RECAP—Be an A11y: Making Publications Accessible

RECAP—Be an A11y: Making Publications Accessible

Were you able to attend Bookbuilders’ accessibility panel on February 28th, “Be an A11y: Making Publications Accessible”?

We had an exciting—and well-attended!—conversation about the ways we can (and should) add accessibility to our publishing workflow.

As an audience member, my big takeaway was how many different needs I need to consider. There are so many different levels of accessibility for a print or digital product. Publishers have to be inclusive of, for example, readers who rely on screen readers to hear the text. Readers who have low vision or color blindness. Readers who have motor disabilities and can’t use a keyboard or mouse.

Our own Education Committee member Katy Mastrocola was our moderator for the evening. She asked each of our panelists how their company includes accessibility in its workflow, what changes they’ve seen, and where there’s room to improve.

First up was Jaclyn Sheridan, VP of Production at National Braille Press, which promotes Braille literacy. Traditionally, much of the press’s output is print books adapted for Braille readers, with live in-house feedback provided by proofreaders trained in reading Braille texts.

Today, their press is looking for ways to make their printed content more portable and affordable. “It’s not just making sure Braille is out there,” Jaclyn said, “but the Braille that’s out there is accessible. The younger generation wants to be mobile like everybody else.” It’s important, Jaclyn emphasized, that we continue to champion Braille as a vital way for users to access books. Though there’s a lot of great audio content these days, Braille is still a necessary medium that provides a truly interactive experience.

Sally Giangrande, VP of Operations at Vista Higher Learning, spoke to the challenge of applying the principles of universal design to VHL’s design-centric textbooks. “The key,” Sally said, “is moving from a reactive approach to a proactive approach for our customers.”

One stumbling block Sally brought up is their books’ prominent photography and emphasis on lessons and assessments (to help students learn languages). From her POV, this is where outward advocacy is required; creators need to understand the pedagogical goals while also thinking up ways the end user can interact with different formats of exercises that suit many needs.

Kathleen McMahon, Frontend Software Developer at O’Reilly Media, offered her perspective as an app designer who’s created a series of accessibility workshops for the O’Reilly teams. She spoke to the need to lead by example. She witnessed how live captioning at a recent O’Reilly conference keynote became an easy way to make that conference more accessible, and feedback was immediate and positive.

“It’s important to empower developers,” she said. “You have to work with designers to think about the interactive stakes.” Among the many considerations of an app design team are:

  • Proper color contrast (i.e. how readable the text is against a background), important for users with low vision
  • Clear use of headers and structures, so that a screen reader can easily skip to headers or other landmarks
  • Using alternative text (a.k.a. alt text, for images and other non-text items) that is descriptive enough and provides context for how the image enhances the written content

Deborah Kaplan, Owner and Lead Developer at Suberic Networks, offered her take on thinking accessible as a freelancer. The platforms we use to deliver content might be pretty accessible already, she said, but having the content itself be accessible is more complicated.

The panelists agreed that devoting resources to accessibility can be tough on a publisher’s margins. But there are many arguments you can make: it’s not just the right thing to do, but there’s also a financial advantage in orienting products toward the large number of readers with disabilities. Even with print books, there are practical considerations to be aware of: A book with binding that lays flat, for users who can’t hold it up. The readability of the typeface and the color contrast between paper and ink.

“You get to the point where you start seeing the need for accessibility everywhere,” Deborah said. The best way forward is to think about accessibility at the beginning of a project, so that you don’t have to do twice the work. Authors can help create alt text for the images they supply. We have to envision all types of users, including people who might not realize they have accessibility needs.

Everyone agreed the user experience is the #1 goal. Your product may look great, but being able to access and understand it matters more.

Thanks again to our amazing panelists, and everyone who joined us for this event!

Josh Garstka

About Josh Garstka

As Contracts Manager at O’Reilly Media, Josh Garstka negotiates the fine print with O’Reilly’s authors and training instructors. Previously, Josh worked for six years at Pearson Education in rights and permissions. Outside of publishing, he plays violin with the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and writes a film blog at