By the Book

A coalition of disability studies scholars formulate guidelines to help publishers produce accessible books.

June 16, 2015
 

A group of renowned disability studies scholars are seeking to clarify what makes a book accessible with a set of guidelines that authors can use to help publishers make their books readable by anyone.

The guidelines, a one-page template letter, read a little like an ultimatum. The letter opens by asking a would-be publisher to confirm in writing that print books and accessible formats will be made available simultaneously, then launches into an explanation of how publishers should handle everything from digital rights management to authoring software.

Lennard J. Davis, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the letter is meant less to threaten a boycott and more as a public service announcement. Some authors may not budge from the demands in the letter, he said, but others are likely to use it as a way to spread awareness about accessibility.

“Most of us understand this is a process,” Davis said. “Just the way that curb cuts, wheelchair lifts on buses and captioning on TV are part of our everyday lives, nobody notices them anymore -- but they had to be fought for. This isn’t really any different.”

Davis and co-authors Catherine Kudlick, Margaret Price, Melissa Helquist and Jay Dolmage have settled on the popular standard EPUB as the desired format for accessible ebooks. Their guidelines recommend publishers waive digital rights management restrictions for readers with disabilities so the restrictions won’t interfere with accessibility software.

The guidelines also come with pointers on how to make content accessible. They suggest making text resizable and available as text-to-speech, labeling all photos and illustrations, and using line styles instead of color to distinguish between different data in charts.

Overall, Davis said, the guidelines are meant to promote universal design principles -- meaning anyone, regardless of disability, can use the books.

“Accessibility is always a multipronged issue,” Davis said. “When you talk about disabilities, you’re talking about so many different groups.”

So far, the Society for Disability Studies and the Canadian Disability Studies Association have endorsed the guidelines. Davis said he expects more organizations -- including professional associations -- to sign on and make the guidelines available to their members. The National Center on Deaf-Blindness, for example, helped Davis and the others write the guidelines.

A spokesperson for the Association of American Publishers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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