need to do to take advantage of this opportunity, which really is untapped.