Becoming conscious [putting accessibility on your radar]


It was a very deep sleep. I was utterly relaxed but dimly aware of noises around me.

I tried to block them out but, finally, the clamour reached my conscious mind. I woke in the middle of a road. An ambulance siren drew nearer and the car driver, who worried he’d killed me, was ecstatic that I was alive. The bike was mangled.

Becoming conscious was disorienting, embarrassing, humbling. But it was better than lying unconscious in the road.

Many publishers are unconscious in different ways.

Some are unconsciously competent, creating digital books that are highly flexible and adaptable for a range of readers on different devices. But because the competence is unconscious, they miss opportunities to market and promote the benefits of their digital texts. They have customers who could benefit significantly from their product if only they were told what the product could do.

Equally, there are publishers who are unconsciously incompetent, whose workflows, tools or quality assurance processes ignore accessibility. It’s not deliberate, not ‘malice aforethought’, merely ‘accessibility an afterthought’. But it impacts on disabled readers, who pay for a product then struggle to use it because it won’t work with their assistive technology or it lacks the functionality they expected in digital books.

If accessibility isn’t on your radar, it ought to be.  In the words of Ogden Nash, the comic poet,

It is the sin of omission,
the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up
the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.

A lack of accessibility can get you ‘painfully bitten’, particularly if you are attempting to sell into educational markets. New accessibility legislation (September 2018) makes Further and Higher Education institutions more accountable in terms of digital accessibility.  They need to give students clear information about the accessibility of the digital platforms provided. The sector is more conscious than ever of what they purchase and how it works for disabled students.

Bring me round slowly

Language is often a barrier to engaging with accessibility. The conversation should be less about technical standards and more about the reading experiences they provide. The Aspire project – involving publishers, aggregators and 49 universities – scored 87 publishers and 54 platform providers for plain English accessibility information about their digital products. We looked for the things that influence the lived experience of readers. The collated results are publicly available, including a downloadable spreadsheet that identifies what accessibility information is present – or absent. Some purchasers need to know this before they purchase.

But mostly, the Aspire data helps suppliers. They can see what information they need to improve; or check their rivals. It is easy to identify what’s missing or poor. Updating an accessibility statement is not a major task and even negative information is helpful to users.

Transparency is key. Clarify the accessibility strengths of your product and you may spend less time on requests for alternative formats. Clarify the weaknesses and users avoid the time and frustration of discovering them for themselves; less time wasted for everyone.

In the process of clarifying accessibility information, you’ll reflect on product features, internal processes and policies. You will become more conscious of the 10% of your customer base who might read more, with more pleasure, if you told them how to improve the experience.

Being conscious is no bad thing, even if the process of coming round is awkward or embarrassing.

Alistair McNaught is is a subject specialist (accessibility and inclusion) at Jisc. He works to identify and develop accessibility needs and opportunities in the post 16 education sector and works with colleagues inside and outside the organisation to improve access, participation, progress and achievement for disabled learners. 

Alistair will be presenting the ASPIRE awards, which are given in recognition of the work being done in the industry on accessibility by top publishers and vendors at BookMachine Unplugged: The business of accessibility: content that is more usable is more valuable on Wednesday 20th February. Tickets here.

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