Accessible Digital Publishing: An Interview with George Kerscher

George Kerscher is dedicated to developing technology to make information not only accessible, but fully functional in the hands of persons who are blind and disabled. He himself is blind, and started to develop computer-based information technology in 1987 and coined the term “print disabled” to describe people who cannot effectively read print because of a visual, physical, perceptual, developmental, cognitive, or learning disability.Headshot of George Kerscher

Currently, George Kerscher is Senior Officer of Accessible Technology at Learning Ally in the United States, Chief Innovations Officer for the DAISY Consortium, President of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), and chair of the Steering Council of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

We caught up with George to find out what is happening in the publishing industry today – and in the near future – and the efforts underway to make it more inclusive:

Q) What is the current state of the publishing industry in terms of accessibility?

I am pleased with the success of EPUB 3 in the marketplace, but we are nowhere close to reaching the entire market. EPUB is an open standard format for digital publications developed by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). I believe we need to continue to push EPUB forward and encourage the development of a wide range of tools needed to support the production and consumption of the next-generation of interactive publications. The tools in the market must become available to everybody, including students and educators that need to produce rich and fully accessible materials.

Most publishers are beginning to build accessibility into their workflows, but the industry is not clear and unified on the exact set of features and techniques needed to meet the needs of persons with disabilities. It is going to require collaboration from many sectors; not only technology companies and publishers, but also organizations that provide services to persons with disabilities.

Q) What has really pushed EPUB into the mainstream?

We had some help from our friends at Apple. When the first iPad was released, Steve Jobs said the digital book format was going to be EPUB and that really marked its adoption. EPUB really changes the publishing industry. It offers greater levels of “out-of-the-box” accessibility to text, especially on the mobile platform, and delivers a richer user experience and has the potential for more inclusive access to digital math, interactive documentation, complex layouts and charts.

Q) What are some of the trends driving inclusive publishing?

Mobile is really the tipping point because access to information is ubiquitous. You can read anywhere and the variety of screen sizes is a real friend to the blind community because EPUB allows documents to reflow. PDF doesn’t reflow. Reflowable content is key to digital publishing market, especially for the aging population because it can be personalized to your needs to make it easier to read, such as increasing a font size in one swipe.

Q) What best practices in accessibility are needed in the publishing industry?EPUB Logo

The publishing industry is very interested in a clear definition of a baseline (minimum) for born accessible EPUB, even to the point where the publishers are asking for a certification process. WCAG 2.0 provides “guidelines” that are agnostic to web, PDFs, and all kinds of digital information and digital books. However, there is no real specification or acceptance of what that really means. The industry needs certification for any title that clearly states it is accessible and has passed certain tests to ensure images have alt text, videos are captioned, and the reading order is in a logical order.

Q) What would help push certification?

It starts with having better access to tools to ensure any EPUB document is accessible. The new service from IBM, Digital Content Checker, is an excellent start. It’s very exciting to have tools that are more available and easier to use in the market. I look forward to where IBM will take this service next, especially working with DAISY and IDPF to add enhancements to its use and implementation.

Q) What new technologies will play a big part in digital publishing over the next few years?

Graphics are really becoming more intense with animations and 3D visualizations. This of course also creates new accessibility concerns. 3D printing is going to provide more accessible models and descriptions of things that have never been presented before and make it easier to tactically explore and “see” things in new ways.

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