There’s been a lot of discussion so far this year about access. Some are concerned with how to forge new methods of authentication and others see piracy as a symptom of today’s complicated access pathways in scholarly discovery. Others have pointed out that ensuring inclusiveness means ensuring access to scholarly resources by readers with disabilities. Several voices have come together in the special January 2018 issue of Learned Publishing reminding us of the accessibility gaps in professional and educational publishing — through which many of our authors and readers continue to slip, limiting their ability to fully connect with the world of knowledge and progress contained in our journals, books, and databases. (Full disclosure, I serve as the North American Editor for Learned Publishing).

In reading these expert perspectives, I find myself scratching my head: Why does end-to-end accessible publishing continue to elude us?

Accessibility disability computer icon

I think we would be hard pressed to find disagreement with the sentiment that all scholarly and professional publications should be made accessible to all interested readers. It’s also very hard to argue that our publishing community has fully achieved that vision. So, if I have that right, what’s holding us back? With today’s technological advancements and many relevant digital standards globally ratified — presumably making born-digital publications ever cheaper and easier to produce — why is accessibility still an issue for publishers and our partners?

Perhaps most of us assume that the population of our readers with physical, learning, or cognitive challenges is too small to make a difference. Fake news! Measuring those with sight impairments alone, the National Institutes of Health report 285 million people are blind or have low vision worldwide. Research shows that US colleges have 10-20% disabled student enrollment. Beyond the ivory towers, the overall rates of disabled persons in the US is on the rise – students today could be life-long customers if we’re able to effectively reach them.

So, why is accessibility still not a top priority for most publishers? Perhaps we’re assuming that the overall return on investment will be too low, that accessible publishing is a loss leader with some nice PR, but not a real revenue opportunity. In addition to the marketshare facts above, accessible publishing is better for everyone, especially where it results in the “navigable, feature-rich” content envisioned by the folks at DAISY. I know plenty of able-bodied readers that appreciate listening to an article or book chapter with ReadSpeaker as a change of pace from the mountains of reading expected of most students.

Accessible publishing is better for the publisher, as we see so many improvements to metadata quality and interoperability. Following basic machine readability principles, many accessibility requirements also promote SEO and general discoverability. Where publishers and technology providers offer fully accessible workflows, from manuscript tender to publication, they are able to reap measurable benefits, from increased submissions to higher usage.

And, while I’ve not tested this assumption, I can imagine libraries would pay more for resources that did not demand so much attention from the already strained disabled student services at many US universities. Wasn’t that the Amazon lesson? Consumers of all kinds will pay for convenience, and often repay that kindness with loyalty!

Perhaps the roadblocks to accessible publishing are psychological, perhaps it’s an uncomfortable topic and some folks have a hard time relating to the disabled reader experience? As one Learned Publishing author points out, if you have struggled with the closed captions for a movie on an airplane, you can relate to the human need for accessible publishing. Not only have we all encountered at least one person who couldn’t read everything we publish, our own faculties are limited and not built to last. As our user experience peers remind us, if you do not identify as disabled, then you are only temporarily abled.

Even if we are aware of the readers and authors who are unable to access our digital resources, it can be difficult to convince budget committees that compliance with screen readers or new workflows that sync alt-text with images are more important than the latest snazzy widget. And there will be debate – for example, the beloved PDF that is a safety blanket for many researchers, who demand the portability and familiarity of the format, is also the user-hostile PDF that is an immovable barrier for many disabled readers, where content is either illegible or impossible to navigate. And it’s not as easy as just upgrading your most current journal content, as all publishing systems must be accessible, from soup to nuts.

Accessible publishing is better for everyone, especially where it results in the “navigable, feature-rich” content

Please understand, dear reader, these reflections are not coming from a place of sainted perfection. I am guilty of distracting product roadmaps with sexier features, like APIs and mobile apps, and prioritizing budgets toward website SEO over remediation to back-articles for higher WCAG ratings.

Accessibility in publishing is not a quick win, not a one-and-done effort. Instead, like the routine care and feeding that we’ve learned to apply to content discoverability, accessible content is a must-have ongoing investment. Rather than debating the relative priority of accessibility over other competing priorities, I recommend we spend time debating how we fund everything else after we’ve achieved basic accessible publishing.

I was a bit relieved when Bill Kasdorf reminded us that “nobody said it was easy,” as it’s good to be honest that accessibility does require some effort. That said, accessible publishing is now much easier than ever before. Thanks to the digital publishing standards and progress we’ve made together over the years, it’s now possible for the accessible publication to be the same publication everybody gets. Building on the foundation of global norms like HTML, EPUB, etc., we have a golden opportunity to leverage best practices, so that what comes out of industry-standard publishing workflows is fully accessible to all readers.

If we’re honest, accessible publishing is central to the mission of academic publishing, and to the vision of most publishing organizations. So, it’s high time to bring accessibility out of the margins and into our daily lives. All publishing programs must include a permanent budget line for accessibility. This does not mean millions of dollars for each release, but a drip-feed of improvements add up quickly to a more accessible way of doing business.

So, I join the voices in that special issue in their call to action to our global scholarly publishing community – accessible publishing must become standard practice, must become business-as-usual, must become the status quo. No more excuses, accessible publishing is more affordable, more doable than ever. So, let’s get to work!


Author’s note: Many thanks to Alice Meadows for her input on this post, as well to Bill Kasdorf for his visionary and editorial contributions here as well as in the latest issue of Learned Publishing.

Lettie Y. Conrad

Lettie Y. Conrad

Lettie Y. Conrad, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and consultant, leveraging a variety of R&D methods to drive human-centric product strategy and evidence-based decisions. Lettie's specialties sit at the intersection of information experience and digital product design. She currently serves as Product Experience Architect for LibLynx, Senior Advisor for DeepDyve, and a part-time lecturer for San Jose State's School of Information. Lettie is also an active volunteer with the Society for Scholarly Publishing and the Association for Information Science and Technology, among others.


10 Thoughts on "Roadblocks to Accessibility"

Thanks Lettie, a great post, and I still recall the impact from the PSP pre-meeting Bill Kasdorf etc spoke at (organized by Darrel Gunter) around Disability and Accessibility issues, it was a very meaningful and important session and collection of speakers … I look forward to reading the latest Learned Publishing issue in more detail. Do you happen to know if this issue of LP would be available via ReadSpeaker too, or in some accessible format ??

Tangentially, I recently found out about 20% of kids, grade 1 and up, have some form of reading disorders/dyslexia, which can take many forms, and can be addressed to a degree with specialized tuition/teaching plans … I found this NY Times article on the topic of Dyslexia very enlightening too, encouraging the diagnosis to be looked at as a creative gift too, of course there’s much more can be done to support this community, but hopefully this extract below from the article may also help people/publishers re-think, reframe, and consider more useful action … definitely food for thought !

‘I believe that scientific evidence and social observation will continue to show that defining dyslexia based solely on its weaknesses is inaccurate and unjust, and places too grim a burden on young people receiving the diagnosis. A more precise definition of dyslexia would clearly identify the disabilities that go along with it, while recognizing the associated abilities as well. If the dyslexic community could popularize such a definition, then newly diagnosed dyslexics would realize that they, like everyone else, will face their futures with a range of strengths and weaknesses.’ Blake Charlton

The HTML full text can be read using the common ReadSpeakers – I checked it with ChromeVox and it appeared to work well. Unfortunately it does not have Alt-text for figures on the current Wiley platform (hopefully will in the next month with the upgrade to Literatum) but in the meantime image descriptors have been added to the figure captions

Couldn’t agree more. Thank you for this–it was very well said!

The big issue I find in university and college libraries is that even if I know what I need as a print impaired user, knowing how to get it is very hit and miss – if I download a chapter I get to read it in Adobe Reader with a bunch of accessibility features (but I can only download a small % of chapters this way). If I download the whole book I can only read it in Adobe Digital Editions (also known as Awful Digital Experience by many print impaired readers!) and I lose loads of accessibility – especially for EPUB files. Until Adobe improve the dinosaur product on which so much final delivery depends publishers, aggregators and readers are hamstrung.

Jamie Axelrod from North Arizona University gave a very good talk at the STM Frankfurt meeting about his challenges as an ADA Compliance officer at the university. He detailed the amount of work that his group must do to make content accessible, even content we think is accessible. It was staggering.

He also shared statistics about the number of college students with approved 504 plans in universities now and the number coming. I can tell you that as a parent of elementary school kids, many, many students have 504 plans that will require that universities provide services and accessible content at staggering numbers in the future. We need to break the barrier so content is ready.

In 2016, Amnet-Systems, a full-service publishing vendor, helped advance the idea of accessibility by sponsoring a conference at Carnegie Hall. About 100 publishers attended. Speakers included George Kerscher, Robin Seaman, Bill Kasdorf and others from W3C and the US Attorney General’s office. The same speakers were invited about a year later to speak at the Association of American Publishers PSP pre-conference in Washington, D.C. There have been other conferences, white papers, and emails to people in publishing. As a result, I believe that publishers are aware of the opportunity and the responsibility. Some publishers have instituted born accessible production workflows while others have yet to create an accessible file. Like you, I am just not certain why it is taking so long to make “born accessible” the standard. Sadly, it seems to boil down to budgets and adoption needs.

This topic made me look for accessibity elsewhere and I have been pleasantly surprised by how accessible many platforms appear to be – Youtube automatically adding transcripts, my phone providing different accessible options (eg. working on voice command), etc. But it all begs the questions of why scholarly publishing is not doing so well (figures being a real problem). An eye opener was the need for end-to-end accessibility – content in, garbage out – with any part of the chain liable to lead to failure (metadata, full text, artwork, platform, reader) and the need to work collaboratively with all service providers (including aggregators, platform developers, typesetters, etc.) which can undermine what any single publisher tries to do. A greater need for cooperation throughout.

Thanks for this post, Lettie. I’ve been speaking with a number of journal and education publishers on this topic. The education side is well versed due to federal mandates (NIMAS). I see that some journal publishers continue to work through identifying valid business drivers. Last week a publisher mentioned that it simply did not make sense for the content itself (medical-surgical content). My take is that content accessibility will improve discoverability (after all the Internet is blind). I’m also curious about how people might discover content as Siri- and Alexa-like AI becomes more ubiquitous. As a service provider, we are definitely having conversations and inquiries about accessibility services but still not as much as we expected from journal publishers.

Agreed, Marianne — One accessibility business driver for journal publishers is the fact that their library customers accept a large share of the legal liabilities in non-compliance. I suspect this will become an increasing topic of conversation in subscription / renewal conversations. As AI and voice-automation mature, I can imagine these will be hot topics for publishers to respond to when it comes to accessibility technology and compliance. Watch this space!

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