Accessibility matters: how we developed an app to make audiobooks more accessible

make audiobooks more accessible

After 30 years in academic publishing (the final 13 years at board level) Jo Burges now co-runs i-Publishing Consultants. The team specialises in working with publishers, cultural heritage organisations and the not-for-profit sector to help them make the very best use of technology and information management and to engage effectively with their customers and members.

Imagine a world in which the ability to read what you want, when and where you want doesn’t exist and where using mobile devices (be that phone or tablet) is almost impossible because you cannot see the keyboard any better than the printed page. Those of us who are not (yet) ‘print-challenged’ tend to take such abilities for granted and yet for nearly 2,000,000 people in the UK this is not the case. And it is estimated that by 2050 this number will have increased to nearly 4,000,000 – an enormous group for whom access to traditional forms of reading is severely (if not completely) restricted.

ALPSP journal’s January edition dedicated to accessibility

This month sees the publication of the ALPSP’s journal, Learned Publishing, and it is dedicated entirely to accessibility, a major issue across publishing but with particular relevance in the world of technology. It is clear that technology has enormous potential to enhance the lives of those who have struggled to access the written word in the past – and I’m proud to say that the article I have contributed to the journal (CAL Download – an innovative approach to making books more accessible) provides a case study of just one way in which the novel use of IT is transforming the way the blind, partially-sighted and those with reading difficulties can access the output of the industry to which we belong.

The development of a download app

i-Publishing Consultants worked with the national charity Calibre to develop an app – CALDownload – which completely changes the way in which their members access their audio library. In-built device apps do not explicitly support accessibility and so the challenge was to provide entirely audio prompts, allowing visually-impaired users the independence to directly manage their interaction with the library. Making access to audio books available as a download service through this app puts control firmly in the hands of the member, giving them instant access, control and the valued independence they had not previously had. Moreover, while using the app does not depend on sight it has been designed to also support those with macular degeneration (the number of cases of which increases every year), providing the largest possible visual clues depending on the size of the device being used.

The article puts the project in context, including information about the Marrakesh Treaty (which aims to facilitate access to published works for people who are blind, visually-impaired or otherwise print-disabled), and also provides an outline of the development process. It can be read in full here. This was very much a collaborative process, an example of a commercial organisation and charity working hand-in-hand towards a common goal. It’s not often in business that you have a sense that what you’re doing will truly make a difference to people’s lives – and yet that was the case here. The icing on the cake was to win The Stationers’ Company Innovation Excellence Award for Social Development. (You can see ex-Radio 4 reporter, Peter Day, presenting Mike Lewington, Director of Calibre Audio Library, with the award on YouTube.)

Where now?

As the editors of the journal say: ‘Accessibility is no longer a fringe topic… Instead, publishing in a manner that is accessible to all is central to our purpose. We must all engage in and contribute to ensuring that publishing workflows lead to fully accessible works and begin to extend our thinking to ensure access to all end-to-end publishing systems and products. The good news is: it’s easier now than it’s ever been. So, let’s get to work!’
That work is only just beginning and I’m delighted that i-Publishing Consultants has been able to play a part. It’s also a conversation we can all join in and I’d love to hear from you. What’s your experience? Where do you see technology taking us next?

Jo can be contacted on 0753 4090509 or via email on

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