Access, Publishing, and Unreasonable Demands

Ok, I wanted to write down a few quick thoughts that were proving too long for twitter. Inside HigherEd published an article about accessibility in publishing. In its presentation of the issue, issues of access are presented as demands, as an ultimatum. The language of “unreasonable” informs the response.

Lennard Davis, Catherine Kudlick, Margaret Price, Melissa Helquist and Jay Dolmage put together a one-page letter that encourages authors to solicit publishers to include accessible editions of texts simultaneously with the usual printed versions. The letter penned by Davis, et al. does similar work as the petition circulating recently that states panelists at academic conferences will not participate in all-male sessions.

From the letter:

As a scholar working in disability studies, I am dedicated to publishing work that is accessible to all scholars, including anyone with print-reading disabilities. For this reason, it is imperative that before agreeing to publish with [name of publisher], I have written assurance that materials will be available in accessible formats at the same time as any print copies.

It isn’t likely (to me) that most authors would submit such a statement to their publishers, but the existence of such a letter does much to raise awareness, and it also lists specific suggestions:

The technical specifications: Materials must be in EPUB 3.0 or later format with true, reflowable text embedded in them – not screen images. This makes it possible to resize the text (for readers with low vision) and read aloud (for readers using screen reading software). If DRM (digital rights management, which sometimes creates a barrier that makes it impossible for accessibility software to access the text) is going to be used, a DRM-free version must be available to persons with documented disabilities. The process for accessing a DRM-free version should be straightforward.

Currently the program “Adobe InDesign” – the program used by most large book designers – has built-in features for checking accessibility, but these should be test-run with actual users of screen-reading software since the tools for checking accessibility are still a work in progress.

It is important to remember that many charts and graphs are also unrecognizable to screen-reading software. Numeric tables replicating chart data should be provided. Instead of using color-coding for charts and graphs, differences in line style or “texture” should be used so that the chart can be understood in black and white. Data tables should never be converted into images, and basic accessibility guidelines need to be followed for table headers, titles, and so on.

Ideally, images, maps, and figures appearing in books should also be visually described, particularly when the images are central to the themes, arguments, findings, and/or narrative of the book. In this way, readers using screen reading software can still have access to these important features of the book.

These are good, practical recommendations for opening access. However, InsideHigherEd has a slightly different take on the issue:

The guidelines, a one-page template letter, read a little like an ultimatum. The letter opens by asking a would-be publisher to confirm in writing that print books and accessible formats will be made available simultaneously, then launches into an explanation of how publishers should handle everything from digital rights management to authoring software.

Lennard J. Davis, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the letter is meant less to threaten a boycott and more as a public service announcement. Some authors may not budge from the demands in the letter, he said, but others are likely to use it as a way to spread awareness about accessibility.

I am troubled here by the use of the word “ultimatum” and also the reference to “demands.” Yes, there is some direct language in the letter such as “imperative,” but these hardly read like demands or ultimatums. As someone with a disability, I have repeatedly, and throughout my life, been confronted with the fact that many view accessibility and accommodations as somehow unreasonable, that is they view them as demands being made rather than reasonable requests. Is it reasonable? This is often the question asked when considering issues of access or accommodation. We should ask, instead, is it needed? Does it include rather than exclude?

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