Finding new solutions to provide blind and VIP (Visually Impaired People) with the same choice of books to read like anybody else exploiting the opportunity offered by digital technologies is becoming more and more important and it has always been the goal of Fondazione LIA – a non-profit created in May 2014 by the Italian Publishers Association. In this spirit, on 13th November Fondazione LIA gathered at Laboratorio Formentini per l’editoria world leading experts in the field of accessibility to analyse and discuss the state of the art of digital accessibility in the publishing value chain and identify the challenges still in place and possible solutions to overcome them.
The international workshop Inclusive publishing ecosystem. A roadmap for born accessible content had been organized by Fondazione LIA in collaboration with the DAISY Consortium, UICI (Italian union of the blind and partially sighted) and the support of IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum), EDRlab (European Digital Reading Lab, a recently created non-profit membership organization that will also host the European headquarter of IDPF and Readium Foundation), Readium Foundation, and TISP (Technology Innovation for Smart Publishing).
The workshop started with remarks by the president of the Italian Publishers Association, Federico Motta, who thanked the organizations cooperating to the event and highlighted the relevance of collaboration among all the communities involved – publishers and visually impaired people, as well as e-reading solutions providers, e-book distributors, metadata managers – and the active role of the Italian publishers which supported the LIA Foundation activities by seriously taking care of social responsibility for inclusion of VIP in the book value chain.
The secretary general of Fondazione LIA, Cristina Mussinelli welcomed the participants and gave the word to Jesper Klein, chair of DAISY Consortium Board, an international network of organizations specialized in providing accessible reading materials to people with print disabilities which, among other projects, collaborated with IDPF to incorporate the accessibility features in the EPUB 3 standard.
Klein described the DAISY global effort in developing technological standards to make reading in the digital era accessible to VIP, a path which started almost 10 years before no one had ever heard of an iPhone or a Kindle. Thanks to the joint effort of DAISY and IDPF for the first time in history there is now the opportunity to make mainstream publishing inclusive, as by adopting EPUB 3 technology, books can be produced in a way that’s accessible from the beginning. Books can be found, bought, lent and retrieved through mainstream channels if those channels meet the requirements for accessibility too. EPUB 3 reading systems in combination with modern assistive technology may show great promise that people with disabilities can have a great e-reading experience, but they also need to be conceived as accessible since the beginning. There is much work ahead to deliver this promise and Klein mentioned LIA Foundation as an inspiring example of an inclusive publishing model.
Francesco Fratta from UICI pointed out the relevance of books as highroads for the access to culture and learning and that UICI is working together with other stakeholders to find common solutions in the field of education to let blind students have the same opportunities as everyone.
He also indicated as a dream to achieve that accessibility can be be included since the very early stages of the publishing value chain, without drawing upon intermediaries like Braille or audio transcriptions, in order to have a single mainstream book production chain.
The first presentation, “Baseline for born accessible EPUB”, made by George Kerscher, Secretary General of the DAISY Consortium, described some high level requirements that all the actors in the value chain should agree to follow to ensure visual impaired people a fully accessible reading experience: from accessible content production workflows, to accessible e-reading solutions, to delivery platforms, to metadata on accessibility features. Other fundamental points underlined by the presentation concerned the need of authoring and certification tools (e.g. accessibility EPUB Check, just to mention one) to facilitate the production of accessible content by publishers and their suppliers.
What Kerscher considers the key principle to build a concrete baseline and make the inclusive publishing ecosystem evolve is the consensus achievement among all players. Only thanks to their collaboration as technology advances it will be possible to “raise the bar” and move accessibility requirements higher and make the guidelines for born accessible publications advance too.
The following speech “Accessibility, the role of standards” by Daniel Weck, software architect and programmer at EDRLab, focused on various standards that can be used to enable an inclusive digital publishing environment. Weck stressed that an inclusive design would equalize VIP opportunities as active participants of the book value chain as much as sighted readers, in the same time delivering a better reading experience to everyone.
Moreover, relying on standards facilitates openness and interoperability, provided that vendor lock-in is avoided: a recipe to achieve a good level of robustness in digital publishing workflow includes the use of open technical standards, a set of good practices and guidelines on how to use them, and a certification granting quality control of products. DAISY, IDPF and W3C are in fact working together to avoid the war among different publication standards and to continue the alignment with the Open Web Platform (OWP).
Obviously standards are to be applied not only to content production but also to communication and delivery systems: bibliographic metadata integrated with accessibility metadata support proper description of e-books while facilitating their discoverability on the web. Validation and conformance testing of all the elements of the digital reading ecosystem are also fundamental.
Then, Betsy Beaumon, president of Benetech, a non-profit organization that develops and uses technology to create positive social changes, presented the activities of the “The DIAGRAM center” in the field of image description, one of the emerging issues in terms of accessibility in a world where images are becoming more and more important in the content industry.
Ms Beaumon focused particularly on how images in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field can be correctly described for visually impaired people. STEM contents represent in fact a critical challenge: very often it isdifficult or even impossible to describe these images using the ALT-Tab description and in any case, it’s not easy to provide a good alternative text. This is also true for videos, math and symbolic notations. That’s why the DIAGRAM Center – Digital Image And Graphic Resources for Accessible Materials, has been developed. The goal is to provide guidelines to make it easier, cheaper and faster to create and use accessible digital images.
Ms Beaumon presented also some experimentations in the field of tactile graphics (Haptics, an interactive tactile exploration), 3D objects and sonification, which describes diagrams using sounds.
Even though these are promising achievements, concluded Ms Beaumon, there’s still a lot to do.
Accessibility is not only about making accessible e-books: baseline in content is just a starting point. The following speeches, by Avneesh Singh and Luca Ciaffoni, focused on “Accessible e-reading systems – Ensuring that baseline accessibility reaches the end users”.
Avneesh Singh, COO – strategy & operations of DAISY Consortium, focused his presentation on the international situation of accessibility in the e-reading field. When a reading system can be considered as “accessible”? It must be developed in a way that its interface and features are accessible, able to support the accessibility features provided by the content providers and to work in synergy with the most widely used assistive technologies. BISG, IDPF and DAISY set up a working group that has developed a reading systems accessibility evaluation methodology, and is analyzing the accessibility of all the e-reading solutions available on the market, testing them and working closely with developers to provide them suggestions and support to improve the accessibility features: the results of the work done can be viewed on the epubtest website.
Luca Ciaffoni, software analyst and developer and accessibility expert from Istituto Francesco Cavazza for the Blind, described more in details the accessibility features that different e-reading solutions – desktop apps (Mac, Windows), mobile apps (iOS, Android) and e-Ink devices – must carry out to allow a more personalized user experience and a better reading, such as the availability of alternative text for navigation and user interface’s elements, user interface adaptation to the different needs (colors, font size etc.) , options allowing reading word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line.
He also presented soloEPUB, an accessible reading app for iOS (available for free download from the App Store) and an accessible reading software for Windows (in Italian, both downloadable for free here) developed by Istituto Cavazza in collaboration with the Italian software house MDV for the LIA project.
The last speech before the lunch break saw Paola Mazzucchi, business development manager at the SME for R&D in the publishing industry mEDRA, providing an insight of the LIA experience from the metadata perspective, showing “The way accessible books get to be known to the world”. Ms Mazzucchi identified metadata as the link from content production to content delivery, the carrier of all the information needed to know that accessible files are actually accessible.
Metadata is essential not only at the end of the distribution process but also in the interim phases, in order to communicate to end users as well as across the players of the value chain: this was the principle basing the work on LIA infrastructure, where accessibility checks made to EPUB files are turned into internal metadata created by LIA service, for a granular description of accessibility features. Internal metadata is then merged with bibliographic information and distributed outwards in the standard format ONIX for Books to make it fit to the global supply chain. Finally, the certification metadata (the so called “LIA label”), bringing the link to accessible features rendered in a user friendly form on LIA website, is displayed by the online stores to certify that the e-book is actually accessible.
Needless to say, partners’ commitment has been critical to achieve such developments, highlighted Ms Mazzucchi, mentioning for instance the cooperation coming from the Italian Books in Print that agreed to provide e-books bibliographic data, and from Media Library On Line initiative as a multiplier of LIA label visibility on the Italian digital library network. On the other hand, raising engagement among retailers was one of the main criticalities since accessibility metadata is still not yet considered as fundamental by retailers.
Piero Attanasio, head of research and development at AIE (Italian Publishers Association), chaired the panel Case studies on collaboration, where successful models of cooperation for the inclusion of VIP in the mainstream reading community have been presented.
Cristina Mussinelli, secretary general of Fondazione LIA, presented the activities of LIA, an example of collaboration among all different actors of the publishing industry. Fondazione LIA is a not-for-profit membership foundation, created in May 2014 by AIE and open to organisations and individuals who share its goal: facilitate full access to digital books by visually impaired people providing access for VIP to publishing products in the same conditions as sighted readers regarding titles, format, times, distribution channels, information and reading instruments. The online LIA catalogue, launched in June 2013, offers nowadays more than 11,000 accessible fiction and non-fiction e-books, produced by 68 publishers, who represent about 80% of the Italian book market. The catalogue grows with more than 400 new books every month. The accessible titles are the same as those released in the mainstream market: the LIA catalogue does not create niches addressing only people with visual disability. Fondazione LIA acts, at national and international level, as a catalyst to create awareness about accessibility in book publishing, involving all the actors in the digital book value chain (authors, publishers, e-distributors and aggregators, retailers, bibliographic agencies, device producers, software developers, e-lending platforms, libraries, readers).
Monica Halil, head of the Accessible Books Consortium Secretariat, showed the audience a video of the achievements of the ABC Consortium in India, where there was a campaign realized in partnership with WIPO to bring the books to VIP.
Finally, Richard Orme, CEO of DAISY Consortium, talked about Load2learn, a digital download service providing accessible resources for print disabled learners in the UK. Load2Learn was founded by RNIB and Dyslexia Action with development funding from the UK Department for Education. Thanks to the collaboration with more than 56 UK publishers it gives access to students and teachers to more than 6,500 downloadable books (word, PDF, EPUB, audio and braille), over 3,000 accessible images and “how to” training guides.
The workshop went to its end with a stimulating round table discussion, where panellists and participants shared their experiences and further discussed possible ways to build an inclusive publishing environment.
The answer can be found on the one hand locally, as observed by Richard Orme arguing that individual countries need to find their own solutions according to their markets; on the other hand, it is fundamental not to “re-invent the wheel”, particularly from a technical standpoint, and continue to share experiences and foster collaboration among all the actors is more and more important.
Cristina Mussinelli suggested that collective effort may be fruitfully supported and further results may be more quickly achieved if the European Commission would launch in the future H2020 Program calls some specific tracks for funding projects focused on R&D in the field of content accessibility or on implementation of innovative processes, tools or solutions based on the adoption of open, international and interoperable standards or on the integration of accessibility in the content production, distribution and consumption workflows.
Jean-Marie Geffroy, CEO and founder of Mantano, an ICT company focusing on reading software and tools, member of IDPF and Readium Foundation, which carries out research and development projects on digital reading and accessibility, mentioned that the fruitful cooperation established with LIA gave them the occasion to address accessibility while implementing their products and services: once again, collaboration among players seems to be the key factor to build an inclusive and productive reading ecosystem.
Giulio Blasi, managing director of Horizons Unlimited and founder of MLOL – Media Library On Line, the first Italian network of digital public libraries, highlighted the need for big and effective communication campaigns to create stronger awareness on the issues discussed. MLOL stressed the relevance to involve digital libraries as their role in the accessible e-book loan may grow and become crucial.
According to Sandra Furlan, head of digital development for trade books at Mondadori Libri, two main results have been achieved by the integration of accessibility features and information in the publishing workflow: from the users’ perspective, accessibility technologies have enlarged both the offer and the tools for content consumption, making every reader equal to each other; from the publishers’ perspective, digital production workflow has gained in efficiency, as long as they maintain their key role in preserving and improving this virtuous circle.
Andrea Prantoni from UICI stressed the importance of informing blind and low vision people about the opportunity offered by new technologies and digital books. Moreover, as UICI collaboration with the LIA initiative in the phases of technical testing of e-books and e-reading solutions has been a valuable starting point to understand publishers’ commitment, Prantoni confirmed the intention of UICI to further collaborate to assure that technological evolution, users needs and publishing work be aligned.
In conclusion, which are the most critical challenges?
As far as technical issues are concerned, the panel mentioned the spread of EPUB format, that may be fostered in order to progressively replace the PDF for all the accessibility requirements to be met, and the importance of facilitating access to devices for those categories of readers like aged VIP that do not use computers: technologies for desktop and mobile must be combined to include a wider readership.
As far as business management is concerned, the funding issue and the business models of organizations managing the production of accessible versions may in the near future evolve as mainstream reading ecosystem becomes a goal.
But these issues can be overcome only with a collaborative effort, able to trigger engagement, partnership and cooperation within the industry: starting from what is reasonably achievable, and then… raising the bar!