Accessibility meeting logoEditor’s Note: Today’s post is by Darrell Gunter. Darrell has held key senior executive positions for leading companies in the electronic intellectual property industry including; Dow Jones Financial News Services, Elsevier, Collexis, The American Institute of Physics (AIP) and Allerton Press, Inc. He heads up his own strategic consultancy firm the Gunter Media Group, Inc.

Imagine that the latest book of your favorite book series has just been published, but you are not able to read it or listen to it. Imagine your favorite band has just released its latest song, but you are not able to hear the beat. These are just two of many examples that the disabled community deals with everyday. Recently, the Center for Publishing Innovation held a conference on Accessibility, with the goal of helping publishers, academic institutions and the general public understand the legal necessity and appreciate the great opportunity of making all forms of content accessible to everyone.

As a member of the Board of EIES (Electronic Information and Education Service) of New Jersey for the last three years, I was very excited to attend this conference as EIES of New Jersey’s mission is to provide the visually impaired with the best reading service of the day’s news.

The Accessibility Conference featured an All-Star panel, and due to a last minute cancellation, I was asked to step in and present Eve Hill’s speech. Ms. Hill is the Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division of the US Justice Department. After delivering her speech, I was compelled to write about the conference as I believe that publishing industry is not addressing this topic as aggressively as it should.

2014 Data Points:

The number of people with learning disabilities is quite substantial. The American Community Survey (ACS) report provides the following data points:

  • The ACS estimates the overall rate of disability in the US population in 2014 was 12.6%.
  • Rates of disability increase with age. For the population under 5 years old, less than 1.0% had a disability. For the population ages 5-17, the rate was 5.4%. For ages 18-64, the rate was 10.5%. For people 65 and older, 36.0% had a disability.
  • Of the US population with disabilities, over half (51.6%) were people ages 18-64. Forty percent (40.7%) of people with disabilities were 65 and older, while children and youth with disabilities accounted for only 7.3% (ages 5-17) and 0.4% (under 5 years old).
  • 34.4% of US civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community were employed, compared to 75.4% for people without disabilities – a gap of 41 percentage points.
  • Employment rates vary by type of disability. Employment rates are highest for people with hearing disabilities (50.7%) and vision disabilities (40.2%) and lowest for people with self- care (15.4%) and independent living (15.9%) disabilities.
  • Almost thirty percent (28.1%) of US civilians with disabilities of working-age in 2014 were living in poverty. For US civilians of working-age without disabilities, the national poverty rate was 13.3%.

Hill’s presentation focused on three key themes, first, defining the law and the cases they have presented, second, the challenges of the community with disabilities and finally, the great opportunity for institutions and publishers.

The Law

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires “equally effective communication” with people with or without disabilities. ADA Title II requires that all public and private schools, colleges, universities, and other educational content providers are required to make all their online offerings accessible. Per Ms. Hill’s address she stated that, “schools must ensure that a student who is blind or has low vision acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted services with substantially equivalent ease of use.”

In June 2010, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the Department of Education wrote to college presidents throughout the country explaining that requiring the use of inaccessible emerging technologies in the classroom violates the ADA.

Over the last six years, the Justice Department has brought charges against a number of institutions and companies. Detailed below is a sample of the cases and the legal resolutions.

  • 2010 – Six Colleges re: KINDLE – As a result of the complaints by the Federation of the Blind, Kindle reached settlement agreements with six colleges that they will not purchase, require or use in the curriculum, the Amazon Kindle DX e-book reader unless it is accessible.
  • 2012 – Sacramento Public Library had purchased several Barnes & Noble NOOK e-book readers for its patrons. The NOOK was inaccessible to blind people so the settlement under ADA Title II required the library to buy at least 18 accessible e-book reader devices to lend to their patrons who are blind or have other disabilities that make the NOOKs inaccessible to them.
  • 2013 – Louisiana Tech reached a settlement agreement with the Justice Department for using a version of an online learning product (MYOMLab) that was inaccessible to a blind student.

It should be expected that the Justice Department will continue to aggressively pursue similar cases to ensure that all institutions are in compliance with the ADA law.

Challenges for the Disabled Community

Imagine you are in your first year of college sitting in your Introduction to Psychology course and the instructor directs the students to a document that is on their computers. When visually impaired, you are not able to read the document. You are immediately put at a distinct disadvantage versus your peers, moreover your education is being diminished, due to your accessibility to the material being limited.

For students with hearing issues, similar challenges are faced, as their ability to hear the lecture is impaired. They are not able to fully participate and contribute to the class discussion due to their hearing disability.

Consider the student taking an online course. They are not able to read and hear the instructor’s lectures, the course materials and the questions from their classmates. In today’s digital world this is a reality for the students and the parents of these students. Students are not the only people that are affected by these digital limitations. There is a growing population of adults with disabilities that are part of the professional workforce and their performance is greatly affected by the mere fact that they are not provided equal access to information due to their disability. How much productivity is lost at thousands of companies due to team members with visual and hearing disabilities that don’t have equal access to information to perform their duties?

The Great Opportunity for Publishers, Institutions and Companies

Publishers are always concerned about managing their investments in their businesses. Anytime there is a new product, service, idea or technology, the scholarly publishing industry always asks the question, what is the return on investment on this project? How will this new technology, product, service, etc., help us to grow our business? Does it make business sense for us to make these upgrades to our platform, our services, our policies, etc., to provide our team members, our partners and customers with the best level of service?

I would suggest that the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Innovation is not limited to adding a new feature, a new business model or a new product. Making your data, website and other services accessible to the disabled community is one of the most innovative actions that the publishing community can undertake.

The Benefits of Hiring Workers with Disabilities:

Proactively hiring people with disabilities can give employers a competitive advantage over companies that do not hire the disabled. Kregel and Tomiyasu (1994) found that employers view employees with disabilities as having a positive effect on their coworkers. The same study also found that employers believe that workers with disabilities provide taxpayers with economic benefits. By employing people with disabilities, a company may be eligible for federal tax credits that can offset accommodation costs. An example of a tax incentive is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. This allows an employer to take a credit for up to 40% of the worker’s first $6,000 dollars in wages earned the first 12 months of hire. A second program that offers incentives is the U.S. Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work Program. This program gives companies the opportunity to generate $4,800 in the first nine months of hiring a recipient of social security benefits. Corporate social responsibility has economic benefits as well. A survey conducted by the Gallup organization and the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Social Research found that 88% of the 800 respondents said they would prefer to give their business to companies that hire people with disabilities.

Ms. Hill’s speech provided a number of suggestions to the publishing industry as to how we can be innovative:

  • Be responsive to your market and claim market share and minimize your customer’s ADA liability risk
  • Incorporate accessibility in your products and services as a matter of course and as a priority
  • Build it in, check it, make it easy to use, and tell your customers about it
  • If your client has a problem fix the problem permanently
  • Include accessibility in performance evaluations and hold people accountable

Instead of waiting for a lawsuit to spur your company into action, be proactive and take a dramatic leading edge decision that will allow your content to be consumed by the entire world community. As the disabled community continues to grow within our user communities and companies, making your content truly accessible will only help to augment the research value chain. Enhancing the research value chain will raise the tide for everyone and that is truly a win-win scenario.

Making your content fully accessible will greatly improve the entire world’s user community’s access to your content. It will demonstrate to the disabled community that you are an employer that values everyone and your company will gain a new productive and committed workforce. Just as important, making your content compliant within the ADA guidelines will put your company in compliance with the law.

Accessibility is the new wave of innovation and it is the right thing to do.

Darrell Gunter

Darrell Gunter has held key senior executive positions for leading companies in the electronic intellectual property industry including; Dow Jones Financial News Services, Elsevier, Collexis, The American Institute of Physics (AIP) and Allerton Press, Inc. He heads up his own strategic consultancy firm the Gunter Media Group, Inc.


30 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Accessibility Is The New Innovation"

I am wondering, since many on this list work with an international population, what is the thinking at the international level? Also, since the figures, US centric, cover all ages, is there the same consideration, internationally, across all communication?

On a more forward thinking note, we are getting closer to a “universal translator” is language access to be covered? What about non verbal/non text knowledge. For example, there are now extant and emergent systems able to “interpret” images.

Tabeles, this conference while held in the US featured Ms. Judy Brewer Director Web Accessibility of the W3C and their focus is to ensure that the standards of accessibility are met on an international basis. The publishing community is an international community and Mr. Jonathan Thurston, Head of Accessibility, Product Management, of Pearson Education addressed the conference as well.

The speech that I presented on Ms. Eve Hill’s (US Dept of Justice) behalf was based on US numbers I would suspect that the international numbers would be similar.

As the publishing community works together to make all data accessible it will embolden the publishing community to address the more complex challenges of accessibility.

Concerning the question of international level.

Your readers should be aware that the Marrakesh Treaty has now been ratified by 20 countries and will go into effect as of September 30, 2016. To view the countries that have ratified the treaty, go to: (While the Obama Administration sent the Marrakesh Treaty to the U.S. Senate in February of this year, it has not yet been scheduled for a hearing or vote.)

The Marrakesh VIP Treaty (formally the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities, colloquially MVT[2]) is a treaty on copyright adopted in Marrakesh, Morocco, on 28 June 2013.[3][4] The treaty allows for copyright exceptions to facilitate the creation of accessible versions of books and other copyrighted works for visually impaired persons. The treaty sets a norm for countries ratifying the treaty to have a domestic copyright exception covering these activities, and allowing for the import and export of such materials.

Fifty-one countries signed the treaty as of the close of the diplomatic conference in Marrakesh. The ratification of 20 states was required for the treaty to enter into effect;[5] the 20th ratification was received on 30 June 2016, and the treaty will enter into force on 30 September 2016.[6]

Keith, indeed the MVT will go into force because there are now 20 states which have ratified it, Canada being the last one, and indeed the US not (yet?). The WIPO website indicates that there are “according to the World Health Organization, some 285 million blind and visually impaired persons in the world, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries”. “A WIPO survey in 2006 found that fewer than 60 countries have limitations and exceptions clauses in their copyright laws that make special provision for visually impaired persons, for example, for Braille, large print or digitized audio versions of copyrighted texts”.. The MVT could thus be quite an important step. Some look at MVT as more of a human rights treaty, while others see it more as the next IP/copyright treaty.

But the aforementioned 60 countries already have to some extent exceptions in their national legislation (e.g. in the UK the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988). But having the legislative possibility doesn’t mean it is, or will be actually used.
One of the other challenges has always been the cross border traffic of the accessible work, The MVT is changing this (could be important for several major world languages such as spanish).

And possibly the MVT will also push new business/international markets as the authorized organizations are able to do cross border, legalised exchanges with perhaps even a positive side effect of piracy reduction (1)
And then additionally it is not just legal barriers. The high pace of technological innovation and changing formats are also creating problems (as we can see in the justice department cases). In the end we will need to see how the MVT is going to be implemented in domestic laws and and used in practice.

(1) L.Zemer and A.Gaon, ‘Copyright, disability and social inclusion: the Marrakesh Treaty and the role of non-signatories’ (2015) 10 Jnl Intell Prop L 836

Thank you Darrell for the informative and positive article. In regards to the Marrakesh Treaty, I would point out the US has had a copyright exception in place since 1996 (September marks the 20th anniversary). My understanding is the US exception (Section 121) was only ever meant as a band-aid, and that the sustainable solution to the “book famine” is for publishers to make books available in accessible formats, rather than rely on non-profit and government agencies to retrofit them. Please don’t get me wrong – band-aids are very useful things, but they are not a cure.

This is all rather abstract. What does “fully accessible” mean when it comes to scholarly e-books or online journal articles? (This central concept is not defined.) Is this spelled out somewhere?

I can see the need for innovation but there must be some limits. The question is what is possible and what does it cost? For example, how do we convey photographs to the blind?

David, thank you for your comments. Ms. Eve Hill’s (Dept of Justice attorney) speech outlined many examples of how the US Government defines accessibility. For more information, I would urge you to visit the ADA site, In some cases, students with visual or hearing disabilities could not access the publisher’s content.

Yes there is a cost to making content more accessible but I view the dollars spent by a publisher to make their content more accessible to all people to be a smart investment. Ms. Hill’s speech, outlined several financial benefits to employers who hire employees with disabilities.

The better the world population can access a publisher’s content, the better our society will be. For example a researcher in Brazil with a visual disability can access an article from a researcher in Korea that augments his research hypothesis. That is truly a win-win for everyone.

Thanks Darrell, I will look at the Federal definition examples. Is it your sense that the US Government may be moving toward issuing rules regarding accessibility to research outputs? I can see how this might be done as part of the US Public Access Program. Access via accessibility, as it were.

> The question is what is possible and what does it cost? For example, how do we convey photographs to the blind?

I once visited a museum that made paintings and photographs accessible to the visually impaired by producing 3D prints of artworks to convey perspective and depth, so I’m guessing the same technique should be applicable in the context of scientific communication.

Don’t know what the cost of the scanning and printing process itself is, though. It’s probably not cheap, but considering the rapid development of affordable 3D printing solutions, I bet it isn’t be that prohibitive either. I mean, if museums are doing it, how expensive can it realistically be?

SAŠA – How you explain the 3D prints of artworks is similar to how one conveys photographs to the blind. We do this type of work all the time.

I use the example of working with a service provider to input good alt text on images so that screen readers can detail this information to the visually impaired. In the XML it looks like this:

Accessibility doesn’t have to be expensive if it is built into the workflow, and the principles are simple. People who are blind or severely visually impaired typically use screen readers to read aloud the text of e-books or online material. Using HTML or EPUB3 (which has built-in accessibility features), as already mentioned, ensures that material is properly structured and easy to navigate. There are a number of technical guidelines to accessible publishing, for example, the International Digital Publishing Forum Accessibility Guidelines ( and the Association of American Publishers’ EPUB 3 Implementation White Paper ( as well as these more general guidelines:

Short descriptions of photos or diagrams can be placed into alt tags, which are read aloud by screen readers. For more complex diagrams and tables, AFB Press (of the American Foundation for the Blind) provides a link to a more complete description placed elsewhere in the book. As already noted, the DIAGRAM project has information about how best to describe different kinds of images.

Tactile and 3D images that Sasa Marcan mentioned are still in the future for most publishers, but they are already important tools for teaching children who are blind or visually impaired as well as in special situations such as museums.

We are talking about 2 million journal articles a year, many of which have very complex visual content (including a lot of math). Making all of this accessible sounds like a huge effort. I am not sure it is possible, much less feasible.

Hi David, We’ll give it a shot!

But seriously, building accessibility into your workflow makes good business sense as well as being a noble aspiration. When you think about it, all our devices and systems are visually impaired. Well structured and marked-up content make that content more usable and discoverable down the road.

Indeed 2 million journal articles a year is large number but complex visual content need not be a deal breaker. In the education market, the federal mandate NIMAS, helps publishers prioritize what content needs to be made accessible.

I still do not see a specific feasible proposal here, Marianne. Writing detailed explanations for every graphic, equation and photo in every journal article would be prohibitively expensive. It would require expertise so I doubt that the authors could do it or it would be laborious if they did. How should we prioritize this effort when it comes to journal articles? What is the first feasible step?

First of all, it’s not one publisher trying to describe all 2 million articles. Ideally, authors provide the descriptions, since they know the content best, so they have a more limited number to deal with, but editors and some vendors are capable of doing this. Certainly the more complex and technical the graphics are, the more effort it takes to describe them, but even a general description (“Diagram of the eye showing the following features: cornea, lens, vitreous . . . etc.”) is more useful than no description.

There are different levels of accessibility, and it’s possible to make a start—for example, by using properly tagged HTML or EPUB rather than PDF. I suggest you look at some of the guidelines provided earlier as well as the information about description at before deciding that accessibility is not feasible.

I have a pretty good idea what is involved because the logic of complexity, including graphical complexity, is a field of mine. Beyond that, by feasible I mean from a practical point of view. For example, switching everyone from PDFs to tagged HTML, which is then read aloud, is not feasible at this time. Nor is having authors write detailed descriptions for every graphic, photo and equation. Nor would they know how to do it, not without training. It is all just not going to be done, not unless it is mandated, which I see no present prospect of. I am trying to help, by pointing out that utopian visions are not helpful. What is needed, and lacking so far as I can tell, is a sound set of next steps.

Two very big questions with a lot of “it depends” answers. Certainly more questions to ask as well before finding answers. Does the content itself merit accessibility? Is the market asking for accessible content? Does the publisher have resources and plans to alert market of accessible content?

My company does a lot of work in this area for AFB’s Access World, which makes sense based on that content. We are also answering a lot of questions and hearing more interest from journal publishers who want to make PDFs 508 compliant.

So I’m sure I’ve provided no insight and no cookbook-approach answers. I think hearing from more publishers is most useful and learning what they are doing in their workflows. As Ellen Bilofsky states, “Accessibility doesn’t have to be expensive if it is built into the workflow.” But you and I both know the devil is always in the details!

Sounds like an interesting challenge and your questions are a good start. As I mention elsewhere, the Feds might be interested in this as well, now that they are publishing the articles that flow from their funding.

This is a nitpick in what is otherwise a much needed call to action, but in the second data point the percentages add up to 95.7%.

Thanks for catching that! This was my error in transferring over Darrell’s post from his original document, now corrected above.

David, thank you for sharing this article on Apple’s efforts to make their devices accessible to everyone.

Thank you my dear brother, Darrell. You have always been on the cutting edge of innovative ideas for our companies. Being a disability accessible company has helped us have a compassionate friendly high quality company.

Your last data point brings up an interesting hypothetical: if society were to regard poverty itself as a disability — or even just related with physical and learning disabilities as the report suggests — how do you think that would affect the way scholarly publishers and the media are dealing with Sci-Hub and the issue of piracy? In such a scenario, would it be likely to conceive of piracy merely as a service of providing access for the finanically disabled?

Sasa, thank you for you comment. The accessibility that we are addressing is the accessibility for those that have a physical disability. Piracy is an unfortunate bad choice of ethics. The scholarly publishing industry has taken great strides over the last 20 plus years to provide access to those countries that lack the financial and or technical resources to access scholarly literature. Allow me to direct you to a few sites that demonstrate the scholarly publishing industry’s goal of helping those countries that deserve assistance. AGORA, HINARI, PatientINFORM, Research4Life, etc.

Open Access publishers are also providing access to research articles as well. As someone stated in one of the earlier comments that making all content (books and journals) accessible to everyone requires an investment to make it a reality. Piracy, is theft and it is wrong. Can your remember the last time a pirate made a donation to a legal worthy ethical cause?

Let’s not lose our focus on the topic of today. Technical accessibility for the disabled community is vitally important as we work towards to advancing mankind from which we all will benefit.

Scholarly publishing industry’s efforts to provide free access to the financially disadvantaged are, of course, noble and commendable. However, as the data point I refer to suggests — the one that states that 28,1% of working-age US civilians with disabilities also live in poverty — poverty affects people on a much more granular level.

So even if the issue of technical accessibility were fully addressed, how does the industry help that 28,1% percent to overcome their one remaining disability, the one of living in poverty? AGORA, HINARI, and similar efforts are a step in the right direction, but the US as a whole aren’t anywhere near the “poor-enough” level to participate. On the other hand, it’s worth considering that piracy effectively solves that issue right now — albeit with negative side-effects for the scholarly publishing industry. From a purely ethical perspective, though, it’s up for discussion whether those side-effects are net bad or net good compared to the benefit for the mankind.

(Fair point re. pirates donating, but it’s also worth noting that pirates rarely profit off the publisher’s IP, or at least not nearly as much as the publishers themselves do.)

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