Books are playing a major role in spreading ideas, enriching the culture and turning our democracies into flourishing debated places. No matter whether they are used to escape from our reality or to dive into it, access to books remains a fundamental human right. This right is reinforced by the application of the European Accessibility Act that urges the ebooks ecosystem to comply with accessibility obligations for products and services. This directive creates an inclusive society by ensuring access to ebooks for all European citizens, regardless of their disabilities.
Paying attention to accessibility issues is raising the question of the diversity of ebooks and the plurality of editorial offers. It also means that each book is likely to have different features than another. Informing readers about accessibility features of ebooks is not an easy question to solve. In practice, it means that the access is determined by specific reading systems, assistive technologies and reader competencies.
For readers with disabilities to choose the book that suits their needs, transparency on ebook features needs to be fostered. This is a condition to allow people with disabilities to be fully independent. It is also important to help teachers recommend the best book for their students.
This issue has been well known by accessibility experts for a long time but it is still a burning issue that is tackled by a large set of organisations in the four corners of the world. Beyond specific expertise, the subject is transversal and addresses all the actors of the book value chain.
In September 2021, the Accessibility task force of W3C Publishing Community Group proposed a Display guide for retailers and asked for feedback. 18 months later, the this guide is being rewritten thanks to feedback received from different implementation projects.
The European Digital Reading Laboratory (EDRLab) studies the subject in the French context together with other national projects and international implementers.
To find answers we had to dive into the range of book features as well as the practices of print disabled readers. The project has led us to advocate for the redefinition of metadata sets, build a feature dictionary and publish reading use cases.
Since 2020, EDRLab has been funded by the French Ministry of Culture to study digital book accessibility of online bookshops in order to make publishers efforts visible and ensure that people will find the book that suits theirs needs.
In September 2021 the Publishing Community Group @W3C proposed a recommendation on the subject (Display Guide Sept. 2021) and asked for feedback. Discussions are currently taking place on the Accessibility task force issue tracker.
We used this recommendation as a starting point, translated it into French and built a prototype 0. This prototype was submitted to 50 people representing 34 organizations over 4 Workshops). Participants were asked two questions : 'Is the user experience useful?', and 'Is it technically doable?'. The response was a clear 'No', we sent feedback to W3C and built a prototype 1 taking into account user expectations.
A similar study has taken place in Italy and another is starting in the Netherlands. The discussion and rewriting of the Display guide has started at W3C PCG A11Y with mains topics on organizing metadata, adding important information and precisions about conformity
In 2023 we expect live tests by ePagine and leslibraires.fr. The experimental display is also currently implemented in Thorium Reader and Aldiko Next.
This work has led to the rewriting of the W3C Publishing Accessibility task force Display Guide (current draft) as well as major changes on the Accessibility metadata crosswalk (draft) and a large revision of ONIX related codelists (issue 62, work in progress).
We’ve also seen a side effect on people in charge of adding accessibility information. Because describing possibilities to access the content of a book means describing features of the book, the redefinition as explained in the Use Cases allowed a much better understanding not only of accessibility metadata but also of the book as a digital object and the real impact of careful conception and production. To consolidate this effect, we reused reading use cases to build a Dictionary of Accessibility metadata (in French).
Still, access to knowledge and culture in a digital world implies moving an entire ecosystem, never forgetting that the reader is part of it and needs understanding to take advantage of the accessibility features. Reading and manipulating born accessible ebooks still require strong skills for people with print disabilities. Some of tthose involved in the vocabulary study discovered possibilities of visual adjustments or navigation at different levels including print page related position.
Use Cases and localized vocabulary are a great step but they are still not sufficient to make reader’s practices easier to learn. Because assistive technologies are often the main means of access for people with print disabilities, they might be a wonderful vehicle to promote state of the art in industry standards and order to empower users in the use of born accessible materials.