Most people take for granted the ability to pick up a book or a magazine and read. But spare a thought for the tens of thousands of students in the UK who can’t. They may be visually impaired, dyslexic, or have a physical problem that means they can’t actually hold a book.
For such disabled students, “accessible” books that meet their specific requirements in digital format are a necessity. Until recently, however, it hasn’t been possible to work out which text books meet individual needs prior to subscribing and downloading. It’s a matter of luck.
A partnership project between a group of universities, library and disability services and Jisc, seeks to change all that. The crowd-sourced e-book accessibility audit took place between August and November 2016 to introduce a benchmark for accessibility in e-books supplied to the UK education sector. It scores books depending on the features that make them accessible to groups of users.
The result is an interactive spreadsheet that provides useful data to publishers (to inform how they produce e-books in future), to lecturers and to users. It has been so successful, that the project was shortlisted for two awards in 2016 and has just been declared 2017 winner of the National Acquisitions Group award for excellence.
Spearheading the project for Jisc is one of the subject specialists for accessibility and inclusion, Alistair McNaught, who explains:
“With e-books, it should be possible to change colours or magnify text and have it re-flow to fit the page. The user should be able to navigate easily, even without a mouse, and use assistive technologies to have text read out loud, with or without being able to see the screen.
Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen, which is bad for disabled students and bad for education institutions, which are at risk of litigation under the Equality Act 2010. Depending on the aggregator (publishing platform), individual publishers, the format of e-books, and the hardware/software available to the learning provider, print-impaired students can have very different experiences when trying to read an e-book.
Until now, the focus has always been on providing extra support or equipment to overcome the students’ problem, but we are trying to minimise barriers at source.
A lecturer who knows they have lots of dyslexic students enrolled on their course ought to be able to determine before creating the reading list, which e-books are suitable. At the moment, there is no way of knowing other than our audit, which is the only objective source.”
The audit tested 44 publishing platforms, covering 65 publishers and nearly 280 e-books. It is believed to be the biggest audit of its kind, ever, and the information is regularly updated. A full rerun of the process is planned in 2018.
There has also been an unexpected spin-off benefit: a survey of the volunteer testers (mostly librarians) revealed that, for 70% of them, it was their first time dealing with e-book accessibility. Involvement in the audit not only raised their awareness of the problems facing disabled students, but also increased confidence in their ability to help.
Alistair McNaught is keen to point out the other work Jisc does to support accessibility, including a new advice service:
“Librarians are very excited about this work and the e-books accessibility project has been very successful, but it’s only one part of the work that we do.
Having worked in this area for many years, I have excellent links with many e-book producers and continue to work hard to positively influence them, not least through Jisc Collections – a procurement service for e-books in further education and higher education. Since the audit, we’ve also been approached by many publishers looking for our advice on accessibility, which is great news.”
The University of Kent was among the partners in the audit project and is under no doubt as to its positive effect. Accessible information adviser, Ben Watson, explained:
“Improving the accessibility of commercial e-book platforms is important as it improves the availability of born-digital information sources, reduces the requirement for alternative formats to be made in-house and supports the delivery of my university’s inclusive practice policy. This work continues to influence and catalyse improvements across the sector.”
Vicky Dobson is a member of the library disability support team at Leeds Beckett University, which also contributed to the audit. She said:
“I was keen to be involved as my role involves embedding accessibility into our systems and services and the audit offered an opportunity to help increase the accessibility of the e-books we subscribe to, making it easier for our disabled students to access the information they need to succeed at university.
The audit has been a highly valuable staff development experience for me. I can now more effectively support our disabled students in accessing information and I’ve been able to pass on this knowledge to my colleagues. Participating in the audit has also helped us to put together some e-book accessibility FAQs to support students.”
To help our members comply with legislation, we recently developed the Accessibility Snapshot, which involves an expert from Jisc visiting a university or college to assess accessibility compliance.
Our expert will take the role of a tech-savvy disabled student for a day to explore key student-facing resources and see how they stack up in terms of accessibility. Elements to look at include the website, prospectus, learning platform, library/e-book platform and the assistive technologies/productivity tools available to learners.
After the visit, a report will be produced summarising both the things that work well and the things that create barriers for disabled students, together with expert advice on what the organisation can do to make a positive change. For further details, contact your account manager.