We’ve written before on this blog about the promise of digital textbooks to improve the learning experience for students with special needs. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the accessibility ecosystem that supports students on campus, and how we can help that community.
For more than a decade, disability resource offices at colleges and universities have been delivering accessible materials to their students, and many have developed elaborate systems to take source content and remediate it as needed. Everyone in the industry recognized that hard work this has involved, and have joined in the call for course materials that are “born accessible” and delivered with the needed remediations from the start. We are also witnessing a change in the format in which the majority of this content is delivered. Instead of the page replica PDF format, where accessibility needs to be added after the fact, we are seeing content that is delivered in EPUB format, a format designed with accessibility in mind. According to VitalSource data for 2017, of the top 100 most used titles in digital textbooks, 77 were EPUB3, and the top 25 were all EPUB3 files. Our more than 22 million users love EPUB files, and the ability to use them online or offline. The W3C web technologies supported in EPUB3 are ideal for small screens, interactivity, and accessibility. Looking at our entire inventory of more than 1 million titles from more than 1500 educational publishers, we consistently see 50% to 75% of usage every week in EPUB titles.
This shift in the format being delivered, combined with the inherent accessibility of the EPUB format, has put the industry at a ‘tipping point’, to use the term coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his seminal work. Providing source content that has accessibility features built in from the start (alt-text, reading order, structured navigation, and other key features) and works with the built in AT tools all of today's modern operating systems include and support, is an answer to the long awaited question of ‘when will we get this fundamental work built in?’. Many disability services offices report that, if well marked-up EPUB files were available, the majority of their current work to accommodate students’ course materials needs would be eliminated, and they would have time, and resources freed up to address the needs of the remaining students.
Much of this vision of “born accessible” EPUB3 content is now a reality. Publishers are providing accessible EPUB3 formats with markup, and readers like VitalSource Bookshelf, offer cutting-edge accessibility features. However, many disability services offices are not yet trained or equipped to handle the change from the less-accessible PDF format to EPUB. The community supporting students with special needs has reached a tipping point, and it’s time for the entire ecosystem to come together to support this transition.
Last week, that’s exactly what happened. While attending the 31st Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, members of the BISG Content Structure Committee, representing higher education institutions, content creators, accessibility advocacy groups, and technology platforms, came together to develop an action plan to help the community transition to the more accessible EPUB format.
In the meeting, my peers and I came up with a variety of actionable next steps to help disability resource offices manage the transition from PDF to EPUB. Our action plan includes the following:
- Work with institutional DSS offices to document the current landscape, identifying the goals, and gaps that need to be overcome
- Identify best practices and tools to support disability services offices to help overcome the gaps identified
- Create materials and webinars to educate all stakeholders on the accessibility advantages of the EPUB format
- Present to the accessibility community at key conferences in 2018 and 2019
- Create a shared repository of support materials to help all stakeholders better support disability services offices
- Recruit others to help!
Working to improve the learning experience for students with special needs has been a personal and professional passion for me for over 20 years. I am confident that EPUB offers a dramatic improvement for students with print disabilities, and I look forward to working with fellow advocates for accessibility to help the community transition to the EPUB format. I’m asking for all of you to join us, and help make this a reality!