Accessibility: Requirement or Opportunity?

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The significant benefits of being able to offer accessible research documents to all cannot be underestimated. Not only does it widen our dissemination reach and capacity for research impact, but also fulfils our moral, ethical and legal obligations, ensuring that no-one is left to grapple with inaccessible material.”

These are the words of the University of Kent’s Dr Jennifer Leigh and encapsulate the reasons to insist on accessibility and inclusiveness as a prerequisite.

Of course, if you are reading this article and your principal focus is producing fiction then the world of scholarly, academic and scientific publishing, XML workflows, DOIs, abstracts and research impact will feel like a foreign country. However, whilst this article will focus on some issues central to academic books and journals, and Open Access, it is also very much focused on challenges that face all publishers implementing accessible workflows – and probably the biggest is the creation and management of alt text.

Almost every publisher no matter what the subject grapples with how to author the alt text, and where to insert it into the production workflow so that it causes the least disruption. In a world of automation, schemas and dynamic composition technologies, all of which have been engineered to deliver consistency and standards, alt text remains a stubbornly human enterprise. Furthermore, who should write the alt text? It is not usually the author of record who is best equipped to write the descriptive prose for images, illustrations, charts, graphs that populate their work. Alt text might be better written by a picture researcher, an editor, a subject matter expert, production editor, series editor, article author and so on.

Then there’s timing. It might seem like a good idea to engage the alt text writer as soon the graphic and illustrative elements for the piece are determined. However, this workflow is rarely practical, as it’s not until the author has made editorial references to an illustrative component that the alt text writer will have the context for their descriptions.

Producing and editing alt text is not a checkbox item. The quality of the alt text goes to the heart of the quality of the accessibility of the final product. Think of it this way, if the ePub meets WCAG standards and the web PDF meets PDF/UA standards, but the alt text fails to communicate the meaning and intention of the visual elements, then you have effectively created a piece of content that is even more frustrating to the visually impaired than something that is completely inaccessible.

The reasons for focusing on the alt text are not just the “moral, ethical and legal reasons” Jennifer Leigh talks about. Alt text intelligently written and managed can actively add to the discoverability of content. If, for example, you are an academic or scholarly publisher with semantic enrichment already incorporated into your workflow then the core key words or phrases lifted from the taxonomies generated can be applied to the alt text to make the actual objects described more discoverable: a clear commercial benefit, particularly for the scholarly sector reporting on impact to their various stakeholders.

Alongside establishing an efficient alt text workflow the other element that needs intelligent engineering is file validation. Robust validation tools are not just a vital component of quality assurance for frontlist production workflows. The European Disabilities Act, coming into force in 2025, will oblige any publisher selling books or journals into the EU to provide an accessible version. Commercially critical backlist, therefore, is going to need remediating. A sophisticated, automated validation process is going to be necessary to properly assess and audit the nature and requirements of that remediation project so that publishers can efficiently plan and budget the work, importantly for their web PDFs as well as ePubs.

I don’t need to revisit why accessibility is now at or near the top of publishing’s agenda. But I do think we need to remind ourselves of the opportunities accessibility brings, and not just the challenges, and also where choices made really matter. Producing compliant ePub files should be a standard output. Legacy web PDFs on the other hand might present a challenge if poorly structured; but these are technical issues that can be addressed by workflow revisions and the deployment of technology.

The areas where publishers can make choices really do matter though. If they choose to only provide short descriptions when they add alt text, or elect to have it written by production vendors without the expertise to write usable alt text, or to have it checked by vendors without the requisite understanding of what alt text’s function really is, then they are unwittingly or not going to deliver a barely usable product – accessibility as an obligation, or the “good enough” method.

If publishers embrace the opportunities that the requirement for accessibility bring – to reach the 15% of the world’s population that use assistive technology to read, to make digital content more discoverable, to improve impact, to create “truly accessible” files, then the challenge of accessibility becomes a very big opportunity.

Mark McCallum is Business Development Director at codemantra. Experts in document process automation since 2004, they have built accessibility expertise since 2016 and now process over 10 million pages with over 3 million pages focused on accessibility compliance. Follow Mark on LinkedIn or contact him if you’d like to discuss how to improve document accessibility.

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