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Sue Smith and student Tosin working at a computer at Leeds Beckett University
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Sue Smith and student Tosin working at a computer at Leeds Beckett University

Accessible e-books – addressing inequality in information

Glitches in technology can be a huge challenge for disabled students who rely on accessible e-books. We’re working with Leeds Beckett University on a game-changing project to tackle this.

“Having disabilities in university can be an isolating experience,”

says Tosin, who’s studying dietetics at Leeds Beckett University.

“I struggle to read printed material due to text size. Flexible, adaptable e-books should mean I have access to the same resources as my course mates.”

For university students like Tosin, with visual impairments or learning difficulties, e-books can be a game changer. Adaptable fonts and background colours can improve visibility and clarity. With the right software, they can be read aloud. Without these options, however, some students simply wouldn’t be able to complete their course.

When e-books don’t work properly, they can cause a range of problems for students, as well as support staff.

“Technological problems can make me feel even more alienated,”

says Tosin.

That’s why we’ve been collaborating with Leeds Beckett University, 48 other higher education institutions, and a wide range of academic suppliers on the ASPIRE project1. It’s already making a huge difference to the accessibility of academic e-books.

Disabled students are missing out on books

Susan Smith, the university’s learning support officer (disability and dyslexia), helps students find accessible texts for their courses.

“We were finding that technical issues were stopping students using e-books,”

she says.

“These included things like the software students used to read text aloud not being compatible with the e-book platform. Or they couldn’t make necessary changes to the font, or background colour, to help with the visibility of the text.”

Students were missing out on the vital information they needed to succeed at university.

“We had this whole group of students who didn’t have as equal access as their peers to the books they needed,”

says Susan.

“If they couldn’t access a book they’d been asked to read, they might not be able to take part in a seminar or even have to miss an assignment. Disabled students were having to just accept the books they had access to, rather than choosing books based on what was best for their assignment.”

Susan and her colleagues often had to go back to suppliers to request e-books in different formats or to get accessibility information about e-books that wasn’t readily available. With around 3,200 disabled students at the university, each with a long reading list, the task was onerous and time-consuming.

“E-books should be phenomenally flexible,”

says Susan.

“You should be able to customise them to suit your needs. It’s frustrating to buy them and discover they’re restricted, and you can’t make use of the tech available.”

The ASPIRE team set out to tackle this problem. They carried out an audit of available information from suppliers about their e-books’ accessibility. It builds on the ASPIRE team’s 2016 audit, which looked at the functionality of e-books and how accessible they were.

Susan and her colleague analysed the results of multiple audits from 54 e-book platforms and 87 publishers – a total of 585 sets of data. They scored suppliers on how successfully they provided the information support staff and students needed.

Joining forces with Jisc

We were there to offer both expertise and practical support. The team used JiscMail to arrange meetings. But most importantly, our knowledge of the higher education and information technology sectors, and connections, made it possible to get the right people on board with the project.

“Other university library staff, publishers and platform developers know Jisc and understand their role in advising universities,”

says Susan.

“Having that backing was really important – it’s why this project worked so well. I’d advise other universities to join forces with Jisc and get the weight of their expertise behind you.”

The ASPIRE team also set up an awards and badge scheme for suppliers to recognise those making their products’ accessibility transparent. Suppliers can use this in their marketing, and it can guide library and procurement staff when they’re making decisions about what e-books they buy.

“If we’ve got a choice between two different e-book companies, we’re now going to look for the one that has both better accessibility and information about that accessibility,”

says Susan.

Changing the way publishers do things

E-book publishers are listening and already making changes. Academic e-book provider EBSCO Information Services has started to provide simplified accessibility information aimed at users or librarians who may not be familiar with their product. They have also created a table of navigation recommendations that can be read by a screen reader and other assistive technologies.

“We expect this information will save librarians and end users a significant amount of time,”

says Emma Waecker, senior product manager at EBSCO.

“So, it’s an investment that we were happy to make. We’re also having conversations with colleagues and publishers about how to improve the accessibility of the content we host and ensure any changes we make to EBSCO host software are designed for accessibility first.”

Thanks to the ASPIRE project, library staff across the UK have more information at their fingertips – making it quicker and easier to support disabled students.

“Understanding the needs of disabled students like me improves the quality and accessibility of e-books,”

says Tosin.

“It’s vital that staff are knowledgeable about e-books to improve our experiences as students and so everyone can use them more easily.”

How can we support you?

To discuss how our accessibility and inclusion packages can benefit your organisation, please contact your account manager.


  • 1 ASPIRE stands for accessibility statements promoting improved reading experience