Accessibility: Is Publishing Doing Enough?

by Caroline Guillet

Aside from discussions around diversity and inclusivity, the industry is also expected to be as accessible as possible, on both the product and people side. Bill Kasdorf, Simon Holt, Ruth Wells and Erin Osborne Martin joined forces during OPUS’ latest panel event to discuss accessible content and workplace in publishing.

According to Bill Kasdorf, expert consultant on accessibility, although not all publishers are falling behind in terms of accessibility, only a few are leading the industry with sustainable initiatives. Accessibility is easier than it used to be as based on Web standards; EPUB3 is now the recommended format for interchange of accessible publications. As a standard format, EPUB3 uses mark-ups that are already familiar to publishers, making it easier to be incorporated in their distribution strategy. It is, however, easier to make trade books accessible – with the exception of children’s and cookery books – as based on regular and linear content. Educational publishing is more challenging as per its complex content and governmental mandates to schools and universities; Kasdorf notes that the cultural shift observed from print to platform-focus enabled significant changes. The scholarly side of publishing is advantaged by its structured content but is also metadata heavy, which makes accessibility more time consuming. For example, authors should provide images descriptions when submitting a manuscript as they know best what message an image conveys; the copy would, however, need to be copy-edited. Benetech’s GCA (Global Certified Accessible) certifies a publisher’s workflow and identifies vendors who can provide accessible publications; MacMillan Learning and Kogan Page have received the accreditation. 

For Simon Holt, Publisher at Elsevier, accessibility also refers to an equitable access for people with disabilities; access to content is one thing, but it should be at the same level for everyone. As publishers are gatekeepers, they need to embrace diverse perspectives and publications. A lack of accessibility in the workplace means that employees won’t bring their whole selves at work. As highlighted by Kasdorf, there is good progress made on the product side, but as the basis of consuming books stands on being able to read them, they should, funnily enough, be readable. Initiatives such as the London Book Fair Accessibility Award pushes publishers to do more to provide accessible content to their consumers, but where change should be a global effort, it only seems to be carried by small groups. On the people side, accessibility goes beyond conversations around diversity and inclusivity; unlike global movements such as BLM or #metoo, access and disability are not isolating a single problem. As disabled individuals per their handicap are great problem solvers and very resilient, they shouldn’t be employed solely to tick boxes or as a tokenistic process; as gatekeepers of ideas, publishers should better reflect their customers through their workforce. Holt remarks that a cultural change needs to take place in three steps: awareness, education and policy. Awareness means a greater support from decision makers and initiatives such as events or online communications to engage and educate people on accessibility debates. Education reassures people with ways to create change; edutainment has been used to describe education through enjoyment. People need to be able to understand the issues and see themselves represented in the conversation; starting with short, sharp and practical copy alongside clear infographics or images. Finally, policy will assure an impactful and long-lasting change. It needs to be built with regards to what experts do and with a clear structure to cater for every stage of an employer’s life, from recruitment to workflow. As everyone should be able to fulfil their full potential, conversations need to be opened by getting people to think. 

Ruth Wells, Founder & Innovator at Inventing Change, points out to invisible disabilities and how change comes by a tolerance of difference and removal of stereotypes. With a great wellness focus, publishers could actually save money; with an increased performance comes more productivity, leading to more income. A consideration of disabilities from dyslexia, mental health to autism will heighten the level of humanity in a company. As 80% of disabilities are invisible to others, employees should feel able to disclose to colleagues or managers, with an assurance to receive compassion but also that their disability won’t be associated with less skills. Everyone has a role to play in this debate but remembering that one size does not fit all is crucial. Wells provides easy steps to ensure a practical inclusion:

  1. Asking questions and opening conversations to understand different needs
  2. Be supportive
  3. Do not assume and stay clear of bias and stereotypes
  4. Be considerate
  5. Think different
  6. If a mistake is made, listen, apologise and adjust

Erin Osborne-Martin, Senior Society Partnership Manager at Wiley, discusses the challenges of physical disabilities in publishing. As driven by close relationships and various industry events, publishing involves – or at least used to a few months ago – a considerable amount of traveling which does not cater for individuals with physical disabilities; the lack of accessible facilities in publishing events is a real problem as it can be detrimental to an individual as both their potential and job cannot be properly fulfilled. Osborne-Martin points out to the remote working debate which increased the productivity of many disabled employees; as it has proven successful so far, seeing this model come to an end seems rather counterproductive. Additionally, what do physical events fulfil that virtual ones can’t? Hybrid events could well be the future of publishing conferences and book fairs as offering an equal access to content to all. 

What if the publishing world doesn’t just go back to business as usual? What will event, people and product look like in the future? Two highly important questions that every publisher should consider for a brighter future, sustainable change and more accessible industry. 


About the author of this article

Caroline Guillet is a Digital Publishing Master’s student at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing. 

Edited by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01 Oct 2020 around 2pm

Last edited: 01 10 2020