by Tom Allen
From the Editor: Tom Allen is the president and the chief executive officer of the American Association of Publishers (AAP). He is a former Congressman and has worked cooperatively with us on a number of important initiatives. Here is what he said to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind on Saturday, July 6, 2013:
Thank you, Dr. Maurer. It is absolutely terrific to be here. I'm a little overwhelmed by what I just heard from Ray Kurzweil. I don't know how to follow that kind of speculation because my assignment is to talk about the work that we're doing with the US Congress and with public policy advocacy generally, which is a much slower road than Google's technology. But I am delighted to be here at the NFB's 2013 national convention.
NFB's record of advocacy and accomplishment for its members is absolutely remarkable, and your attendance here today reflects an admirable commitment to public advocacy for the blind and print-disabled across this country. I'm just awed by the range and diversity of speakers and programs at this convention. This is simply a great learning opportunity, and I am proud to be here.
Before I discuss the history of our AAP/NFB collaborations, I want to explain the reasons why they take hard work and goodwill. NFB, I'm told, has fifty-thousand members with some similar issues and some different issues, and they have a variety of opinions. Well, the Association of American Publishers has nearly three hundred publisher members, some very large, some very small. They serve somewhat different markets or sometimes both, and they compete with each other. They have different resources and different business models. Most significantly, the antitrust laws bar them from agreeing on common business practices. The AAP exists to serve the book publishing industry's public policy interests. And I will say that sometimes it's hard to separate them. Accessibility is one of those—although we certainly do it and I think do it effectively. But, trust me, it's not always easy to build consensus on those issues within our own members at the AAP.
But what we've learned over the years is that it's better for NFB and AAP to be in the same room, working together on our common challenges, and that's why I'm proud to be here with you today. As I said, we have a long history of working together, and, although not always able to resolve all of our issues, we often collaborate with remarkable success. For example, the Chaffee Amendment of 1996 was partly the product of our joint efforts. Eight years later we worked together on the IDEA Amendments of 2004, which accelerated the ability of K-12 students to get accessible instructional materials. That legislation created the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standards—that's a mouthful, I know—the National Instructional Materials Standards (NIMAS) to assure uniform standards of accessibility for students with print disabilities. It also established NIMAC, the repository or one-stop shop for maintaining accessible publisher files, so that, when any school district in the country was searching for an accessible file, it would have one place to turn to. AAP and NFB next worked on the higher education amendments of 2008, which authorized the creation of the AIM Commission—that's the Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials—let's just say that that was a long and complicated collaborative process between our organizations.
We have been working with your leadership—Dr. Maurer, John Paré, Mark Riccobono, Lauren McLarney, Jim Gashel, and others—to develop proposed legislation to implement the principal recommendations of the AIM Commission. During the long and occasionally laborious commission process, the major stakeholders (including NFB and AAP) agreed on the goal: that publisher product should be available in the marketplace and accessible to the blind and print-disabled when they come to the public at large. You know the technological changes in reaching that goal have been significant, but recent developments such as EPUB3 and HTML5 can bring accessible products to market much faster than in the past. After lengthy negotiations the AIM Commission produced a consensus report, which included the recommendation that the US Access Board (a federal agency) should develop guidelines to help all stakeholders understand when publisher products were accessible. Out of that agreement has come the TEACH Act, which has been drafted by AAP and NFB staff. We are working with members of Congress to get that bill introduced, and that's a complicated process. We know that this draft bill will undergo some inevitable changes to accommodate the concerns of others. But I can tell you that, when I was walking—again—through the halls of Congress (I spent twelve years there)…. When I was walking down to meet with Tom Petri of Wisconsin, it was good to be there with Lauren McLarney and John Paré. It was good to be going in to members of Congress together to make sure that we can ultimately get the result that you need and we want.
There's always been some concern among publishers that accessible products made available under Chaffee would somehow get out and be widely available to the public who didn't have a burning need for those products. But you know it's great news coming, and Ray just scratched the surface. Jim Gashel's demonstration of the new Google product is an example that, the sooner that accessible materials are readily available in the marketplace, the sooner publishers will cease to worry about the diversion of their materials to others without a special need. We have the same goal: as soon as possible, make materials available and accessible to the print-disabled when they are sold to the public at large. I was going to say, before Jim's demonstration, that we have to work on all of those manufacturers of eReaders because publisher materials can't be fully accessible for you unless the devices on which you're looking at our content are navigable by people with print disabilities. But there's good progress being made there at Google, as Jim and Ray pointed out.
I want to talk briefly about our latest initiative, and this is something we're really excited about. I mentioned the critical role of digital formats in expanding accessibility. Many of you are probably familiar with the EPUB format, now the standard for packaging, delivery, conversion, and direct rendering (where enabled) for eBooks. The current version of EPUB is now widely used in the trade or consumer eBook market and is rapidly expanding across all markets. The potential of EPUB3, the next generation, is much greater. It's designed for tablets and other multimedia devices. Perhaps more important, it now robustly supports an increased number of accessibility features. We're already seeing many trade, scientific, technical, medical, and higher-education publishers implementing EPUB3. But EPUB3 has a problem: it can't thrive in a vacuum. It needs commitment to establishing it as the standard global distribution format, especially one that provides greater access for persons with disabilities. It needs momentum, it needs leadership, and the member publishers of AAP have been striving to meet these needs.
For the past two years publishers have been working together in a variety of ways to advance EPUB3. Great gains have already been made toward a standard-based approach with publishers working in partnership with the International Digital Publishing Forum, the DAISY Consortium, reading systems developers, and retailers. Over the past few months we've begun designing a new initiative to complete the transition to EPUB3. This effort will identify the core set of EPUB3 baseline features for accessibility by blind and print-disabled users and in turn encourage publisher and retail support. To accomplish these goals we are forming a working group of experts representing the disabilities community (including Anne Taylor of NFB. [cheers] Thank you, Anne), publishers, eBook retailers, and reading systems providers, with a target completion date of February 2014. This team has set an ambitious three-part agenda. 1) It will develop baseline accessibility requirements, define which accessibility features of EPUB3 are most critical to users (all of you) which can be provided by third parties, and how to incorporate them into the eBook file for consistent expression and functionality across multiple systems. 2) It will convene a day-long workshop this fall for all stakeholders to develop a strategic roadmap of actionable products to support these baseline requirements. 3) We hope that AAP member publishers will have the ability to begin introducing large numbers of accessible EPUB3 files starting in early 2014, and we have a lot of publisher support toward that end.
If I can take the liberty of quoting the man sitting to my left, Dr. Marc Maurer, here's what he said about this initiative: "The adoption of EPUB3 will produce significant benefits for blind readers, including the production of books that can be easily embossed or displayed in Braille and which can include both text and audio. We are pleased that America's publishers, as represented by the Association of American Publishers, are making a firm commitment to this robust standard with a defined goal for implementation. We look forward to working with the AAP and other stakeholders to make a joyous future full of digital books that can be read by everyone, including the blind, come true." Thank you, Dr. Maurer [applause]. Dr. Maurer says he believes every word; I know he does.
So one more quotation from an important supporter, George Kerscher, secretary general of the DAISY Consortium and president of IDPF, said: "The DAISY Consortium and the International Digital Publishing Forum really welcome this initiative. We are eager to assist in ensuring that we optimize the reading experience for people (whether they read with their eyes, ears, or fingers) and that publishers can easily deliver the really exciting content that challenges the current generation of eBooks. From the beginning the EPUB3 Standard has been engineered by the leading reading accessibility experts in the world. The adoption of EPUB3 for all kinds of publications will help drive this inclusive publishing initiative so that publishers can maximize their potential audience, and everyone, especially the blind and print-disabled, can enjoy them."
So why is this initiative important? Very simply, it will help create a more efficient supply chain, one that will enable publishers to deliver the same file to all accounts for the broadest possible distribution to readers with all mainstream and assistive systems worldwide. It will bring consistency in user experiences across retailers and devices, increase the number of available titles in EPUB3, and enable greater interactivity. That's a tall order, but the publisher support of EPUB3 and our commitment to this initiative align with our dual roles both as content creators and as technological innovators.
Let me finish by saying this: we do share common interests, and, during this convention and beyond, the AAP and the NFB will continue working together to shape public policies that move the country as rapidly as possible to enjoy widespread availability of market products with content, software, and hardware which are all accessible to people with print disabilities. The work that we do together, beyond helping the members of our two organizations, can expand opportunities for millions to learn, to work, and grow to their full potential. That's a goal worth fighting for. And we have learned from our past that we, AAP and NFB, are better together. I do believe that's our future, too.
Thank you all very much; have a great convention.