The EPUB Accessibility Summit: Making Accessibility Fundamental and Essential to EPUB

March 8, 2016

The IDPF places a high priority on collaborating with related organizations. Two of the most in-depth such collaborations are with the IMS Global Learning Consortium on educational issues and the DAISY Consortium on accessibility issues. There couldn't be a better example of the importance of both of these partnerships than the EPUB Accessibility Summit, graciously hosted by IMS at their quarterly meeting in Baltimore on February 24.

As we work to foster the adoption of EPUB throughout the publishing ecosystem—it’s not just for books, and especially not just for trade books!—great progress is being made in the areas of education and accessibility, two areas that have much in common. EPUB, especially in the context of EDUPUB and the EPUB for Education profile, is becoming a core standard in the education technology space, so much of which is based on IMS standards; and thanks largely to our long partnership with DAISY, EPUB is now widely considered the best format in which to provide content that is accessible to users of assistive technology.

The focus of the Summit was on advancing the development of a formal baseline specification for accessibility that can serve as the basis for a planned IDPF EPUB Certification. This will not just check whether an EPUB or a reading system conforms to the EPUB spec (which is what EpubCheck does), but will raise the bar to require a Certified EPUB or system to meet a higher standard, including accessibility.

The room was packed with a group of highly engaged and articulate people from all across the publishing ecosystem (and from many countries) who are passionate about accessibility. The lively discussion exhibited broad agreement on aims but much struggle about the details. The key dilemma is the need, on the one hand, to develop a baseline specification of accessibility that is rigorous enough to be useful, but which, on the other hand, can be achievable throughout the ecosystem.

Creating a Baseline

Despite the context of the discussion at an education-themed conference, the point was repeatedly stressed that the need for accessibility spans all types of publications and all sectors of publishing. The first speaker, George Kerscher (President of the IDPF and Chief Innovations Officer of the DAISY Consortium), stressed that while access to learning materials is "the No. 1 problem," it is a high priority in many domains, and there is a surge in activity to address it internationally. He announced that DAISY will be working on the development of a baseline for accessibility that is "not just a minimum, but is practical."


George Kerscher delivering his presentation at the EPUB Accessibility Summit in Baltimore, Feb 2016

George Kerscher delivering his presentation at the EPUB Accessibility Summit

EPUB Means Accessibility

The second speaker, Bill McCoy (IDPF's Executive Director) expanded on this theme, stating that the IDPF Board has determined that "the fundamental value proposition of EPUB is its inherent accessibility." EPUB is "the fast lane that enables content to be remixed, to be processed by computer agents, and to be made accessible." He stressed that the planned Certification program for EPUB urgently needs the baseline specification because accessibility should not be an afterthought; "all digital content needs to be accessible content."

Spreading the Word

The third speaker (this writer) focused on the role of BISG (the Book Industry Study Group), another key partner in this work. He discussed the key role DAISY has played, in partnership with BISG and the IDPF, in not only creating the now-indispensable "EPUB Grid" and but expanding it to include testing for accessibility (for which it was announced that VitalSource was the first system to achieve a 100% score). He announced the upcoming publication of theBISG Quick Start Guide to Accessible Publishing, a years-long effort led by Robin Seaman of Benetech that provides both a high-level overview and in-depth examples and access to resources. (He provided a walk-through of the Guide in the next day's EDUPUB Summit, the subject of a separate report.)

The Key Role of Vendors

Rick Johnson from VitalSource, the fourth speaker, emphasized that reading system vendors have "a big obligation and a challenge" to comply with various legislative bodies around the world, working with thousands of publishers, and helping to educate those publishers to "get it right." He stressed that "there shouldn't be a special version of the reading system content, and there shouldn't be a tax on publishers to make content accessible."

The Whole Value Chain

Cristina Mussinelli (in charge of technical innovation and digital publishing at the Italian Publishers Association and Board Member of IDPF), the final speaker in the opening panel, stressed the importance of the baseline specification "for all the actors in the value chain," including the distribution channel. She emphasized the critical importance of metadata in enabling users to determine whether a given publication meets their specific needs for accessibility.

Aligning the Ecosystem

The moderator of the Summit, Markus Gylling (CTO of both IDPF and the DAISY Consortium), stressed how critical it is for all the aspects of the ecosystem to be aligned:

• Authoring (tools; knowledge; the problem of the print-first paradigm)

• Content (compliance; features used; the issue of DRM; the need for innovation)

• Retrieval (interfaces; discoverability)

• Devices (compliance; adaptability; interfaces; APIs for assistive technology)

• Users (knowledge; experience; access to assistive technology; stability of the experience)

He pointed out that "if any step in the chain fails, the whole thing fails."

Building on Web Standards

Charles LaPierre of Benetech presented the "building blocks" that are key to the development of the baseline for accessibility. The foundation is WCAG 2.0, the W3C's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which are based on four key principles—that to all users, web content must be:

• Perceivable: presented to all users in a way they can perceive it

• Operable: enabling users of all abilities to interact with it

• Understandable: enabling any type of access to provide the same level of understanding

• Robust: able to be interpreted by a wide range of user agents, including assistive technologies

He reported that the Accessibility Task Force of the W3C Digital Publishing Interest Group (DPUB) is working closely with the W3C to address the gaps in current web standards that are specifically important to publishing, and is developing a Note to document their recommendations.

Building on IMS Standards and Access for All (AfA)

Colin Smythe, Chief Specification Strategist for IMS Global, pointed out that the Accessibility Working group is the longest serving working group in the IMS. He relayed the long history of the IMS standards in this area, leading to the current development of aQTI (Accessible Quiz and Test Interoperability), which combines the QTI 2.2 standard (2015) and APIP 1.0 (the Accessible Portable Item Protocol, 2014) and is intended to "bring together ten IMS specs in the context of a third-generation of QTI." He emphasized that "creating specifications is not the issue; using them is." He made an impassioned plea for implementations.

EPUB 3.1 and the Accessibility Profile

Matt Garrish, chief spec writer for the IDPF, gave a thorough overview of the work currently underway to develop an updated EPUB specification (EPUB 3.1) by the end of the year. A key decision was made to create a separate EPUB Accessibility Profile that could be developed concurrently but independently of the EPUB 3.1 spec. This will enable accessibility specifications to apply to, and be referenced by, any EPUB specification, including earlier versions and specific profiles, such as the EPUB for Education profile. It will also enable the requirements to vary between them: for example, accessibility aspects that are SHOULDs in EPUB 3.1 might be MUSTs for EPUB for Education. This profile must address four key content areas:

• The publication level (navigation, reading order, playback)

• The document level (WCAG, WAI-ARIA, Fixed Layout)

• Metadata (for discovery, media overlays, braille)

• Packaging (DRM, multiple renditions)

The Takeaways

Based on these sessions, the lively discussion about them, and feedback from IMS University's Accessibility Leadership Group, George Kerscher presented a candidate approach and summary of next steps:

• We will develop an EPUB Accessibility specification/profile/guideline that is built on WCAG 2.0 and that includes a review and possible augmentation of WCAG Techniques.

• This will involve the creation of EPUB-specific, high-level, abstract guidelines that can apply to any EPUB 3-related spec.

• It will ideally align with the multiple levels of accessibility defined as WCAG A, AA, and AAA.

Proposed deliverables include:

• The high-level EPUB Accessibility Guidelines document

• A techniques document providing practical advice and guidance as to best practices

• A specification for Test Cases

• Open-source accessibility checking tools

• An Accessibility Certification program

• A system for Reading System Evaluations

• A communications hub on

The session closed with an invitation for partners to join in this work and for collaboration on tool development.


A productive day on a critically important priority for the publishing industry!