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Chapter 1. Introduction

Accessibility is about equitable access.

Often, accessibility refers in particular to equitable access for people with disabilities, a group that comprises about one-fifth of all people alive today and is bound by a common social experience—living in a world of unequal design.

Publishing is about preparing and issuing books, journals, and other materials. In the world of scholarly communication, publishing is especially concerned with quality and impact—quality of content and impact of research.

Accessibility and publishing, the nexus of this briefing, addresses precisely those scholarly concerns of quality and impact. While the movement for accessible publishing is a call for equal access and social justice, it is equally a push for content of the greatest quality and for research with the broadest impact.

In the United States, accessibility is often bound up with discourses of legal compliance. The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and other legislations prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and require that certain things be made “readily accessible to people with disabilities.” Compliance is an important foundation for accessibility, but the movement for accessible publishing is much bigger. The aim of accessible publishing is access for all, while the aim of compliance is accommodation for some.

For people with disabilities that affect reading (especially visual, motor, and mobility impairments) accommodations have long been provided by large-scale projects to convert print into specialized formats—tactile type and recorded sound. Today, almost a century after those projects flourished, the digital media ecosystem has changed what accessibility looks like. Now that print publishing workflows are themselves digital and standards for electronic publications have converged around the EPUB format (a free and open e-book file format with the extension .epub), publishers can release books that are “born accessible.” A single electronic publication that follows best practices for accessibility can be read across a range of devices and software that adapt content presentation for an individual reader’s needs.

This industry shift from an aftermarket of specialized formats to born-accessible publications, from accommodation to universal design, stands to benefit a much broader public. Specialized formats are produced and distributed on a very limited basis and in some cases are only available to those who can prove eligibility according to strict legal definitions of disability. Born-accessible publications can introduce new levels of equity, access, and choice into publishing for new readerships. Scholarship can reach more audiences and be put to new uses. Individual differences in ability and technology can be uncoupled from differences in access. Accessible publishing can drive better design for more readers in more reading environments.

The movement to make publications accessible when they are published is a movement to ensure participation by people with print disabilities and a movement to ensure access to information for all. It is a movement to ensure that publicly funded scholarship is available to all members of the public. It is also a movement for quality bookmaking and future-proof formats, to make books now that will work tomorrow on reading systems we have not yet invented. As the practices of publishing shift along with new practices of digital scholarly communication, accessibility has the potential to become the norm.