MSU’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities works to incorporate the latest and greatest in assistive technology in their mission to maximize ability and opportunity. Friday, Oct. 21 Assistive Technology Specialist Stephen Blosser and IT Specialist Al Puzzuoli made an appeal to adopt a more accessible standard in publishing during their presentation at the Michigan Association on Higher Education and Disabilities (MI-AHEAD) statewide conference on “The New World of Assistive Technology” in Traverse City.
MI-AHEAD is a not-for-profit organization, committed to providing professional development for service providers in order to enhance opportunities and assure full inclusion in all areas of higher education.
Blosser and Puzzuoli spoke on the accessibility of material to students who use screen readers and other electronic formats to utilize their textbooks. When publishers distribute books electronically, they use a variety of formats, including text documents, PDFs and graphic files. Screen readers cannot always decipher many of the formats like PDFs that are often image-only files. Publishers tend to favor these inaccessible formats because of copyright protections.
“They want people to be able to use it, but they don’t want them to be able to pirate it,” Puzzuoli said.
“Locking things down so people can’t pirate them also makes them inherently inaccessible, unfortunately.”
Accessibility and security are not mutually exclusive. Evolving publishing standards include features to format material for screen reader use without making the content modifiable. For example, international DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) Standards promoted by the not-for-profit DAISY organization have blazed the trail of prioritizing accessibility in ways that maintain document integrity and security. The problem is that not all publishers provide DAISY formats. The standard is not widely adhered to.
While publishers hem and haw over how to offer their products to readers with disabilities without compromising security, the technology is changing. A new publishing standard called EPUB 3 promises to be the ideal solution for both publishers and users, according to Puzzuoli and Blosser.
EPUB 3 offers a roadmap to accessible publishing. If publishers adhere to the standards suggested in EPUB 3, they are more likely to end up with an accessible product. When created correctly, EPUB 3 documents allow screen readers to find and read text even when rich graphics are imbedded in the page. The format is also locked, so readers cannot make changes to the content they access.
A wide acceptance of the EPUB 3 publishing standard could greatly expand the volume of texts available to people who rely on screen readers and other assistive technologies utilized by people with visual impairments, learning disabilities and reading challenges.
“For the first time in history, this new digital publishing standard is built with accessibility in mind,” Blosser said of EPUB 3.
Instead of relying on the RCPD to reformat published textbooks, students could potentially enjoy direct access to EPUB 3 editions. In a college environment where professors may declare required texts only a few weeks before the start of the semester, this availability would minimize stress for the student and free up time for the RCPD to reformat remaining material more quickly.
Apple products are leading the way for accessible electronics as they are equipped to utilize EPUB files and can be made accessible right out of the box without installing new software. Puzzuoli demonstrated some of the new EPUB features on an iPhone and iPad at the conference.
Puzzuoli said that growing up blind, he was used to not being able to read hard copy books because he could not see them. But now he is frustrated when he runs into books that are incompatible with his screen reader.
“Now there are books that I can’t read not because I can’t see them but because someone somewhere who was completely unaware made a decision, and that’s not acceptable to me,” Puzzuoli said.
“It’s a completely artificial barrier.”
The technology exists to open up the world of books to those with disabilities, and it is better than ever. The technology need only be utilized to make a world of difference.
The RCPD is committed to advocating for increased accessibility standards in publishing on behalf of MSU students and employees. While the publishers catch up, the RCPD is filling the need for more accessible material by reformatting course work and textbooks for MSU students and others with print-related disabilities around the state. In time, material should become more readily available through EPUB 3, but the RCPD prioritizes accessibility too much to leave students in need until then.