E-books and digital technologies offer extraordinary opportunities to extend and ease the possibility of reading to a number of people that suffer from different kinds of visual impairment but to fully exploit this potential, a coordinated effort is needed by all parties involved. E-books, distribution channels, payment tools, reading solutions (both hardware and software) should embed accessibility in an homogeneous way.
A lot of opportunities are rising from the ongoing technological development and the diffusion of digital devices (such as tablet and smartphones) and significant progresses have already been made by forward-looking companies which pay attention to the issue of accessibility in the design of their products and services.
On the other hand there are still some issues with the end-to-end accessibility of the publishing value chain that needs to take further actions in order to have a positive impact on the improvement of the experience of partially sighted end users.
Initiatives such as the joint letter written in 2013 by Daisy Consortium, IDPF, EDItEUR and AIE to Apple, the Joint statement on accessibility and e-books, presented in London by The Publishers Association, EDItEUR, RNIB, Dyslexia Action, JISC TechDis, The Society of Authors, the Association of Authors’ Agents, the International Publishers Association, the Macular Society and the Right to Read Alliance or the recent resolution approved by the National Federation of Blind in the USA to press Apple to enforce accessibility standards, aim to encourage the deployment of accessibility features to serve the needs of the widest possible consumer market, involving all the actors in the digital publishing value chain: cooperation among of them is therefore fundamental.
To achieve a full mainstream accessibility, that means visual impaired readers can search, retrieve, buy, access and read accessible e-books through multiple devices in a way that should be as easy and as fast as for any other reader, all the elements in the value chain need to focus on accessibility.
During the research conducted in the early stages of the project, LIA  analyzed all the value chain and the level of accessibility in place in the different situation and created a schema in which it is highlighted what is needed to allow a visual impaired reader to find, access and use accessible e-books. LIA was able to do it thanks a very strong collaboration, since the very beginning of the project, with the Italian Blind Union and the Institute for Blind Cavazza of Bologna, partners of the project and supporters in the testing activities of all the elements of the value chain with the direct involvement of blind and visual impaired people.
Many were the outcomes of these activities. First of all the e-book itself must be accessible, which means that they have to be created with the correct semantic structure and following the guidelines of accessibility. The LIA project chosed the EPUB format as, on one side, its specification were created by IDPF in collaboration with Daisy Consortium and include all the specification for accessibility and, on the other one, it is the most widely used format chosen by the publishers to produce e-books. LIA was able to involve more than 65 Italian publishers, all the mayor ones but also many small/medium sized ones, proving that the publishing industry in general is aware of the issue and ready to find solutions to offer to visual impaired people the possibility to access editorial content, as demonstrated by other experiences in place in other countries.
It is also important that the metadata, accompanying the e-book, can include information on the specific features of accessibility and can then be distributed along the publishing value chain, so that a visual impaired person can know that the title is accessible and evaluate if it fits its needs. The most used metadata schema used in the publishing industry to spread e-book information in the distribution value chain is Onix – Editeur, the organization managing the schema, had included a specific code list, the 196, focused on accessibility. The use of this schema, done within the LIA service, allowed LIA to send the information on accessibility of the e-books to the Italian Book in Print catalogue and to update every day the catalogue of accessible e-books with the new titles. In this area there is a missing point as the global online store use some proprietary metadata schema that do not include any information on accessibility; LIA, with the support of the Daisy Consortium, had been in contact with them by providing all the information and asking them to include some kind of information on accessibility but till now we did not succeeded in achieving this goal.
Two other important elements in the value chain are the online bookstore and the payment systems forms. The research and analysis carried out in the project highlighted that the accessibility of the online bookstore is normally very low and this situation compelled LIA to create a brand new fully accessible shelf with the same richness and structure of a traditional online bookstore, to allow visual impaired people to access the store independently.
Significant difficulties for the actual accessibility of e-commerce emerged from the test activities with visual impaired final users, highlighting in particular inaccessible electronic payment forms. This is a very good example of how collaboration can work: thanks to the strong collaboration with ABI, Italian Banking Association, LIA is able to contact the two main Italian organization managing electronic payment (Banca Sella and Setefi) andwork with them providing all the information to create accessible payment forms and testing the forms with visual impaired people. Thanks to this joint effort their online payment forms are now usable by visual impaired people which means they are not only able to buy book but to buy everything online.
Last but not least the user needs to use fully accessible e-reading solutions and this is an area in which more collaboration among all the actors in the value chain is crucial as the accessibility of a digital publication is the result of the complex interaction between the file created by the publisher, the device, the reading software/application used and the disability of the final user.
The results of the research done within the LIA project – but similar results had been obtained by other organization, like Daisy Consortium or Jisc Tech Disc – show that nowadays only very few devices and reading application are fully accessible to visual impaired people to read e-books.
As the results of the LIA project show, the dialogue and collaboration are key elements to achieve changes in the field of accessibility, and further joint efforts between publishers/distributors on one side and hardware/software producers on the other, with a continuous involvement of visual impaired people can achieve the goal of offering seamless fruition of editorial content through any reading software and devices available on the market.
These in particular are the areas in which LIA thinks that joint efforts may bring improvements:
- provide publishers advice and guidance in producing accessible e-books since the early stage of e-book production;
- collaborate with e-reading platforms, devices and software developers to ensure that e-book devices and platforms provide the accessibility features which serve the needs of visual impaired people;
- collaborate with the actors in the supply chain for e-books – digital asset distributors, wholesalers, retailers, and library services – to ensure that they are aware of the needs of print impaired readers, and that the supply chain itself is accessible and include information on accessibility of the e-books they distribute;
- provide to visual impair people updated information on the advantage of e-books and e-reading solution and help them to identify which e-books are accessible to them.
LIA is a non profit foundation aimed at promoting literature in particular for vulnerable groups, in particular focusing in increasing the availability in the market of publishing products accessible for visually impaired, profiting from the potentialities offered by new technologies and promoting a cultural change in the way the publishing value chain actors deal with the issue of accessibility.
The LIA catalogue offers more than 6,000 fiction and non-fiction accessible e-books and every months more than 400 further title are added. LIA project was managed by the Italian Publishers’ Association (AIE), through its service company Ediser, funded by the Italian Ministry for Culture.
In this respect, for example, the UK Publishers Association, working with the Society of Authors and the Association of Authors’ Agents, has led the way in encouraging its members not to disable text to speech capabilities unless they harbor concerns about having been granted the appropriate rights. This has already had a remarkable effect in the proportion of bestselling e-books which have text to speech available to those users who find this feature useful.