Written by Pam Schindler of University of Queensland Library, Brisbane


As a librarian at a big university library, I see first-hand the vital importance of accessibility in the design of ebooks and ebook platforms.  For students and staff with a print disability, it can make all the difference between being able to read the book – or not.

Digital text is by nature more flexible than print, and, for readers with a print disability if ebooks are designed with accessibility in mind, they raise the great prospect of straightforward access to the library’s book collection. This can be hugely enabling.

Accessibility is an important part of today’s library service.  Libraries are morally and legally required to provide equitable access for students with a disability.  Universities are committed to providing both physical and digital learning environments which are accessible.  How libraries deliver on this commitment, when we purchase products such as ebooks, with various levels of accessibility, is an ongoing question.

Interestingly, it’s not only students with a disability who are using texts in flexible ways.  A Student Technology Survey, conducted at the University of Queensland (UQ) in 2018, with almost 10,000 respondents, included a question about students’ use of assistive technologies.  While 6.2% of students said assistive technologies were essential to their study, an additional 8.5% said they used them because they like to.  This 8.5% might include, for example, the Ph.D. student who listens to ebooks in the car while commuting, or the mature-aged student, returning to study, who asks, “Can’t I dictate my essays?”  Students are increasingly expecting to be able to use digital text in flexible ways.  More accessible ebooks open the library to readers with a print disability — and at the same time enable more flexible use by all users.

In 2017, the University of Queensland Library carried out a project, to explore the accessibility of a range of ebook platforms commonly encountered by students at UQ.  We tested each ebook twice:  first, by librarians, using the questions in Jisc’s Ebook Accessibility Audit; and second, by employing two students who are blind, as research technicians, to test the same ebooks using the NVDA and VoiceOver screenreaders.  It was a learning experience for the librarians who did the testing, and we found a wide variation in the accessibility of the platforms.  The results of the study were presented at the ALIA Online conference (February, 2019) and the paper is available online.  We also used the project results to compile an Accessibility Checklist (appendix to the paper), and a broadly-ranked table of platforms, to help inform purchasing decisions at UQ.

In general:  we found that ebooks tend to be more accessible if they can be read in HTML or EPUB, and not only in PDF.  They are more flexible if they are free of Digital Rights Management (DRM) software.  We tested for the ability to make commonly-used adjustments such as the ability to enlarge and reflow the text, to change colours and fonts, to search and navigate the text, and to read the text aloud.

Some platform obstacles to blind readers only became evident when we tested the ebooks with screenreader software.  In some cases, it was impossible to proceed to read the ebook without help from a sighted person.  This convinced me that libraries need ebook providers to test their products using assistive technologies such as screenreaders, to identify and fix these obstacles, as part of their product development.  (I believe this should be feasible; the employment officers at Vision Australia can assist with bringing work opportunities to the attention of people with screenreader expertise.)

When the testing was completed, we sent each publisher/aggregator the test results for their own platform, and in some cases a video demonstrating the problems encountered with a screenreader.   The response was very positive! We had email exchanges with most of the providers and international phone conversations at strange hours with others.  We learned about the great work some individual publishers and aggregators are doing to improve accessibility, which we wouldn’t have known about from their websites.

Libraries also find it extremely helpful when publishers/aggregators provide comprehensive accessibility information on their webpages.  This tells librarians what we need to know in order to support our clients.  Jisc’s ASPIRE Project (2018) developed two lists of questions (for publishers and for aggregators) which libraries would ideally like ebook providers to address  on their webpages.  A Jisc blog post compares it to food labelling – practical accessibility information tells a prospective user whether or not an ebook will meet their needs.

There are so many encouraging initiatives at present, including work by individual publishers/aggregators and by publishers’ associations, that I have hope that we may be on the brink of a real breakthrough in ebook accessibility.  For example, Project Muse has used an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to create an accessibility guide for publishers, which is freely available on their webpage.  Also very welcome is the increasing availability of EPUB, and of DRM-free models.

Among these is the APA’s Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative, which has set itself the aim of achieving “born accessible” ebook publishing in Australia.  I would like to congratulate the APA on this historic initiative, and as well to thank and salute all the publishers and aggregators who are working to make ebooks accessible.


Further reading:

The ASPIRE project: Accessibility statements promoting improved reading experience. (2018).   Retrieved from https://www.learningapps.co.uk/moodle/xertetoolkits/play.php?template_id=1856

Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative. (2017). Communiqué, 2 November, 2017 [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.alia.org.au/

Ebook Audit 2016. (2016). The ebook accessibility audit.   Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/site/ebookaudit2016/

Jisc accessibility and inclusion. (2018, May 14). Accessibility statements and student e-book experiences [Web log message].  Retrieved from https://accessibility.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2018/05/14/accessibility-statements-student-e-book-experiences/

Project Muse. (2017). Project Muse Accessibility Guide: April 2017. Retrieved from https://about.muse.jhu.edu/media/uploads/muse_accessibility_style_guide.pdf

Schindler, P. (2019, February). Doing our part to end the “book famine”: UQ’s Ebook Accessibility      Project. Paper presented at the ALIA Online Conference, Sydney. Retrieved from https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:8370ae8


Big thanks to //


Pam Schindler is a liaison librarian with more than 30 years’ experience, working at the University of Queensland Library in Brisbane.  She is convenor of the Library’s Accessibility Working Party and a member of the UQ Disability Inclusion Group.

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