Laura Brady is an ebook developer, working at the House of Anansi Press managing the Cross-Media department. She is into ebooks, accessibility, dogs, and baseball. In her spare time she helps plan ebookcraft and follows the Blue Jays.
In March 2019, the Canadian federal government announced a $22.8 million budget, spread over five years, to support accessible publishing in Canada. This was the apex of many conversations among book publishers, ebook developers, accessibility service organizations, librarians, and publishing support organizations about accessibility in digital publishing. And it was thrilling and inspiring.
We’re at an accessible publishing tipping point — in Canada, and more broadly in publishing. There’s a metric tonne of good work happening right now in many different quarters. I will encapsulate what I’m aware of here but if I am missing something, please do correct me. I welcome hearing about other projects.
ESDC is the funding body behind excellent accessibility support organizations like the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS) and the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA). Both these not-for-profit organizations operate as repositories of content for readers with print disabilities. ESDC lobbied for the federal budget money being dispersed by DCH as a way of supporting for-profit publishing industries to ramp up publishing accessibility at source — to build the capacity for accessible digital publishing in Canada.
ESDC and Carla Qualtrough, the Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Accessibility, tabled the Accessible Canada Act, also known as Bill C-81, which passed in May 2019. This act requires organizations that fall under federal jurisdiction to provide alternate formats.
Another important sector that ESDC is impacting is the for-profit business of technology and devices. They’ve put out a business technology challenge looking for a “a solution that will result in innovation and efficiency in the production of, and access to, a wide variety of physical and digital alternate format materials for Canadians with print disabilities.” They’re seeking solutions for cost-effective production of legacy materials, or software/technology that creates fast, accessible digital files, or for new devices/software for the print disabled marketplace.
While Bill C-81 governs crown corporations, Canadian publishers fall outside its purview. Feeny-Svab expressed the sentiment, which I’ve heard echoed from over government sources, that penalizing publishers won’t help. The work happening at present at DCH is focussed on shifting the conversation around accessible publishing at the publisher level. They’re doing this in two ways. Phase One of dispersing this enormous budget is structured around building capacity, awareness of standards, and best practices. There are national projects happening in both the English and French language markets whose focus is developing a good understanding of the print-disabled market, in addition to projects focused on training and education, and around standards and certification. (More about this work in the eBOUND section.)
Phase two will provide money to publishers responding to a call for proposals — link here — around changing the way they make books. The hope is that this push will incentivize publishers to iron out their workflows. With the goal of building long-term capacity to publish born accessible materials, this project-based funding will support ebook production and workflow tinkering, audiobook production, and other publisher-submitted proposals.
Sarah Mayes from the Department of Canadian Heritage tells me that they’re interested in supporting proposals with regional focus with potential for larger scale, professional development, and which focus on partnerships between publishers, service organizations, regional associations, and libraries. They’re also committed to engaging with the publishing schools with a view to capacity building for the long term.
eBOUND and ACP
There is so much happening at eBOUND that it could be a post all its own. They’e busy. They’ve undertaken a large-scale landscape and standards review to assess the marketplace in Canada and advise on certification and other next steps for publishers. That work is wrapping up and will be available to guide decision-makers soon.
eBOUND has also done the foundational work to start a pilot certification project for publishers in Canada. They’re investigating partners for the program and debating workflow certification v. individual ebook certification. They are actively working to figure out the time investment for a pilot project with 10 publishers, and then doing the work to figure out how to scale.
There’s also interesting work with regional associations ongoing. eBOUND has partnered with the Book Publisher Association of Alberta to make a 1,600-title Read Alberta Catalogue accessible. eBOUND has also linked up with the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association to work on a training and auditing initiative.
Collaborating with NNELS, eBOUND is working on best practices research for publishers who outsource books and audiobooks. Six English, and five French publishers are working with NNELS’s accessibility testers to work out methodology for preparing files, understanding what to ask for from vendors, and how to test for accessibility when materials come back. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) is supporting the audiobook portion of this project.
NNELS is a bit of a wunderkind when it comes to accessibility work. (And, in the interest of being open, I work with them a great deal and am a huge fangirl of everyone there.) In addition to the publisher workflow project with eBOUND mentioned above, they have a number of interesting projects on the go. One of the things that distinguishes NNELS’ work is their reliance on the expertise of people with the lived experience of a print disability. They’re taking a deep look at user needs around accessibility. Relying on surveys, focus groups, and data from eBOUND Canada, they’re synthesizing a report around what print-disabled readers need from ebooks, audiobooks, reading systems, and the reading experience.
They’ve also done a great deal of work assessing the accessibility of various reading systems, vendors, and platforms — both library and commercial — and this work continues. Some early assessments are available here.
NNELS also puts on the Accessible Publishing Summit, the first two iterations of which happened in January 2019, and January 2020. Over 50 stakeholders from the ebook production and distribution chain came together at this invitation-only event to discuss accessible publishing and its advancement. Summary reports are available here.
Laurie Davidson from NNELS tells me they’e also working on the “usual stuff”: repository building, training and awareness for libraries, and a publisher resource center for accessible publishing. They’ve also brought their team of accessibility testers to various events like the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP) mid-Winter meetings to conduct demonstrations of what their content looks and sounds like using assistive technologies.
The DAISY Consortium is another busy group doing very good work. A major player in international accessibility work, they’ve long had a hand in developing standards and software that support accessible content. They had a series of workshops planned for various spring accessibility conferences that never happened, so they’ve converted those to a webinar series. Accessible MathML, demonstrating their new Word-to-EPUB tool, accessibility statements, smart speakers, and InDesign workflows are some of the topics on their agenda. The Inclusive Publishing website continues to be the best place to learn about DAISY’s work, and other news items about accessible publishing.
At a publisher level, I can tell you that I’ve been busy too. At House of Anansi Press we have a number of projects actively underway with DCH support and repeating work that is happening at publishers across Canada. We have a technology intern working on the accessibility of our backlist, a project that will last a year. We’ve hired a consultant to help us craft a business plan to incorporate accessibility in all aspects of our publishing program. We’ve published a couple of titles in digital and physical braille in collaboration with NNELS. We’ll soon seek certification of our workflow through Benetech’s Global Certified Accessible program. Finally, we’ll be actively experimenting with accessibility in the fixed-layout format for children’s picture books, an area of digital publishing that’s ripe for innovation and development.
There’s a feeling that legislation might force the Canadian publishing marketplace to pay better attention to the need for born accessible publishing. Because Quebec publishers sell into France, they’re a little ahead of English-language publishers on account of gearing up to meet the strict requirements of the European Accessibility Act. Forcing change on a larger scale is an open question. Because government funders like DCH can’t possibly influence the output of the multi-national publishers in Canada, it does raise the question of whether or not some kind of legislative nudge wouldn’t push all publishers in Canada to do better.
Regardless, Canadian publishing is a hive of activity at present. Publishers and support organizations are working closely with vendors, distributors, and libraries to effect change. And the result is dynamic and marvelous. Watching the good work of that $22.8 million setting up Canadian publishing for inclusion and accessibility is truly a delight.