Roadblocks to Accessibility in Publishing

Imagine you’re visually impaired and you rely on a screen reader to read text aloud and interpret images for you on your computer. Would you be able to make sense of scientific charts and graphs? Or get any information about what they look like and the information they convey?

For many researchers in this position, the answer has been “no”. Typically they have to pay a reader or find a volunteer to assist. After all, alternative text will not convey what is contained in the x and y axes, or describe the detailed contours and underlying data of trend lines.

  • More than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability
  • National Institutes of Health report 285 million people are blind or have low vision worldwide
  • US colleges report 10-20% disabled student enrollment

Accessible publishing is better for everyone, especially since it results in “navigable, feature-rich” content. The same technologies and guidelines that improve access to materials for people with visual, hearing, mobility, perceptual and cognitive limitations, or who face other barriers to reading printed materials, can also be tremendously useful to all customers.

Creating content that is “born accessible” opens up new opportunities for publishers to expand the reach of content and connect with new audiences and markets. Publishers also tend to see improvements to metadata quality and interoperability. By following basic machine readability principles, many accessibility requirements also promote SEO and general discoverability. In addition, fully accessible workflows (from manuscript tender to publication) result in measurable benefits – from increased submissions to higher usage.

So, why does end-to-end accessible publishing continue to elude us?


Getting image descriptions right

The image description shouldn’t just say what the image is, it should say what it is there for, what it is trying to convey within a given context. This usually requires two distinct types of expertise: subject matter expertise, and an understanding of what a user of assistive technology needs.

Some publishers move the task upstream by getting the image descriptions from the author in the first place. The University of Michigan Press, for instance, has made supplying image descriptions a part of the author contracts for certain books. They even have trained editors who work with the authors to guide the authors on how to do them properly. This method, even if it requires refinement and editing, reduces the cost of the image descriptions dramatically.

Additionally, there are sophisticated image submission systems that capture not only alt text but have extended descriptions built-in. These systems automatically fix problem images or guide the author in real-time to fix them.

Complexity of Content

A straightforward nonfiction book or a novel can be accessible from the get-go by using properly tagged EPUB 3. It may need needing no further work apart from including accessibility metadata.

STEM, scholarly or academic content, however, is far more complex. It involves complex tables, elaborate graphs, complicated diagrams, intricate equations and so much more. Navigating such content with assistive technology is very, very tricky.

Complexity of Layout

Sighted folks have no problem navigating multiple-column layouts, recognizing footnotes and sidebars and marginal items, dealing with boxes and pull quotes and runarounds. These pages are a baffling maze to the user of assistive technology unless a lot of thought is put into proper structural markup and navigation. The assistive technology user needs a logical reading order, the ability to jump from section to section, and the capability to skip things or go back to things.

Accessibility in publishing is not a quick-fix, one-and-done effort but a must-have ongoing investment.

Accessibility should be everybody’s business. Everybody in the organization should be aware of accessibility and help to accomplish it. It should be discussed before a book is acquired or an article is submitted. Everybody handling the manuscript through the editorial and production process—including the vendors—needs to pay attention to it.


  1. If Accessibility Is So Easy Now, Why Is It Still So Hard?
  2. Learned Publishing Journal Focuses on Accessibility
  3. Roadblocks to Accessibility
  4. Making accessibility more accessible to publishers
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