Digital content is an important part of the student study experience but higher and further education institutions find it difficult to guarantee that disabled students will find books on their reading list will be accessible to assistive technologies. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of accessibility information from suppliers.
Digital content should be more accessible than hard copy print, allowing all students - and particularly disabled students - to be more productive and independent. However, the end-user experience can be compromised by:
- The accessibility of the publishers digital file or
- The accessibility of the interface through which the content is delivered
Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to find information on the accessibility of either. This impacts on disabled students and those supporting them. Students who already face barriers to learning then have the additional barrier of trial and error experimentation to see whether they will be able to access their reading lists independently or require an alternative format.
Library and disability staff may be attempting to support hundreds of new students each with long reading lists. With little information available, neither library staff, disability staff or the students themselves can easily identify which resources can be accessed independently and which will require alternative formats.
Some organisations take this responsibility seriously and are heavily invested in alternative format support. This is costly. Some organisations make tactical decisions to focus support only on the most severely visually impaired students. This is a risky strategy with potential litigation costs.
The ASPIRE project - led by Jisc's subject specialists for accessibility - used an open, crowd-sourced approach to turn a negative problem into a positive collaboration across 49 higher education institutions and a wide range of academic suppliers.
The ASPIRE project builds on an earlier accessibility audit in 2016. The 2016 audit received the National Acquisition Group's Award for Excellence and was shortlisted for the Accessible Books Consortium 2017 International Excellence Award.
The 2018 audit
For 2018 we wanted to do an audit that allowed more of our members to participate, was less onerous to complete and would provide positive, actionable information for suppliers. The focus shifted from the accessibility functionality to the accessibility information. We set up a process by which librarians could audit supplier’s accessibility statements using a set of criteria agreed between universities and suppliers.
A start-up meeting took place in January 2018, sponsored by the Publishers Association and hosted by Springer Nature in London. A JiscMail list was used to organise regular online steering group meetings and the project evolved to a fully-fledged audit process. The marking criteria were announced at the London Book fair in April 2018, supported by a website explaining the process. Suppliers had three month’s notice before the audit took place in late July and early August.
King's College London kindly hosted a ‘dry run’ pilot before the official launch and Jisc ran an online support event with the University of Liverpool’s head of content, delivery and collections. Some universities, such as Swansea and Kent, held ‘audit parties’ to encourage library staff to take part together. Many universities played a key role in the steering group.
Project team and steering group
This project was initiated by Alistair McNaught at Jisc with support by the Publishers Association Accessibility Action Group. A steering group was formed, consisting of a large group of librarians and suppliers.
- Anglia Ruskin University
- Birkbeck, University of London
- City, University of London
- Goldsmiths, University of London
- Leeds Beckett University
- Lincoln University
- Roehampton University
- Sheffield Hallam University
- University of East London
- University of Kent
- University of Liverpool
- University of Sussex
- University of the Arts London
- University of Worcester
- Askew and Holt
- Fondazione LIA Libri Italiani Accessibili
- Palgrave MacMillan
- Springer Nature
- Taylor and Francis
- textBox digital
The data processing was handled by an expert team at Leeds Beckett University, allowing the average scores of 243 platform audits and 342 publisher audits to be easily interrogated through intuitive dashboards.
The most powerful elements of the data are that:
- It provides a benchmark for the “state of play” of publisher and aggregator accessibility statements. By making scores publicly available there is a transparency about current and future progress. There is also a competitive advantage for those with higher scores.
- Library staff can see which of the main suppliers have easily discoverable guidance that can help students self-serve their needs.
- Suppliers can look at individual scores and identify:
- Which of their various guidance pages scored better - and therefore deserve better signposting
- Which elements of accessibility information are currently missing - and therefore can be rapidly improved
As a result, many library and disability support services will be in a far better position to triage support for their disabled students.