EPUB Accessibility Audits: A Summary
Accessible Ebooks and their Users
Ebooks that are accessible can be read by anyone on computers and mobile devices, using various assistive technologies such as screen readers, refreshable Braille displays, or screen magnification software. When designed with accessibility in mind, ebooks are useful for readers both with and without print disabilities. Like all readers, people with print disabilities need to be able to access, navigate, and understand the content in a digital book. Print disabilities are defined by Canada’s Copyright Act and include visual, mobility, or comprehension impairments such as dyslexia.
An ebook that is completely accessible to people with print disabilities offers the maximum flexibility for all readers. Everyone, regardless of ability and the ways through which they access content, should be able to navigate books by, for example, moving between pages, from one chapter or section heading to the next, or navigating to a page from the table of contents.
The Power of Born-Accessible Publishing
When ebooks are “born accessible,” it means that all readers can access the content at the time of publication. This enhances the experience for all readers, and is especially beneficial for readers with print disabilities, who don’t have to wait for an alternate format of the title they want to read – they could simply purchase ebooks from publishers and bookstores, or borrow them from the public library, like everyone else.
Making ebooks accessible is good for publishers, as it increases the size of their market and allows them to reach new audiences. Approximately 10% of Canadians have one or more print disabilities, and with an aging population there are more readers on their way. Libraries are significant purchasers of Canadian ebook content, and we have heard from a number of librarians who are interested in purchasing accessible EPUBs.
Challenges and Barriers to Accessible Publishing
There is no reason for the production of accessible ebooks to be technically challenging. Recent research has shown that many publishing houses already have the tools, but lack clear knowledge of accessibility requirements and the barriers that result from not meeting them.
An important step for improving accessibility is to gain a full understanding of where publishers are in relation to producing files that are accessible. This is where the accessibility audits come. Through these EPUB audits, NNELS aimed to create awareness amongst publishers regarding the accessibility of their publications, explain why those requirements matter for readers with print disabilities, and provide recommendations on how to correct some of those issues.
NNELS’ Accessibility Audits
In the fall of 2018, NNELS recruited a group of testers with print disabilities and extensive experience using assistive technologies to assess the accessibility of publishers’ EPUB files. The testers navigated and explored each file using different reading apps (including MS Edge, VitalSource, EasyReader, Apple Books, Voice Dream Reader, Cloudshelf, Simply Reading, and Adobe Digital Editions) in iOS, Android, Windows and Mac OS. They systematically checked if all of the text was able to be read by screen readers, whether all headings were correctly marked as headings so that they are navigable by screen readers, if it was possible to customize font style, size, colour and contrast, and whether all relevant images had descriptions as alternative text. They recorded the results, including specific details about the overall usability experience (i.e. whether an EPUB was easy or difficult to read and navigate, what features of the file they liked and disliked, etc.). Our team also used tools such as DAISY’s Ace accessibility checker and SMART.
For this set of audits, we assessed EPUB files from 30 publishers, who kindly agreed to supply NNELS with two files each for the audits:
- ARP Books
- At Bay Press
- Badger Books
- Blue Bike Books Ltd
- Bouton d’or Acadie
- Bradan Press
- Breton Books
- Broadview Press
- Catherine Milos
- Company’s Coming
- Cormorant Books
- Crossfield Publishing
- Dragon Hill Publishing
- Dundurn Press
- Figure 1 Publishing
- Flanker Press
- Folklore Publishing
- Freehand Books
- Goose Lane Editions
- Guernica Editions
- Irwin Law
- Metonymy Press
- Pajama Press
- Pottersfield Press
- Second Story Press
- Shadowpaw Press
- Tidewater Press
- University of Toronto Press
Overview of Findings
Some of the most important issues that our team found which represent accessibility barriers include:
- Fixed layout – 21% of the titles assessed used fixed layout style, and are not reflowable.
- Described images – 80% had incomplete or absent image descriptions.
- Headings dividing the different sections – 53% had no headings; conversely, only 17% had headings separating all sections, in cascading order.
- Sections missing from the table of contents – 60% of the titles assessed had some sections that were missing from the navigation file.
In each publisher’s audit reports, we provided information about the accessibility of each of the two ebooks they shared with NNELS. The reports highlight the most important priorities to improve accessibility and enhance the usability of EPUB files for readers who access content in non-traditional ways. They also include more specific details for all problematic issues, as well as recommendations on how to fix them. It is our hope that the information in these reports will help publishers improve the overall accessibility and usability of the ebooks they produce.
To see an overview of issues and solutions, visit our list of best practices: Accessible Publishing Best Practices: Guidelines for Common EPUB Issues in Plain Language.
 Hilderley, Sarah. 2013. Best Practice Guidelines for Publishers. Available at [https://www.accessiblebooksconsortium.org/publishing/en/accessible_best_practice_guidelines_for_publishers.html]