On Monday March 23rd, an all-day series of panel talks  took place at the Paris Book Fair, to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by accessible publishing in France. This covered a wide range of topics such as: regulatory issues (copyright exceptions), business models, production practices and end-user perspectives. The event was organised by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, who actively engage in support of open, interoperable standards.
I'm Daniel Weck - I work with the DAISY Consortium and I act as the lead developer in the Readium SDK project. I spoke  about converging technologies and the synergy between mainstream and specialised publishing sectors. Other notable speakers included Hadrien Gardeur (Feedbooks, Readium Foundation board member), Luc Audrain (Hachette, IDPF member), Virginie Clayssen (Editis, National Syndicate of Publishers), and Fernando Pinto Da Silva (Association Valentin Hauy, President of the French DAISY Consortium).
Fernando eloquently described the challenges he faced (and still faces) as a blind user, but he was also enthusiastic about the major advancements seen in recent years, not least thanks to the concerted efforts of the not-for-profit sector (grassroot associations), commercial publishers, specialised libraries, and government-funded organisations. Fernando explained that through such partnerships, content production and delivery, workflows could be optimised, thereby reducing costs. However, the overheads of format conversion/adaptation remain to a certain extent, which prevents disabled people from accessing books without delay, and at no additional expense. A truly interoperable digital publishing format would help alleviate this problem, though admittedly this would not be a magic bullet. Indeed, the distribution model based on intermediaries and accredited patrons is arguably a consequence of political constraints, more than a by-product of technological limitations.
My presentation followed and it began with a historical recap of the DAISY Consortium's strategic transition to EPUB 3. I outlined activities aimed to accelerate adoption, and designed to ultimately create a more inclusive publishing ecosystem. I highlighted ongoing collaborative efforts such as technical standards, reference implementations, definition of accessibility conformance and automated validation, all of which can potentially lead towards content and reading-systems certification processes, based on well-defined evaluation criteria. I also presented the Readium software projects (SDK components and applications examplars), concluding with a live demonstration of enhanced "talking books" (Media Overlays with multiple synchronisation granularities: paragraph, sentence, word), as well as EPUB 3 Multiple Renditions (on-the-fly switch between text and Braille documents).
Hadrien Gardeur followed with a presentation of the Readium Foundation's "Lightweight Content Protection" specification, highlighting its modularity and flexibility (in contrast with other "vendor lock-in" models). Crucially, this approach enables a good degree of intellectual property protection without necessarily compromising accessibility (e.g. rendering of book pages as real text, not as raster images which cannot be picked-up by screen readers). Hadrien then went on to demonstrate the seamless integration of LCP in LearningAlly's ReadiumSDK-based application, which features playback of synchronised text-audio books designed for visually-impaired and dyslexic users (made with EPUB 3 Media Overlays).
Luc Audrain gave a publisher's perspective, explaining how editorial practices that include robust document structure and semantics (typically XML-based) are instrumental in enabling migrations towards evolving standards. Workflow and toolchain can not only be adapted to support new output formats, but also to cater for changing consumer needs, such as those of people with disabilities. Luc also recognised that the advent of EPUB 3 (which uses HTML5 as its core document format) presents opportunities and challenges in equal measure. For example, scripted interactions, canvas, and fixed-layout can potentially break accessibility if not used with caution (i.e. preserving structure and semantics, providing content fallbacks). Luc referred to the EDUPUB initiative, which has at its core a strong accessibility mandate, stressing that the application of good content production guidelines lends itself to publications that are not only more accessible, but that also offer better usability in the general case (e.g. human-driven content navigation or machine-processed interoperable metadata). Accessibility and usability should be considered first and foremost as added values, not costs.
The French Ministry of Culture and Communication generously allocated some booth space for the Readium Foundation (see photograph below), where e-reader software could be demonstrated alongside playback hardware for audio books (DAISY readers), and various other tactile devices for the blind. This array of accessible technologies attracted a steady audience, including members of the teaching profession inspired by the potential for inclusive, multimedia textbooks. Although there are signs of growing interest in the EDUPUB effort, French educational publishing as a whole appears to be in the early days of the transition from print to digital books. Thankfully (as hinted at the EDUPUB summit in Phoenix last month) the integration of IMSGlobal features in EPUB3 (such as assessments and analytics) should be showcased in the not-too-distant future, hopefully raising awareness and attracting further interest.
Although there was a strong focus on print disabilities, the deaf community was present too, notably at the Ministry's booth where sign language was prominently showcased. Although there is an apparent desire to leverage the multimedia capabilities of EPUB 3 (e.g. video captioning and sign language) it is clear that deaf culture doesn't have the same level of representation in digital publishing as print disabilities. This can of course be explained by the nature of the practical needs of people who suffer from hearing impairments, and also because online / web media is a commonly-accepted supplement to both print and digital publications. One person commented that this can also be attributed to the lack of organised advocacy, and groups exploring the potential benefits of offline rich-media e-books, offering experiences such as sign language learning activities using synchronised text/video (for which there is no standard yet). There are encouraging seeds of collaboration within the DAISY Consortium, so hopefully this will help address the fragmentation between communities.
As the French say: "il y a du pain sur la planche" (literally: there's bread on the cutting board), which means that there's still plenty of work to do! I did leave with a positive feeling though, having met great minds working towards a common goal: that people of all abilities have equal access to information.
 (conference programme, in French)
 (slide deck, in French)