December 10, 2023

Accessibility Upgrade: EPUB, Libraries, and Ebook Accessibility

During a visit to Egypt two years ago, George Kerscher, Secretary General of the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium, found that the country’s major libraries had only a very small collection of books available for print-disabled patrons. And while staff and volunteers were working to make more books accessible, output was limited to only a handful of titles each year.

Discerning this as an outsider, ­Kerscher (who is blind himself) realized that it was very much a microcosm of how the process of producing accessible books has traditionally functioned in the United States. Publishers generate books, while nonprofit organizations and libraries generate accessible ljx130402webenis3 Accessibility Upgrade: EPUB, Libraries, and Ebook Accessibilityversions of some of those books. It is impossible to keep up with the volume. Offering a sense of context, Kerscher notes that nonprofit audiobook producer Learning Ally, where he serves as senior officer of accessible technology, converted about 7,000 books in a peak year. Yet more than 300,000 print titles are published each year in the United States alone.

The new EPUB 3 standard could promise a sea change, enabling publishers to integrate accessibility features into their ebook production workflows, creating ebooks that are immediately available to everyone, including customers with print disabilities.

“Ten years ago, it was ‘How can the Library for the Blind produce more books?’ Kerscher says. “Now, the thought is that all of the books published each year have the potential to be accessible right out of the box. That’s just mind-boggling to a person who has had such restricted access to ­information.”

New standard

The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)—where Kerscher also serves as president—is responsible for the free and open EPUB standard, and accessibility features were considered an integral component as this latest iteration was developed. EPUB 3 is sometimes described as a marriage of EPUB 2 and the DAISY Consortium’s standard, which is designed specifically for accessibility.

With the notable exception of Amazon’s Kindle line, most ereaders support the EPUB format, including the Barnes & Noble (B&N) NOOK, Sony Reader, and Kobo, and most apps that run on Android and Apple iOS tablets. As publishers and device manufacturers begin to support EPUB 3, the reading landscape will be significantly reshaped for the print-disabled.

ljx130402webenis4 Accessibility Upgrade: EPUB, Libraries, and Ebook Accessibility

EPUB3 will use MathML markup for equations, which will give ereading software the added ability to read the equation to print-disabled users

The way in which EPUB 3 renders text to speech is one example of how it will help. Text-to-speech technology has been instrumental in improving access to digital materials, but, by itself, it is far from being an adequate accessibility tool. On many ereaders, it offers no help for navigating an ebook, and its default is to treat all text content equally, ignoring visual cues offered by standard layouts.

So, a typical text-to-speech experience might begin with an ereader plowing through a lengthy table of contents, then jumping unannounced between a book’s primary content and any sidebars or footnotes. And with no way to interpret charts, graphs, illustrations, or mathematical equations, these are simply skipped, which is especially a problem with textbooks.

Even with linear narratives, such as novels, text to speech doesn’t always sync with the content on the visible page. In some cases, an ereader will begin and keep going, while the visible page remains the same. If users accidently tap the screen during playback, they are taken back to the point in the text where they started.

Web page in a box

These are just a few of the more obvious problems that EPUB 3 will address.

Matt Garrish, chief editor of the EPUB 3 specifications and author of several articles and books on the standard, including What Is EPUB 3? and EPUB 3 Best Practices, notes that some people describe ebooks packaged in the EPUB format as “a web page in a box.” In many ways, this is an apt description.

The prior standards, EPUB and EPUB 2, used web markup to support features such as hyperlinks and audio and video multimedia content and facilitate the use of embedded metadata and reflowable and resizable text, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for design, and XML for additional functionality. EPUB 3 uses HTML5, the latest revision of the HTML standard, to allow devices to render content in new ways.

With HTML5, “you have much better structured markup than you had previously in EPUB 2 and HTML 4,” Garrish explains. “HTML 5 now brings in more semantically and structurally meaningful elements such as sectioning and asides and figure tags. You’re able to separate the primary content from the secondary content so that it’s much easier for someone who is using an accessible device to follow the flow of the narrative.”

EPUB 3 also facilitates the creation of integrated navigation tools that can help readers identify and find content throughout an ebook. Together, HTML5 and EPUB 3 also support MathML, which uses XML to store the meaning of a mathematical formula rather than simply representing it as an image. As a result, a browser or ereader can then display this information as an equation or formula for sighted users, or use text-to-speech to read that formula to a print-disabled user. Meanwhile, the standard features support native captioning and subtitling of video and audio clips for hearing-impaired users, native descriptions of videos and illustrations for the print disabled, and syncing narration with text display using media overlays.

“EPUB 3 really represents the coming together of EPUB 2 and DAISY, the accessible book format that our books are in today,” says Betsy Beaumon, VP and general manager of the Benetech Literacy Program. Benetech is the parent nonprofit that operates the Bookshare accessible online library for people with print disabilities. “It really is an opportunity…. Everything is going digital in terms of publishing processes, and this is the opportunity to make sure that everything born digital is born accessible.”

Current climate

The potential of enhanced accessibility has also given advocacy organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) a sense of urgency, as ebooks and digital content become increasingly prevalent. A letter of complaint sent last June by NFB president Marc Maurer to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have played a role in the Department of State’s abrupt cancellation of a $16.5 million contract with Amazon to stock libraries and educational centers around the world with Kindle devices. NFB also staged a protest outside Amazon’s headquarters in December 2012, criticizing the company’s push into K-12 classrooms, arguing that its devices offer only limited and problematic accessibility ­features.

NFB’s participation in the Authors Guild v. HathiTrust case was also crucial in Judge Harold Baer Jr.’s October 2012 ruling that scanning and preservation can facilitate access for the print-disabled and is therefore transformative and fair use. That decision has been appealed.

Libraries have not been exempt. In 2011, the organization filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Civil Rights, against the Sacramento Public Library, CA, over a program that loaned out B&N’s NOOK ereaders, which lacked text-to-speech capability. NFB followed up on that case by helping a group of patrons sue the Free Library of Philadelphia over a similar initiative in May 2012, arguing that a program that uses federal grants to purchase inaccessible ereaders violates both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both libraries settled and agreed to incorporate accessibility requirements into their technology procurement contracts. In January, the Institute of Museum and Library Services issued an advisory citing these cases and encouraging libraries to make accessibility a key criterion in any ereader ­program.

The libraries involved in these suits essentially faced limited options for accessible ereader lending and, to some extent, found themselves playing the role of proxy in NFB’s broader efforts to reform device manufacturers.

Apple’s iPad is currently the gold standard for accessible ereaders, featuring gesture-based VoiceOver screen reading in 36 languages, text to speech, zoom functions, and compatibility with multiple hardware and software products designed for special needs. But these tablet computers are much more expensive than dedicated ereaders such as NOOKs these libraries were initially loaning.

Similarly, the Blio ereader software platform also debuted in 2010 with built-in accessibility features, including text to speech. Baker & Taylor operates a bookstore for Blio, and support is integrated into its Axis 360 digital media library. But this app also requires a tablet computer (Android or iOS) to function as a portable ereader.

The transition from print to digital is still in its early stages, but it is progressing rapidly, explains Amy Mason, NFB access technology specialist. That’s why the lawsuits were necessary. It is crucial to push for these changes now, she says, and make accessibility features an expectation for device manufacturers and a routine part of workflows for publishers, rather than allow inaccessible technologies and processes to become ingrained.

“It’s why we hit them so hard, it’s why we’re being so, what would seem to some to be, unreasonable right now,” Mason says. “If we don’t change this now, we will forever be playing catch-up. We’ll forever be a step behind. And there’s no reason for that.”

Equal access

Unfortunately, accessibility continues to be a secondary concern for many companies. Notably, Mason characterized industry-leader Amazon’s history as one of “actively dragging their feet” on this issue.

When text to speech was first introduced on the second-­generation Kindle in 2009, it was notoriously difficult for blind users to access without assistance. The function had to be turned on via a series of touchscreen menus every time a book was opened. Users can then essentially press play and let the reader keep going, with little ability to navigate the text with any precision. The feature wasn’t available for all titles, and Amazon dropped support for it entirely with the first-generation Kindle Fire and other recent models such as the Kindle ­Paperwhite.

However, accessibility improvements may finally be on the way for Kindle. In December 2012, Amazon announced that input from “vision-impaired customers” had led the company to plan support for new accessibility features for the Kindle Fire beginning this year, including voice guide navigation, adjustable font sizes, and modifiable text color. And in January, Amazon announced the acquisition of text-to-speech and voice recognition provider Ivona, which already supplied the software used on the latest Kindle Fire.

Amazon uses proprietary file formats for its ebooks, and its devices have never supported EPUB. However, the Kindle Fire’s .kf8 ebook format does offer publishers similar support for HTML5 and CSS3, which could potentially allow functionality that aligns with EPUB 3.

B&N has also begun moving toward accessibility enhancements for the NOOK, although in its text-to-speech beta test for the NOOK HD+ last fall, the function suffered from problems similar to those on the Kindle. Text to speech must be accessed via a tree of touchscreen menus, the function does not help users navigate those menus, and publishers can choose to make the function unavailable for specific titles, according to a November 2012 blog post by Mason and Clara Van Gerven, access technology content specialist for NFB.

EPUB 3 cannot address poor accessibility support with a device’s interface, so even if the new standard significantly improves how ebooks can be rendered for print-disabled
users, device manufacturers will still need to work on how they help those users find and access books on their ­devices.

Even with the out-of-the-box enhancements offered by EPUB 3, accessibility can still be improved. Kerscher explains that libraries that have traditionally served people with disabilities could continue to enhance off-the-shelf content by producing tactile graphics or detailed descriptions of images, charts, and graphs, for example. As new features such as note-taking and sharing become prevalent on ebooks and e-textbooks, publishers will need to find ways to keep up with those advances as well.

University libraries are beginning to recognize and address these types of issues. Last November, the Association of Research Libraries published a report on services to patrons with print disabilities that specifically notes that adaptive technology tools “require electronic text to be properly encoded for the tool to work.” And that “there is a growing sense of urgency regarding how best to effectively address these technology-based accessibility challenges in research libraries and in the broader institutional setting.”

Library help

Last month, the International Publishers Association recognized EPUB 3 as the preferred standard format for ebook publishing. Also, it will supersede DAISY as the new preferred format when publishers are required by the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) to submit accessible ebooks to the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC), which could help incentivize those publishers to incorporate these features into their ebook production workflow.

[CORRECTION: Skip Stahl, project director for NIMAS notes in the comments that this is incorrect, stating that “The update to the NIMAS Standard has not yet been determined, although EPUB3 is certainly a contender.”]

Kerscher notes that a significant increase in accessible ebooks could lead to an increase in demand from print-disabled users visiting conventional public libraries. Describing libraries as “the heart and soul of information in our society,” he notes that functions as simple as reader recommendation could be a real help to print-disabled users who suddenly have access to a much larger selection of content.

“Some people just grab a book and start reading it, and not a whole lot of thought goes into which book they’re going to read next,” he says. “There’s better and worse choices that people could make. I see libraries helping people identify what it is that they want to read.”

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Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.