Accessibility of e-Textbook Readers

Last night, I sat in on an EASI (Equal Access to Softtware and Information) webinar about the accessibility of e-textbook readers by Ken Petri from Ohio State University. It seems as though the device designers are really trying hard to get it right, although there’s still some way to go.

Photo of a paperback book.

After a short introduction to the legal context (Advocates for the Blind sued Arizona State University over their use of Kindle resulting in Amazon making changes to its software), Ken gave an overview of the current e-book formats on offer, which are mostly based on XML (eXtensible Meta-Language):

  • PDF (Portable Document Format) – common, but mostly inaccessible unless tagged correctly.
  • MOBI (Adobe).
  • AZW (Amazon) – ePub-like format for the Kindle, but lacks its rich structure.
  • XPS (XML Paper Specification) – designed to look like the original paper copy; only used by Blio.
  • DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) – accessible standard for digital talking books; not much control over formatting.
  • ePub v3 – read by most readers (except Kindle); has a lot of DAISY’s accessibility features; rich formatting control, including video/audio embedding; full support for MathML (although no readers can read it just yet). It’s basically XHTML (eXtensible HyperText Markup Language) with super styling, i.e. CSS3 (Cascading StyleSheets) with SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) and JavaScript.

He then followed this with an overview of e-book reader accessibility:

  • Kindle – has a free accessibility plug-in for PC; uses its own text-to-speech engine, so won’t work with screenreaders; not possible to copy and paste text; the finest grain of movement through the book is sentence by sentence; allows synching of different platforms so notes made using Kindle on the iPad can also be viewed on a PC. (Apparently it’s very easy to bypass the digital rights management and convert both MOBI (Adobe) and AZW (Kindle) formats to ePub and read the book on another device!)
  • iBooks 2 (Textbooks) on iPad – proprietary version of ePub v3, although authoring software, iBooks Author, is free; good for embedded graphics; can only be used on the iPad, not on the iPhone/iPod nor any other device; limited textbooks in the iBooks Store; possible to read ePub books using iBooks 2, but the fine-grained reading experience isn’t there; words highlighted as played; full typographic control (e.g. enlargeable text, high contrast, etc).
  • Blio – has incremental zoom for focussing on a small section of text and back out again.
  • ReadHear – a downloadable app for Mac or PC; uses DAISY; accessible maths equations; words highlighted as played; full typographic control (e.g. enlargeable text, high contrast, etc); rich screen reader access (for DAISY books only).
  • NookStudy – cross-referencing; synchronised highlighting for comparison purposes, where several books (or different pages of the same book) can be open at the same time; cut and paste; look-up using Wolfram Alpha.

For further information, see Ken Petri’s e-Book Reader Accessibility and Comparison Matrix (under development).

Although the presentation focussed on the accessibility of readers rather than on the content, some mention was made of authoring tools. For example, Calibre is a free, open-source tool that will convert across formats using RTF (Rich Text Format), e.g. from Word to DAISY (although it doesn’t do MathML). There is also a plugin for creating DAISY books from Word itself.

To sum up the importance of e-textbooks, Ken’s presentation included a quote from Eve Hill, Senior Counsellor to the Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice:

“In education, the current transition from print materials to digital materials creates and incredible opportunity for people with print disabilities to finally use the same products as their peers and to gain the same benefits as their peers who do not have disabilities.”

Of course, there are negatives, such as affordability of devices, proprietary formats, limited storage capabilities on some readers, possible short shelf-life as device OS’ (Operating Systems) move on, etc; and authors and publishers still need to be made aware that they need to make the content accessible. However, I think e-textbooks have much to offer everyone, not least the opportunity to present information in an interactive and engaging way in a format that almost everyone can access.

BSI BS8878:2010 Web Accessibility Code of Practice Now Available for Public Comment

The latest draft of BSI BS 8878:2010 Web Accessibility – Code of Practice is now available for public comment.

Here is an overview of the draft standard written for us by Andy Heath at Axelrod Access for All and includes information on how to provide feedback. Andy writes:

“On 30th April BSI published a Draft for Public Comment for a new standard in development – A Code of Practice for Web Accessibility.

Why is this draft standard important?

The work began as a planned update of the Publicly Available Specification PAS 78:2006 Guide to good practice in commissioning accessible websites (Available by search for “PAS 78:2006” at This was a very useful standard taken up by many organisations. But 8878 goes considerably further in its support for approaches to accessibility.

8878 gives broad support and advice to organisations in making Web Products (more than static html pages) accessible. It provides normative advice where that is clear and possible and informative advice where practice is less certain now but becoming clearer over time and it clearly distinguishes between them.

Included in the topics it addresses are:

* Recommendations to organisations on how to structure accessibility strategy and policy;
* How to effectively use web accessibility guidelines such as WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 etc. in the context of web products (Relevant sets of guidlines include Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG), Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG), Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) 1.0, Section 508 of the (US) Rehabilitation Act of 1973);
* Precisely where and how to use an inclusive design or audience-based approach, where to use an approach that treats each person as an individual and how to support each of these in technology and in the organisation;
* How to ensure accessibility through a product’s lifecycle;
* Principles for providing accessibility across heterogeneous platforms and technologies – the standard exposes the critical factors to consider in deciding what it is reasonable for an organisation to provide in a particular context and how that should be done;
* Effective approaches to testing;
* Advice on the Equality Act 2010.

Guidance is given on many other relevant areas.

The audience for the standard includes a wide range of stakeholders from implementers through many categories of manager to policy designers, individuals, disability experts and others. Organisations to whom it has relevance include individual web developers, content and system vendors and any organisation that provides content or system to a public or captive audience including corporations and government agencies.

Publication of the standard is scheduled to be around October 2010. Meanwhile, a draft for comment is available at:

It is open to any individual or organisational representative to comment.

A draft in Rich Text Format and a Comment Template can be downloaded at the URL given. The draft is also available for reading and commenting directly on the site (Press the View button) and should be accessible to all. Where that is not the case or for other reasons someone has difficulty making comment it would be helpful for that to be raised on the site, with BSI or with myself (Andy Heath) or any other community members who have worked on the standard (not named here). I will, where appropriate, present to BSI or the committee developing the standard any comments that are made to me.

The period for comment ends on June 30th 2010.

Comments received up to the deadline will be addressed (where appropriate) in producing the final version of the standard.

I believe this standard addresses issues that the community has highlighted as needing advice on for some years. I think it can be an important support to the community and it’s important that we get it right. I commend it to you and urge you to read it and make comment on how to make it better than it is. When doing so please bear in mind that at this point it naturally has some imperfections you would expect of a draft in edit but not of a final standard and we should be focussing for now mainly on whether it has the right content and whether the approaches recommended are the best ones.”

So after all that encouragement from Andy, please go and add your feedback to BS8878!