Do our ebooks provide equal accessibility to all the readers?

Accessibility in Ebooks

Ebooks are a revolutionary product, it’s amazing how we can instantly download them and start reading within minutes. They don’t use paper and thousands of them can be carried in pockets,  and there are different other advantages in ebooks for readers. We can search for any information within the book or follow external links, and we can conveniently read them wherever we are. But are ebooks and the content in them equally accessible to all of us? There’s a certain minority – people with disabilities in vision, hearing, motor etc – of readers to whom reading an ebook might not be as convenient as for the rest of us.

World Wide Web Consortium or W3C takes web content accessibility seriously, they have laid down Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG. The current edition of the guideline WCAG 2.0 is a robust, stable and easy-to-implement set of instructions intended to guide web developers and authors worldwide while designing a people friendly website and delivering intelligible content. And we have WCAG 2.1 coming soon, the aim of WCAG 2.1 is to expand accessibility for a wider variety of people with disabilities, such as people with low vision, learning disabilities, speech disabilities and multiple disabilities, all of whom potentially have more opportunities online than ever, thanks to advanced technology.

When we talk about accessibility as a fundamental human right we think about public utilities, services and information. How important is the accessibility in an ebook? Ebooks are not just a source of pleasure, people use them to get information and knowledge, and for work, and when disabled people can’t use the product as abled people would do, it hampers their study and work, not just the pleasure reading.

A lot of readers are print impaired and digital books are a boon to them, they can increase the font size, reflow the text, and change color and contrast to suit their vision. An accessible platform should  allow the use of assistive technologies to read the text out loud with or without being able to see the screen.  The benefit of text-to-speech over audiobooks is that it gives access to a much greater variety of material. Much of this material will not be recorded as an audiobook, or will only appear a considerable time after the book’s publication. Listening to dialogue can also be tricky – if punctuation characters are not read out, it’s difficult to follow a conversation, but if they are, it interrupts the flow of the dialogue.

Current ebooks have features like increasing the font size, reflowing the text to fit the screen, higher color contrast and screen reader. Despite all of these disabled readers don’t enjoy the equality, a case in example would be the screen reader feature may not extend to notes and highlights, it may not handle book navigation and presentation of complex data such as tables or mathematical equations. Digital rights management, proprietary formatting and lack of standards in platforms are the causes of this roadblock. Lack of standard and communication among ebook reader platforms, device platforms (OS), assistive technology providers and various other stakeholders in the industry add to the chaos.

The goal of technology is to provide information and education without discrimination. Good accessibility also makes good business sense. The features that make e-texts flexible enough to meet the needs of disabled readers also make them flexible enough for different platforms, different display devices and even different business models. And as publishing becomes more competitive, opportunities to stand out from the crowd become more valuable. Supporting accessibility is good for businesses while it also helps the social credibility of an organization by allowing equal access to all.

It’s time for the industry to come together and formulate a standard and come to an understanding that makes way for full accessibility that goes beyond font size and linear screen reading, to be incorporated in ebooks that are distributed and read across all mainstream platforms. An accessibility of the kind that transcends pleasure reading, that allows disabled readers, scholars and professionals to take equal advantage of all the available resources. It behooves all the stakeholders in the industry that in future they create new ebook formats and standards for accessibility technologies that provide a truly accessible, usable and convenient reading experience for everybody, regardless of disability or level of technical experience.

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