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“Accessibility throughout all phases”: A Q&A with Ka Li

Adopting accessibility standards into workflows creates a more inclusive reader experience and community, but beyond adoption there is a much greater goal to accessibility in content creation and production. Ka Li, Accessibility Analyst at both Fable Tech Labs and NNELS, has worked to educate and provide feedback on disability-inclusive design. Working both in user testing and in collaboration with product development, he identifies and actively remediates accessibility issues that crop up in all stages of production.

We had the opportunity to ask Ka Li a few questions surrounding both his perspective and expertise on disability-inclusive book design. We were struck not only by his thoughtful answers about book accessibility, but also by his emphasis on the importance of hiring people with disabilities in all stages of the content creation process — he even shared with us the Accenture Report “Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusive Advantage”, which identifies the ways in which people with disabilities are underutilized and outlines steps to create a more inclusive workspace. We hope his thoughts inspire folks throughout the publishing community to think about the impact of accessibility on the future of publishing.

Ebooks really started to take off in the early 2000s, but it was still a slow transition for a lot of publishers. How have you seen your relationship to books and reading evolve over your own lifetime as a result of the proliferation of ebooks and of EPUBs, specifically?

Ka Li: When I was a child, I remember reading a lot of hard-copy braille books. As I grew older, I had greater access to audiobooks on tapes and CDs and eventually as digital files. I didn’t see a lot of ebooks during elementary and middle school. It wasn’t until high school that I started receiving ebooks as MS Word documents for educational purposes. I still read a lot of braille during that time on a refreshable braille display and consumed many audiobooks digitally, but I still hadn’t heard of EPUB until I started working in the accessibility space. With EPUBs added to the mix, I now have even greater access to materials which is exciting. In some ways, EPUB is a culmination of the formats I worked with growing up because you can read it in audio with text-to-speech and have access to it in braille by plugging in a braille display.

In some ways, EPUB is a culmination of the formats I worked with growing up because you can read it in audio with text-to-speech and have access to it in braille by plugging in a braille display.

A lot of publishing processes try to tack accessibility on at the end — going back at the end of the process to add alt text, ARIA roles, metadata descriptions, and so on. But what would an ideal model of book production look like with accessibility in mind? And taking that even further, how do you wish authors (not just publishers) would think about their writing, in order to serve a wider audience?

An ideal publishing process would incorporate accessibility throughout all phases instead of trying to retroactively add it at the end. It is cheaper and more efficient to do it right the first time by incorporating accessibility from the start rather than doing it later. For example, if you are using production tools like InDesign, this could mean adding appropriate tags and styles, keeping in mind how they affect users reading the book with assistive technologies. This also means that authors should generally be responsible for writing image descriptions because they know best what they want to convey with the images they select, and not just leave it to copyeditors, interns, subject matter experts, or others who work with the book. This is not to say that publishers don’t have any part in crafting image descriptions, but this aspect requires working closely with the author.

Authors and publishers should also understand that people with disabilities, like everyone else, have a wide array of hobbies and work in virtually every sector, so they should expect that their books will be read by disabled readers. It is not enough to add accessibility at the end to try to meet a level of compliance due to regulations. Instead, incorporate it as part of the process so that you can offer an outstanding reading experience that is enjoyable and barrier free.

It’s rare that I encounter a born-accessible EPUB, but when I do, it’s wonderful.

Building on the previous question, how often do you find in your testing experience that the design of a book has been prioritized for print readers and that accessibility has been an afterthought in the design process? Can you think of some examples of books that have prioritized accessibility from the beginning of the design process and how they are different?

The majority of books I’ve tested are very much geared towards print readers because some common issues I find are poor semantic structures, lack of image descriptions, use of fixed layout, and lack of accessibility metadata. It’s rare that I encounter a born-accessible EPUB, but when I do, it’s wonderful. When they follow best practices, it allows me as a reader to efficiently navigate through it due to its structure as well as a well-designed table of contents, and I can understand the content better because they use alt-text and extended descriptions for complex images.

(Editor’s Note: Here’s a very quick description of what semantic structures are, for those who are curious.)

With the rise of audiobook sales, some folks are making the automatic assumption that this format is more accessible to readers. Is that fair? Or how does the audiobook format present challenges for the reader in terms of accessibility? Do audiobooks limit readers who would use screen readers in terms of book navigation and the overall reading experience?

While audiobooks can offer greater access to the content compared to an inaccessible version (e.g., an ebook in fixed layout), it’s inaccurate to say that they are completely accessible. This is because they don’t offer the same level of granular navigation that an ebook can provide. In a situation where the reader is a student using the audiobook to reference material, I would argue that it is still an inaccessible experience because the audiobook has less navigational options, making it difficult to look up a passage, and it doesn’t have page numbers, making it impossible for the student to provide proper citations. Furthermore, audiobooks still omit image descriptions, which are essential for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math).

Personally, I prefer using audiobooks to read for leisure and ebooks to reference or obtain information. This is because to me narrators are performers and my goal is to enjoy the book, while the goal of reading a textbook or manual is to obtain information rapidly. Ebooks allow me to read it with the speech sped up and/or with braille so I can look at the spelling and formatting. Like print, reading content in braille also helps with retaining some complex information much more easily such as medical terminology. It’s not always a hard separation because there are situations where a book isn’t in my preferred format, so I’ll take what I can get, or sometimes I’ll prefer to make my own interpretations of the text.

Metadata management has been on every publishing professional’s mind as book discoverability has become the main driving force of book sales during the pandemic. What’s the relationship between metadata and accessibility, and what should publishers be on the lookout for while creating new strategies for marketing and discoverability within their metadata creation?

Adding accessibility metadata to your EPUBs and displaying it in a readable way on your website allows you to convey to your potential customers what accessibility features your book has. In an educational setting, students, teachers, and parents want to use accessible materials. For example, if they see that your book has good structural navigation and image descriptions they are more likely to buy it compared to a similar book without these characteristics. This is especially important if there are regulations and policies discouraging the purchase of inaccessible content.

From a safety perspective, metadata lets potential readers know to avoid ebooks with hazards such as videos with flashing content that can trigger seizures. Customers with disabilities and their friends/family members will shop for your books because they appreciate your transparency.

In the publishing and tech fields, I’ve noticed more interest by employers in hiring persons with disabilities to test for accessibility, and that has resulted in more paid work. However, I haven’t seen much effort in hiring disabled people in other roles that aren’t accessibility-specific such as management, marketing, and design work.

In some of your public comments and on Twitter, you stress the importance of hiring people with disabilities across the product development lifecycle for promoting better and more accessible products. You’ve even pointed to some stats that show companies with inclusive workforces are more successful and profitable. Anecdotally, from your own experience and that of your peers, do you find leaders in publishing and tech are heeding this call? What kind of efforts are needed to open more doors for people with disabilities in these industries?

We’re starting to see more employers understand the benefits of a diverse workforce, but there are still significant barriers such as negative attitudes about disabilities, inaccessible tools, and inaccessible physical workspaces. In the publishing and tech fields, I’ve noticed more interest by employers in hiring persons with disabilities to test for accessibility, and that has resulted in more paid work. However, I haven’t seen much effort in hiring disabled people in other roles that aren’t accessibility-specific such as management, marketing, and design work.

In order to leverage the unique perspectives and problem-solving skills that disabled people have, employers need to understand that persons with disabilities are highly skilled in many areas and can work in virtually every sector at every level of an organization. This speaks to existing attitudes about disabilities. Employers also need to know that not all the tools they are using are accessible, so there needs to be some flexibility in their process for reaching objectives in a different way. Finally, employers should be aware that their work environment might not be accessible, such as a lack of accessible signage or insufficient room for wheelchair users to navigate. We are excellent problem-solvers and innovators because our disabilities force us to develop solutions through lateral thinking processes, but an inaccessible environment doesn’t indicate a welcoming place that invites us to work.

There are many other barriers I haven’t covered here, but the ones I’ve mentioned are major challenges that my peers and I discuss from time to time. To address these issues, I strongly believe that accessibility needs to be a core pillar of an organization and buy-in from the highest level of management. This means that policies can be developed to address inequities and allow for accessibility initiatives to trickle down. Eventually, a cultural shift occurs and all employees should have a better idea of how their role impacts accessibility.

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The Hederis Team builds cloud-based book production and design tools to create high-quality print-ready PDFs and ebook files. Follow us on Medium for Insights on publishing, design, and innovation.

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Hederis Team

Hederis Team

Insights on publishing, design, and innovation from the Hederis Team.

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