The constant development of technology has always impacted our lives. From the way we communicate to how we spend our leisure time, among endless other situations. However, it seems to me that there are only two paths going forward and that a decision has to be made, the first is using the technology that has been developed to make the world more equal and a better place for all, and the other is using the same power to move forward indiscriminately without considering how many lives can be improved if the effort is directed towards a slightly different direction. 

The power of the digital technologies we have developed lies in their capacity to outline barriers. When the print press was invented, books became cheaper to be produced and consequently more accessible. The same happened when the Web, created as a means to facilitate collaboration and provide equal and easy access to information to all its users (Philip Smith, 2010), moved us all to another step in terms of communication and access to information. Peter L. Shillingsburg compares the invention of the printing press and the Web saying that “what Gutenberg did to democratize books and other texts, the World Wide Web has done to democratize information.” (L. Shillingsburg, 2006).

However, when we say that these technological advancements have increased access to information, are we genuinely considering the diversity inherent to our race? According to the Word Health Organization website, it is estimated that over 1 billion people, 15% of the world’s population, live with some form of disability (WHO, 2020). In 2015, considering globally, an estimated 36 million people were blind and 216.6 million had moderate to severe visual impairment (Bourne et al., 2017), all disabilities that directly impact an individual’s ability to read. In Ireland, the Census of 2016 showed that 643.131 people, 13,5% of the population, have a disability (CSO, 2016). Of those, 450.000 people have dyslexia (DAI, 2016), also a disability that directly impacts on reading. If these numbers were not enough, the World Health Organization Report on Vision wisely reminds us that “everyone, if they live long enough, will experience at least one eye condition in their lifetime.” (WHO, 2019).

However, the lack of access to information is one of the biggest barriers in “the information age” (World Health Organization, 2011). According to a guide recently released by the World Blind Union and the Global Disability Inclusion “less than 10 percent of published books worldwide are available in accessible formats” (Abdulla et al., 2020). Numbers of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, points that under 5% of books are made available in accessible formats within the first year of publication, while 33% of children and 47% of students with visual impairment are not able to have publications in the format they need (World Health Organization, 2011). This issue is what the UN Agency World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) calls “global book famine” and in their own words, “it is a huge problem. Without books, journals and magazines, people are cut off from life. They cannot gain an education or participate fully in society” (WIPO, 2016). 

This document has the intention of bringing to light an important and so disregarded topic that is Accessible Publishing. Tim Berners-Lee said that “the power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect” (“Press Release: W3C Launches International Program Office for WAI,” n.d.) However, is the web and the digital tools currently available being effectively used to aid people with disabilities access information more seamlessly?

It is about rights: The law

It is defined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that access to information is a human right (World Health Organization, 2011)) and therefore, the Article 9 states that parties should take appropriate measures to “promote other appropriate forms of assistance and support persons with disabilities to ensure their access to information.”(“Article 9 – Accessibility | United Nations Enable,” n.d.)

The national law in most countries also guarantees equality for all in terms of access to information. In Ireland, the Disability Act  2005 states that “if the communication is a written one and the person or persons aforesaid has a visual impairment and so requests, that, as far as practicable, the contents of the communication are communicated in a form that is accessible to the person concerned.” (electronic Irish Statute Book (eISB), 2005).

Formats for needs

The disabilities that impact on reading are categorized as print disabilities and they can be defined as any disability that interferes with the ability to read, interact with printed materials, or interpret text content (Slizak, 2018). The groups included in this category are people with visual impairment, people with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, and any physical disability that prevents individuals from handling a physical book, for example spinal cord injuries (Mune and Agee, 2016).

Reading disability is a very broad term, it includes different types and levels of disabilities and therefore it is not possible to meet all needs with one single solution (Slizak, 2018). For example, while PDFs may be useful for people with dyslexia or other learning difficulties, they are normally a problem for people with visual impairment who use screen readers (Gies et al., 2016). This means that publishers should understand people’s needs and make different formats available to ensure the content published will be accessed and read by everyone (Gies et al., 2016). It is important to consider that besides different needs in terms of Assistive Technology, people distinguish in age, education level and access to resources, and these variables also have to be considered (Slizak, 2018).

Assistive Technology

The solutions created to help people with disabilities to perform daily tasks are called assistive technologies. They are defined by ISO 9999:2011 as “any product (including devices, equipment, instruments and software), especially produced or generally available, used by or for persons with disability – for participation; – to protect, support, train, measure or substitute for body functions/structures and activities; or – to prevent impairments, activity limitations or participation restrictions” (“ISO 9999:2011(en), Assistive products for persons with disability – Classification and terminology,” n.d.). According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 billion people need 1 or more assistive products (“Assistive technology,” 2018). The assistive technologies relevant to the publishing industry are magnifiers, large print, tactile images, braille reading materials, computer with large print, printed braille and refreshable braille, screen reader, talking books and ebooks, and also dyslexic fonts (Slizak, 2018) for print or digital materials. 


One of the most significant achievements that drastically increased the accessibility of published materials was the creation of the Braille system by Louis Braille in the nineteenth century. Braille is a tactile code system that “can be applied to any system of writing that uses the Roman alphabet” (Slizak, 2018). It is still used nowadays and allows people who are blind or have visual impairment to read and write. (“Who was Louis Braille? | Sight Scotland 2020,” n.d.). Braille originated from a tactile communication system called “Night Writing”, which was used by the French army to enable the communication in the battlefield in the darkness (“Who was Louis Braille? | Sight Scotland 2020,” n.d.). Louis Braille learned the Night Writing in 1821 and in 1824 he adapted it and created “63 ways to use a six-dot cell in an area no bigger than a fingertip” (“Who was Louis Braille? | Sight Scotland 2020,” n.d.).

Refreshable braille displays are a “modern way of reading and typing braille” (Slizak, 2018). It consists of a keyboard, which is connected to a device, and allows both, writing and reading of digital contents. To read using a refreshable braille display, readers follow the lines being “electronically refreshed with rounded pins raising and lowering inside each cell as the cursor moves along the screen” (Slizak, 2018).

Fonts for Dyslexia, Large-text books and Screen Magnifiers

Rello and Baeza-Yates’s 2012 cited in (Slizak, 2018) concluded that different fonts directly impact the “readability of people with dyslexia,” and that “sans serif, monospaced, and roman font types increased significantly the reading performance, while italic fonts decreased reading performance.” The fonts suggested for people with dyslexia are Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana, CMU, and alsos the fonts which have been created specifically for this purpose, such as Dyslexie and Open Dyslexic. The use of an accessible font is a simple and effortless decision that can drastically increase the accessibility of published materials (Slizak, 2018).

Screen magnifiers are the digital solution that replaces large-text books. Basically, they enlarge the screen in order to make it easier for students who are visually impaired to read the content on their screen (Mune and Agee, 2016). 

Audiobooks and Daisy format

Another important event that increased accessibility of published materials occurred when the audiobooks were created in the 1930s (“History of digital publishing,” n.d.). While MP3 files are very limited because they do not allow the reader to adjust speed or navigate through the text (Slizak, 2018), the Daisy format is considered the most accessible Digital Talking Book currently available (Slizak, 2018). This is because, besides the audio, it contains a combination of graphics and text which can be accessed using synthetic speech, screen-enlarging software, or a Braille device, providing a “flexible and navigable reading experience” (“DAISY Format,” 2020). Daisy digital Talking Book enables accessibility to readers facing a wide range of print disabilities as is helpful for those who have a visual or physical disability, and it can also improve the experience of readers with learning disabilities (Slizak, 2018).

Ebooks and EPUB

“E-books present great potential for users with print disabilities to gain access to information that might otherwise be inaccessible to them” (Junus, 2012).

PDF accessibility can be enhanced if PDF/UA specification is followed although this format is no longer considered the appropriate file type if the purpose is to provide accessible published materials (Kasdorf, 2018). While PDFs have a fixed layout, the EPUB file format allows accessibility features, such as “text-to-speech, language support, enhanced metadata, nested tables of contents, dynamic page numbers, HTML5 tags and described video”, to be enabled according to the device used to access the file (Slizak, 2018).

In 1998 the first handheld e-readers emerged with the launch of Rocket eBook and SoftBook. Although they lacked the accessibility features we currently have available, these e-books are a mark in history as they contributed to the creation of standards for EPUBlications (“History of digital publishing,” n.d.). A few years later, with the creation of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) in 2000, the stakeholders involved in electronic publishing defined some standards and guidelines, pointing EPUB as the dominant format for the publishing industry (“History of digital publishing,” n.d.). Another shift happened when the IDPF merged with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 2017. The new format that emerged, based on HTML5 and CSS, has a web-focused approach, and therefore is accessible through any browser, discarding the need of an EPUB ‘reader’ application (“EPUB,” n.d.). For ebooks, EPUB 3, which is the most current version of EPUB file format, offers the “highest level of accessibility” (Slizak, 2018). 

Screen Readers

Screen readers are software that use a computerized voice to read the text on the screen. They play an important role in the lives of people who are blind or have a visual impairment, who have learning disabilities and benefit from having the content read aloud, and lastly, it may benefit those who are unable to handle a physical book. Screen readers were developed to run in different devices, operating systems and multiple languages (Slizak, 2018). Currently, the most well-known screen readers are Job Access With Speech (JAWS) and NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) for Windows, TalkBack for Android, VoiceOver for iOS and MacOS and VoiceView for Kindle. Screen readers can be used with a keyboard, a refreshable braille or, depending on the device, by pressing its buttons (Slizak, 2018). 

In order to guarantee that screen-reading technology will display and interpret the accessibility features built into books and journals, it is crucial that publishers work together with technology companies which deliver those systems, such as Adobe, Amazon, Apple (Gies et al., 2016) and Google.

Why is accessibility in publishing difficult to achieve?

The tools created as a result of the advancement of technology, such as DAISY, ebooks, EPUB3 are indeed bringing us closer to accomplishing what is defined in the law and the human rights (World Health Organization, 2011), but these solutions are powerful only if put into practice. Furthermore, technology enables customization at a lower cost and effort, but as Kasdorf reminds us, it is fundamental to consider that “born digital does not guarantee born accessible” (Kasdorf, 2018). 

According to Bill Kasdorf, the main factor that makes it challenging to publish accessible materiais is the complexity of the content. He details three types of complexities: First is the textual complexity, which is related to the existence of special characters, images, Math content and tables. The second is the layout complexity, which impacts on navigation and is related to the design and graphic of the material. For example, if the layout has one single column, it will be easier to provide accessibility to different readers, but if the text contains multiple columns and is graphically rich, accessibility will be more difficult to achieve. Finally, the third element is the file format complexity, which involves the limitations of some formats and the continuous creation of new file formats (Kasdorf, 2018).

However, the factor that determines the level of effort to make a publication accessible is the workflow adopted. The reason for that, Kasdorf says, is that accessibility is currently being handled by publishers as a remediation, which means that the material is adapted if and when required and this increases enormously the investment of time and money to generate an accessible file (Kasdorf, 2018). However, if the workflow is designed and executed with accessibility in mind from the beginning of the process, many of the problems are resolved (Kasdorf, 2018). This applies for everything that is created, a website, a book or a scholarly publication. Simple steps can and will affect the final result. For example, if there is an XML-based workflow and if it includes the production of an EPUB3 file, then text-based books would become accessible fairly easy (Kasdorf, 2018). Additionally, if the workflow includes the provision of alternative text and long description for images by the authors, a huge part of the problem is resolved (Kasdorf, 2018). 


Another important reason why the percentage of accessible formats is low, is because of the copyrights restrictions (Slizak, 2018) and to address this issue, the Marrakesh Treaty was adopted by the Member States of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The objective, as defined by WIPO is “to increase access to books, magazines and other printed materials for people with print disabilities” (WIPO, 2016).

The Marrakesh Treaty was transposed into Irish law in 2018 and the regulation allows “the reproduction, communication to the public, distribution, lending and making available to the public of certain copyright protected works in formats designed to be accessible to the blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print-disabled without the permission of the rightsholder” (Government of Ireland, 2018). 


Technology and law have evolved. Guidelines are clearer than even before and the file formats we currently have available provide great coverage in terms of accessibility features. However, publishers have been reluctant to invest in the effort to make their publications fully accessible, partly due to a cost issue (Kasdorf, 2018). 

Nevertheless, if the publishing workflow contemplates measures to increase accessibility from the beginning, it can be achieved at a lower cost of time and money (Kasdorf, 2018). Text content should be tagged properly and if the process uses XML, it is easier to transform it into HTML5 tagging (Kasdorf, 2018). One of the final formats when material is published should be EPUB3, but besides that, proper navigation is essential in the EPUBs, so the readers can navigate in the correct order, but also skip and find things they need (Kasdorf, 2018). Besides that, authors and others involved in the publishing process must be trained on how to create image descriptions properly (Kasdorf, 2018). 

We finally have the necessary tools to definitely democratize access to information. The power is in our hands and the decision has to be made considering that if people cannot access information, it is “not just a loss to them – it is also a serious loss to the economies and societies they live in” (WIPO, 2016).


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