Accessibility, Accessibility, Accessibility: A Recap of ebookcraft 2018

by Kris Tomes, Associate Digital Product Manager

The big focus at BookNet Canada’s ebookcraft conference in Toronto this year was “Accessibility”—or “a11y” for people who don’t have time to type out the 11 letters between “a” and “y.” As more schools, libraries, and governments set a11y requirements, it is important to understand why a11y features matter and how to implement them in digital publishing. If you want to see the presentations, most of them are on SlideShare.

Romain Deltour of the DAISY Consortium led a workshop on the first morning. If you aren’t an ebook nerd like me, you may not know that DAISY formed in the ’90s with a mission to make content accessible to people with disabilities. This laid the groundwork for today’s most-used ebook format: epub </ebook nerdery>.

Romain emphasized how a11y features benefit everyone, not just people with permanent disabilities like vision, auditory, or movement restrictions. People with temporary or situational disabilities, such as an arm injury, an ear infection, a distracted driver, or a new parent, report using a11y features too.

accessibility - a11y Ace logo

To encourage publishers to use a11y features, DAISY has developed Ace, a command line a11y checker tool that evaluates epub ebooks. With plans to release a desktop app version in 2018, DAISY hopes their tool will enable publishers who were having a difficult time understanding and applying a11y features.

A11y, assistive technology, and code

Another a11y workshop I attended was led by Deborah Kaplan of Suberic Networks. Deborah dove into coding a11y features in epubs, explaining how to use WAI ARIA, the Accessible Rich Internet Applications that the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative working group developed. Assistive technology (AT) can “read” WAI ARIA a11y features and allows anyone to navigate through and consume an ebook. The bottom line: coding a11y features poorly is worse than not including them at all. She encouraged publishers to use HTML 5 code whenever possible, and supplementing with WAI ARIA and DPUB-ARIA code when HTML 5 isn’t sufficient.

Kevin Callahan of BNGO Books led a workshop on born accessible ebooks, demonstrating which a11y features publishers can prepare in InDesign, when the book is still print in layout. These steps were very familiar to me:

  • creating hyperlinked table of contents and indexes
  • creating landmarks that are used by AT for easy navigation
  • using headers for hierarchy
  • using emphasis vs italics and strong vs bold styles to signify meaning
  • adding alt text to images, so visiually-impaired readers can hear a description of images

Why would anyone “tear apart” an eBook?

The most memorable panel to me was titled “We Tear Apart Your eBooks,” consisting of Laura Brady from Brady Type, as well as Steve Murgaski, Sabina Iseli-Otto, and Farrah Little from NNELS (National Network for Equitable Library Service). NNELS creates various accessible book formats for people with disabilities. A little background: Canadian law says it’s not copyright infringement for a nonprofit to create a new format of a book if it is for a person with disabilities and if a commercial version is not readily available.

Steve demonstrated various ATs and how they interpret the typical ebook without a11y features. It was a train wreck. Text-to-speech software skipped covers and titles pages that were images without alt text, so we didn’t even know what book we were reading. A refreshable braille display couldn’t navigate through the ebook, because the table of contents, landmarks, and page list were missing. Steve tried to navigate by hierarchy, but there were no header tags in place. The panel also demonstrated how color contrast can be an issue for people with visual disabilities. They recommended publishers use the 4.5:1 ratio noted in WCAG 2.0 to ensure the text color is legible on top of the background color.

Refreshable braille display that can be used to read ebooks for accessibility - a11y
Refreshable braille display that can be used to read ebooks. Photo credit: Eddau [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Who is watching for a11y?

The panel wrapped up by talking about DAISY’s Ace a11y checker and Benetech’s pilot program for a11y certifications on a title-by-title basis. Benetech is now shifting gears, and plans on certifying publishers as a whole, with spot checks throughout the year to ensure the publisher is continuing to produce accessible ebooks.

I’ll close with a quote that I find really captures the sentiment of this year’s ebookcraft: “Not paying close attention to #a11y ignores the democratic promise of digital publishing.” -Laura Brady

For Kris’s recap of ebookcraft 2017, click here.

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