alternate formats: who pays?

text: "free the textbook" over a blue sky with white clouds and open books that look like they're flying

Yesterday a had a big realization. Many textbook publishers continue to publish inaccessible content and those costs are borne by the public education system through alternate format production. Publishers are not responsible for producing accessible material and universities and colleges purchase things that aren’t accessible to all their students and then pay again to make them accessible. In BC I’d estimate that at least $1 million per year is spent on obtaining or producing alternate formats. This is an access issue, a human rights issue, and it’s also an economics issue.

Here are some of the conversations and pieces of information that led to this observation.

Creating an Inclusive Quality Standard of Education

I was sad to miss The Guelph Accessibility Conference at University of Guelph last week. Karen McCall presented Creating an Inclusive Quality Standard of Education (PDF handouts of her slides) where she argues that access to education is a human right. At work I’m more focused on the technical workflows and had forgotten about the human rights issues around access to education. She says that “accommodation is the norm, rather than the exception” and that this keeps people with disabilities “on the periphery of society” (slide 3). She states that “what this does is shift “the ‘cost” of inclusive design and inclusive communities to the corporate sector instead of in primary, secondary and tertiary education” (slide 3).

Karen states that in the US $79 billion is spent on ICT (information communication technology) a year, so there is enough purchasing power to demand that things are accessible from the start. She argues that “the best way to ensure inclusive communities is to mandate the procurement of eAccessible only products and services” (slide 6). This would also encourage competition and innovation in the market, which would benefit everyone.

Universal design for learning workshops

Recently I’ve presented a few workshops on universal design for learning (UDL) with Amanda Coolidge and Sue Doner. These workshops build on the personas from the Accessibility Toolkit. The workshop materials are also CC-BY licensed, so feel free to use or adapt them.


Appendix: Redesign or Accommodation Activity Guidelines

In this workshop we also compare disability accommodation and UDL. There will always be a need for disability accommodation, but we argue that using the UDL principles can solve many of the common access issues (videos without captions, images that lack descriptions, poor organization of information and concepts).

Disability Accommodation Universal design for learning
reactive proactive
accommodation is for one student who has appropriate documentation improves accessibility for many students students with disabilities; students who have a disability and lack the documentation; students with a disability who for whom the stigma in accessing services is too great; students for whom English is not their first language; students with a variety of learning styles
for many students there is a stigma in accessing disability services the onus is on the instructor to think about how they are teaching rather than on the individual student to request a retrofit

Jennifer LeVecque, from Camosun’s Disability Services Department, pointed out that for print coursepacks from the campus bookstore it’s possible that the publisher gets paid more than once. First, the library might already be paying to license journal articles databases that have those articles. Second, the bookstore (or the copyright office) might be paying the publisher for the rights to produce the coursepack, then passing those costs on to the student. When most academic libraries opted out of Access Copyright tariff in 2012, many worked to change the workflow for producing and licensing coursepacks, encouraging faculty to link directly to the articles that the library had licensed. This is also a UDL best practice as it supports multiple ways of representation and allows students who have print disabilities to access these digital files using whatever assistive technology they use.

CAPER-BC Advisory Committee meeting

At the CAPER BC Advisory Committee meeting there were questions about why publishers are producing new e-textbooks that are not accessible. Jewelles Smith, BC Director for NEADS, suggested that it would be useful to collaborate in assessing the accessibility of specific publisher e-textbook platforms, or of common e-textbook titles that are being used. Last month Benetech published their Buy Accessible guidelines, which is a list of specific questions for people who are selecting and purchasing textbooks to ask publishers and vendors.

So what?

Many for profit textbook publishers continue to publish content that is inaccessible and the public education system spends money to remediate these textbooks to make them accessible. Textbook publishers make a lot of money and have shrugged off their ethical and legal (depending on where you live) responsibilities to students with disabilities and faculty keep choosing to use these textbooks, and bookstores keep buying them. Then Disability Service Offices and organizations like where I work spend a lot of time and money retrofitting. This is not a financially sustainable model.


We need to build in language around accessibility into procurement policies at universities and colleges. Where things are not accessible we need to make the cost of retrofit explicit and charge that cost back to the publisher. With digital workflows publishers have the opportunity to make fully accessible digital versions of textbooks available for students to buy. Right now alternate format production is a market externality to publishers, so there is no financial incentive or cost to meeting accessibility guidelines. If we believe that education is a human right for all, then we need procurement policies and laws that reflect this.

Missing the mark: IBM accessibility

I’m excited to see that accessibility is becoming more of a mainstream discussion within web development communities and technology companies.

This short 2 minute video from IBM answers the question “why is accessibility important?” The production values are high and the music is upbeat and feel good. This video was created with subtitles, which makes it accessible to Deaf and Hard of Hearing folks.

This video, however, is not accessible to blind and many visually impaired people as it has lots of information that is only conveyed visually and there is no descriptive audio. The following facts are only presented as text on the screen:

  • 1.2 billion people in the world have a disability
  • 600 million are over the age of 60
  • 10,000 people will turn 65 every day for the next 15 years
  • 20% of the population has language or text comprehension difficulty
  • 2.4 million children have cognitive learning difficulties

In addition to these snippets of text, the visuals of different people with different types of disabilities doing different things is not accessible to blind people. While the talking heads are accessible, a blind person doesn’t know who the person talking is. This context is important.

This is highly ironic as the video opens with a (presumably blind) person using a white cane and then cuts to a short clip of a different person walking with a service dog.

Phil Gilbert, General Manager, IBM Design and one of the talking heads in this video says:

I think we have a unique responsibility to the world, being who we are, to design for inclusion. The differentiation that we can drive into the marketplace by designing intentionally to reach every possible human being on the planet, regardless of their technical capability, I think it could possibly be one of the key differentiation of our portfolio has in the marketplace.

In addition to being full of jargon like “key differentiation of our portfolio” this video does not deliver on the promise to design for inclusion or to reach every possible human being on the planet. This video on accessibility excludes blind and visually impaired people and that sucks.

BC open textbook Accessibility Toolkit: generosity as a process

cover of Accessibility Toolkit

Last week we published The BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit. I’m really excited and proud of the work that we did and am moved by how generous people have been with us.

Since last fall I’ve been working with Amanda Coolidge (BCcampus) and Sue Doner (Camosun College) to figure out how to make the open textbooks produced in BC accessible from the start.  This toolkit was published using Pressbooks, a publishing plugin for WordPress. It is licensed with the same Creative Commons license as the rest of the open textbooks (CC-BY). This whole project has been a fantastic learning experience and it’s been a complete joy to experience so much generosity from other colleagues.

We worked with students with print disabilities to user test some existing open textbooks for accessibility. I rarely get to work face-to-face with students. It was such a pleasure to work with this group of well-prepared, generous and hardworking students.

Initially we were stumped about how to  get faculty, who would be writing open textbooks, to care about print disabled students who may be using their books. Serendipitously  I came across this awesome excerpt from Sarah Horton and Whitney Queensbury’s book A Web For Everyone. User personas seemed like the way to explain some of the different types of user groups. A blind student is likely using different software, and possibly different hardware than a student with a learning disability. Personas seemed like a useful tool to create empathy and explain why faculty should write alt text descriptions for their images.

Instead of rethinking these from the beginning Amanda suggested contacting them to see if their work was licensed under a Creative Commons license that would allow us to reuse and remix their work. They emailed me back in 5 minutes and gave their permission for us to reuse and repurpose their work. They also gave us permission to use the illustrations that Tom Biby did for their book. These illustrations are up on Flickr and clearly licensed with a CC-BY license.

While I’ve worked on open source software projects this is the first time I worked on an open content project. It is deeply satisfying for me when people share their work and encourage others to build upon it. Not only did this save us time but their generosity and enthusiasm gave us a boost. We were complete novices: none of us had done any user testing before. Sarah and Whitney’s quick responses were really encouraging.

This is the first version and we intend to improve it. We already know that we’d like to add some screenshots of ZoomText and we need to provide better information on how to make formulas and equations accessible. It’s difficult for me to put work out that’s not 100% perfect and complete but other people’s generosity have helped me to relax.

I let our alternate format partners across Canada know about this toolkit. Within 24 hours of publishing this our partner organization in Ontario offered to translate it into French. They had also started working on a similar project and loved our approach. So instead of writing their own toolkit they will use use or adapt ours.  As it’s licensed under a CC-BY license they didn’t even need to ask us to use it or translate it.

Thank you to Mary Burgess at BCcampus who identified accessibility as a priority for the BC open textbook project.

Thank you to Bob Minnery at AERO for the offer of a French translation.

Thank you to Sarah Horton and Whitney Queensbury for your generosity and enthusiasm. I really feel like we got to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Thank you to the students who we worked with. This was an awesome collaboration.

Thank you to Amanda Coolidge and Sue Doner for being such amazing collaborators. I love how we get stuff done together.