Making Ebooks Accessible

June 11, 2012

As we go hunting for the right ebook readers for our patrons, accessibility is one of the factors to consider. People with vision, dexterity, or cognitive disabilities need certain specific features, and ebook readers are all over the map in what they offer and how they offer it. But it’s not as complicated as it might seem, and there’s some help available.

Here’s a basic breakdown of who needs what:

  • For people who are blind, the text must be spoken aloud, and descriptions provided for images and graphs. Controls must be distinguishable by touch. (Some touchscreen devices now provide a way for controls to announce their function without activating them.)
  • For people with low vision, the text must be high contrast and magnifiable ,or in a large, easy-to-read font.
  • For people with cognitive disabilities, controls must be easy to use. Text must be able to be spoken aloud and highlighted as it is spoken.
  • For people with dexterity impairments, controls must be easy to operate, and not require more than one action at a time, or complicated actions. Devices must be easy to lift, hold, and operate with one hand.
  • For people with hearing loss, audible alerts and alarms should have a visible form as well. Any audio content should be available in text.

A word about text to speech: Publishers do not always allow access to their content this way, so it’s possible to have an ebook reader that can speak the content aloud, but not be able to do it for a specific book.

There are a lot of details to these features as they appear in different products, and of course, the readers themselves are changing constantly. Any index of accessibility features may be out of date as soon as it’s published, but here are three excellent sources that have a good chance of being updated frequently enough:

There are organizational issues connected to accessible e-book readers as well. Sometimes equipment budgets, staff training, prioritizing patrons with disabilities, library management, and vendor relations are more challenging than finding the right gadget.

What do you think? Take advantage of the comment section below to let us know where accessibility fits into your e-book program, how you plan to address it, and what ALA can do to help.

JIM TOBIAS of Inclusive Technologies has provided updates on accessibility issues for the ALA Office of Information Technology Policy.