Accessible Publishing

With digital publishing coming of age, many publishers are rethinking how they produce and sell their content. I know First Reference is. One of the main challenges we face as publishers is making our content and products accessible.

Experts in the fields of accessibility and publishing from around the world have joined together under the banner of the Enabling Technology Framework. According to the group:

The publishing landscape is becoming much more user-oriented; ensuring your published content is accessible by all your potential readers is more and more important. Today’s readership needs to be able to consume technology in a variety of different ways and publishing’s metamorphosis from a print-dominated into a mixed and inexorably into a digitally-led industry presents an unprecedented opportunity for publishers to extend their products to the widest possible audience.

However, this is easier said than done.

I get the point that accessibility should be an integral component of publishing, what does this really mean? Simply put, content and software are accessible if they can be accessed and used effectively by individuals with disabilities. To achieve this, electronic documents and websites must be accessible in both their content and structure, meaning they should include such things as navigational aids, text that can be read by a screen reader, extra information for those person with low vision, alternate text description for images, form-field descriptions, and a defined document language, among other things.

Creating accessible electronic documents and websites requires a combined effort by content authors and the publishers of the software and tools that authors use. This means:

  • Content authors must take advantage of the accessibility enabling features in their software and tools, and keep accessibility in mind throughout their work by defining document structures and adding navigation aids and explanatory information
  • Publishers of software and web-based development tools should enable the creation of accessible content, retain and encode both content and structure in ways that suit accessibility, provide useful tools to help optimize documents, and effectively transmit information to other assistive technologies

Software and web-based tools represent important milestones in accessibility. Accessible electronic documents and websites are becoming an integral part of an organization’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), demonstrating an organization’s commitment to providing equal opportunities. Inaccessible electronic content and websites can undermine an organization’s other CSR efforts. The Enabling Technologies Framework project explains:

People with disabilities are often excluded from various aspects of society, largely due to inaccessible buildings and services. When an organization’s website or content is not accessible, it further excludes people with disabilities. When an organization’s website and content are accessible, it empowers people with disabilities to participate more fully in society. Providing an accessible website is one way an organization can demonstrate that it strives to meet the access needs of a diverse society.

The Enabling Technologies Framework project is working to make the vague concept of accessibility in publishing more concrete for publishers by releasing the Accessible Publishing: Best Practice Guidelines for Publishers. It is worth a read, and it contains many valuable insights and instructions that content publishers can apply now at little or no cost. And you probably understand by now that “content publisher” can mean anything from traditional print publishing to online news to informal blogging.

Accessible Publishing provides guidance to content authors, editorial and production departments, publishers, IT staff and others on the ways they can improve accessibility in their products. The document also offers help to manage many of the issues and challenges these people may encounter as they strive to make their products more accessible. The guide has been endorsed by the International Publishers Association, The Federation of European Publishers and The International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers.

It will be interesting to see who adopts the guidelines and how long it takes for them to spread throughout the print and digital publishing worlds. It will be especially interesting to see how the guidelines affect creative design and layout, since these areas tend to be less bound by restrictions. I’m also curious to know how readers without impairments will react to changes in publishing to improve accessibility. Many accessibility advocates claim that such improvements benefit all readers, but it remains to be seen whether that is in fact true.

At any rate, this guide is a big step forward for accessible publishing. It may only be a stepping stone toward more fully inclusive products, but it is precisely what content publishers need to start.

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