ICCHP: Challenges to tackle and perspectives for joint cooperation in e-book accessibility

In the framework of ICCHP (International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs), the international conference devoted to accessibility, the ‘Voices from the industry: experiences and future challenges for publishing and ICT in e-book accessibility’ TISP workshop featured presentations from different European players and projects dealing with e-book accessibility.

Paola Mazzucchi (Project Manager, mEDRA) introduced the workshop, meant to illustrate experiences in the different EU countries and identify future challenges for ICT and publishing in the field of accessibility of e-books for the visually impaired, focusing in particular on how to widen the range of accessible books.

The French experience was illustrated by Virginie Clayssen (Chaiman’s Advisor at Editis) who first set the scene illustrating the French legal framework under which works can be reproduced in accessible format without asking for permission from rightholders; authorised associations are allowed to request via the National Library digital files of works published after 4/8/2006 and a dedicated technological platform (PLATON) has been set up to handle the requests. In this framework the procedure to manage the requests in large publishing houses, from file retrieval to adaptation and final upload on the platform, remains not easy. Though performance has been increasing, certainly the inclusion of accessibility from the start of the production process would facilitate a more effective handling of file requests and many publishing houses are working on it.

In 2013 publishers launched the so-called ‘Rentrée littérarie’ initiative that foresees to make available new titles (those issued during the ‘Rentrée’, a period in autumn when most of new book issues are concentrated) in accessible formats. The scheme to make the ‘Rentrée’ titles available in accessible format is based on the decision by publishers to provide the digital files of the new titles before their publication; BrailleNet (an association assisting the visually impaired) has then time to adapt the files and thus the titles are available at the same time for people with and without reading disabilities. The adapted titles are distributed via the PLATON infrastructure –  185 titles were adapted in 2013 and the goal for 2014 is 250; other VIP associations can adapt the files, too. The National Book Centre (CNL) funds the project, which is supported by the National Library (BNF);

The overall aim for the near future is to make accessibility the rule, not the exception, in book publishing. The initiative is a step in the right direction; it has had the positive consequences of helping publishers move from a ‘pull’ to a ‘push’ model of provision of accessible titles and making accessibility the rule, if just for a limited but significant set of titles. Moreover, the French Publishers Association (SNE) and many publishers support the Readium Foundation, which is working to accelerate the adoption of the EPUB 3 format, which has full accessibility features.

The Italian scenario offers different features as Cristina Mussinelli (Secretary General of the LIA Foundation) explained presenting LIA (Italian Accessible Books), an initiative started as a project funded by the Italian government and implemented by the Italian Publishers Association (in 2011-2013) to mainstream the production of accessible books and thus increase the number of accessible titles available, now run by a dedicated not-for-profit foundation.

Mrs Mussinelli illustrated the Italian context concerning accessible reading, explaining the initiative’s aim to create a more efficient and legally secure system. A key aspect of accessibility in moving from traditional publishing to digital is the possibility to switch from different workflows for each user to a unique workflow; the LIA service is the product of this innovative approach, which resulted so far in more than 6,500 accessible titles produced, from 65 publishers (all the major ones and a number of smaller ones). Work focuses on new titles, since the old ones have been already made available somehow in accessible format through other means; the service continues, producing some 400 new accessible titles per month, at a much lower cost than any previous initiative.

LIA’s fundamental strength and innovative edge lies in its coverage of the whole value chain of digital publishing, since it deals with guidance to embed accessibility in book production and certification of productive processes; definition and distribution of accessibility metadata for proper cataloguing; accessibility of online stores (an initial survey showed that none were accessible) and e-payment systems for the distribution side; accessibility of devices and/or reading software and applications at the user’s end (this is the hardest part, only very few of those are accessible; LIA thus created its own e-reading solution app).

The last country overview concerned Germany with Michael Vogelbacher (Director of Information Services at MVB), who presented the activities of the DZB, the German Library for the Blind).

Mr Vogelbacher illustrated several projects of the DZB: DaCapo, focused on conversion of  music sheets for lending and purchasing for educational purposes; Leibniz, aimed at making non-fiction works accessible; and BADI, that expanded the results of Leibniz to include EPUB 3; in addition, as of 2015 the JOBLIB project will develop an information portal on the availability of accessible titles, also using the knowledge developed by  LIA. DZB is planning to enhance its operations and cooperation network; among the actions envisaged, workshops for publishers and service providers, stronger cooperation with LIA and the DAISY consortium and in general provision of  hosting and sustainability to several initiatives, with consulting and technology support from MVB.

E. A. Draffan (Research Fellow at the University of Southampton) spoke about the accessibility of e-texts, e-books and e-journals, drawing from the experience of marketplaces and devices developments in the UK, focusing in particular on the educational sector. Mrs Draffan stressed the importance of removing barriers for print impaired individuals, pointing out the significance of the phenomenon if we consider together learners in higher education with print disability, the dyslexic population and ageing citizens with increasing  accessibility needs.

Calling for more stakeholder cooperation and avoiding wasting time and expertise in separate initiatives, Mrs Draffan outlined the progress made in the UK in this area: a Right to Read Alliance is coordinating the messages to publishers, while a Publisher Lookup website provides responses to users’ feedback, and representatives from publishers and advocacy groups meet and discuss in an Accessibility Action Group; one concrete result has been the making available for free of high quality text-to-speech voices for accessible texts in education.

In describing the key drivers for a framework for e-book accessibility, Mrs Draffan highlighted the importance of ICT issues affecting the ease of acquisition of accessible e-books, and recalled why e-books are so helpful for print impaired readers. To conclude, she pointed out a number of areas in which she argued results still needed to be achieved, including: standardisation of formats and devices and content personalization; copyright and DRM relaxation; guidance for accessibility options.

The ICT point of view on accessibility was addressed by Jean-Marie Geffroy, CEO and Founder of Mantano an ICT company focusing on reading software and tools, member  of IDPF and the Readium Foundation, which carries out research and development projects on digital reading and accessibility. Mr Geffroy expressed confidence in the improvement of accessibility apps, due to the wider adoption of the EPUB 3 format and the related efforts by the Readium Foundation, which will increase developers’ access to the source of documents, thus allowing more room for customisation and cooperation

In the final round table discussion, the importance of collaboration was highlighted: as there are many talented ICT developers, requirements from the value chain (publishers, readers, etc.) should be collected and matched and benchmarking between different countries’ experiences shall be fostered and sustained. Participants reflected upon the drivers for ICT companies, large retailers and other operators to work towards increased accessibility, and on the possibility to tackle the mainstreaming of accessibility from a business perspective. It was however pointed out that accessibility does not seem to be a topic that attracts investors while on the other hand, the ageing of population should be an incentive.

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