Braille Monitor                          November 2019

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Accelerating Accessible Content: Progress through the DAISY Consortium

by Richard Orme

Richard OrmeFrom the Editor: There was a lot of energy in the room as President Riccobono introduced the following presentation: “This is continuing our theme to talk about accessible books and the Marrakesh Treaty. I believe the National Federation of the Blind has been an official member of the DAISY Consortium since about 2012. We have had a number of presentations at these conventions about accessible books, and we’ve heard about the work of the DAISY Consortium and the work that we’ve been doing. Our next speaker has a vast amount of experience in the blindness field. A bunch of it he worked at RNIB in the United Kingdom for over twenty years, but he’s got many other things on his resumé. He has been serving as the CEO of DAISY since 2015. His experience and leadership are critical components in our work to ensure that the implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty is most effective for us as blind people. We’re pleased to have him here with us at this convention. Here's Richard Orme:”

[“Book of Love” by the Monotones plays as he walks up to the microphone.] I was wondering what kind of theme I’d walk up to here. [laughter] President Riccobono, thank you for the introduction and to all the members of NFB gathered here in Las Vegas for having me on your amazing convention. [applause] I presented on the main stage a few years ago on the topic of access to television equipment and to television programs. It’s great to be back; it’s been far too long. Now accessible television, that’s essential in today’s world. But as Mark said in his amazing, barnstorming presidential report, literacy is a prerequisite to independence. He’s in good company; Groucho Marx said, “I found television very educating. Every time someone switches it on, I go into another room and read a book.” [laughter]

I’m speaking to you today on the amazing progress to solve the longstanding issue of inequality of inaccessible books. Books are so important. As young children we are read to by our parents and our carers. We learn with textbooks at school. As young adults we follow our interests and learn about the world through books. When we go to college or university, we rely on textbooks and scholarly works for our learning. And as adults we enjoy the latest thriller, classics, self-improvement books, romance. Books can help us to be more employable and to progress in our chosen career. Books help us to learn about different cultures, other periods in history, to be better parents, to be better people. But since the invention of the printing press, people with print disabilities such as blindness have been disadvantaged. Our vision at the DAISY Consortium is that books, journals, magazines, newspapers, all published information is accessible to everyone irrespective of disability. [applause] Because in the information age access to information is a human right. [applause]

Now the DAISY Consortium was formed over twenty years ago in Stockholm, Sweden. Our association started with six members, a mix of organizations representing blind people and specialist libraries. Now in our DAISY family we have over 150 organizations in sixty-six countries. The NFB is a treasured member of the DAISY Consortium, and Scott LaBarre serves on the board of directors. As you can imagine, he admirably represents the interests of Federationists there. Guided by our board, there are three main pillars to our work: 1) support the special libraries, 2) extend the DAISY family, and 3) bring about accessible mainstream publishing. So let me unpack each of these in turn.

I guess some of you here have heard of DAISY books, let me hear you. [cheers] So DAISY is a technical standard for accessible books used all around the world. If you’ve read books from NLS, from Bookshare, or Learning Ally, you’ll have read DAISY format books. And in developing the DAISY format we developed the first standards for digital books and digital talking books. Blind people were listening to digital audio books and reading e-books twenty years ago. So to the typewriter, the fountain pen, and cruise control, we can add e-books and audio books as inventions by blind people that have later been adopted by everyone. [applause] And friends of the DAISY Consortium, commercial partners making hardware and software, make great products for reading these books, and it’s good some of them are here at the convention. These include HumanWare, that has built DAISY reading capabilities into its excellent audio and Braille products.

Our first pillar is to support special libraries and accessible reading services with the technical standards and tools for accessible content. The second pillar is extending the DAISY family. Many countries just don’t have special libraries converting books into accessible formats, or they may be using rudimentary and inefficient approaches. Our vision is to ensure that everyone with a print disability has access to publications wherever in the world they happen to live. By enabling organizations to efficiently produce accessible books—including textbooks in local languages—we extend accessible reading more widely. Our capacity-building program is led by DAISY Consortium team members who are themselves blind and from developing countries. They provide training to blind persons’ organizations, other nongovernmental organizations, and ministries of education. This year we’ve been working in India, Mongolia, Indonesia, Botswana, Nigeria, Argentina, and Uruguay; and next month we’ll be working in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. There are blind people in every country in the world, but in fact most of the world’s blind people live in developing nations, countries with low resources and certainly very few accessible books in the hands of blind children and adults. Our work in extending the DAISY family provides essential tools, know-how, and ongoing support to create and distribute books to change this inequitable situation. In the next presentation you’ll learn more about the Marrakesh Treaty, but I just want to say that to efficiently exchange books across boarders it is critical that they are produced to internationally-adopted open standards. There are blind Americans who want to read or study in French, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, or any other language. And with books created to a common accessible this will be possible. [applause]

Now let me turn to the third pillar of our work at the DAISY Consortium. For more than twenty years I worked, as Mark mentioned, at the organization in Great Britain, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and actually I still volunteer for them—so I work for them, but I just don’t get paid. Our talking book and Braille library is one of the flagship services, and we were proud to be adding more than 2,000 books to the collection every year. And yet every year in the UK more than 200,000 new print books are published. In the US that number is something in the region of 600,000. So despite all the hard work of the special libraries, the number of books that blind people cannot read is getting bigger every year; the injustice is getting worse. Our mission in the DAISY Consortium is to take what we have learned about accessible books over more than two decades and help the international industry of mainstream publishing to reach a point where accessibility is part of their business. This is possible in the new world of digital publishing—when books are born digital, they can be born accessible. When books are born digital, they should be born accessible. [applause] When books are born digital, they must be born accessible.

Over the last few years we have been building the best bits of the DAISY format into the publishers’ own standard for publishing e-books, which is called EPUB. We have just concluded a three-year project thanks to a generous grant from the Google Foundation. The outcomes of this initiative are transforming the publishing industry internationally and will increase the number of books available to you and to blind people around the world. The first thing we did in this project was to define a baseline for accessibility for EPUB. We got this agreed as a recommendation with the publishers. Once we had an accessibility specification, we developed a wonderful tool that checks EPUB books for accessibility. We call this tool ACE, or the Accessibility Checker for EPUB. The adoption of this tool has been beyond our wildest dreams. Not only is it used by publishers and their suppliers all around the world, but several large publishers and distributors will only accept books if they pass through error-free through ACE. [applause] And once they see and measure the accessibility of their books, publishers are now enthusiastically improving their new titles: they’re fixing accessibility issues, they’re adding descriptions to images, they’re adding extended descriptions. And some of these publishers, including Pearson and Wiley and others, have been here at the convention talking with you in the exhibit hall or conducting user research.

One of the requirements of this accessibility specification is that the book should contain information about the accessibility of the title, information such as: can you make the text bigger, can you change the font, does it contain images with descriptions? Does it have proper structure, and has it been certified as accessible by a third party such as Benetech? Now this is really important. How frustrating it is to find a book in an online store, buy it, download it, only to find it isn’t accessible. By providing information about the accessibility features in the catalog or in the store, including an easy-to-read summary, you can decide whether the book is for you. A professor can decide which book to adopt for a course based on the accessibility information. A university can decide to purchase only books that are accessible. [applause, cheers]

The first distributor to provide the accessibility information in its bookstore is a company called VitalSource. It is one of the leading textbook suppliers in college and higher education in the US. You may have met them at the convention in the exhibit area. We applaud their leadership in this space, and I know that other distributors are working on their catalogs so that before long information about which e-books are accessible and which are not should be transparent and a competitive advantage.

Ladies and gentlemen, these pieces are only just coming together now, and there’s much more to do. But these developments in accessibility in mainstream publishing are already changing the experience of blind students in the US. Last year blind students would have had to buy the print book, take the receipt to the disability service office, and ask them to source a digital version and then wait. And then the university would start the work of remediating the book chapter by chapter in order to provide the student with something they could use. This year the student is able to search for the accessible title in the electronic bookstore; download the book; read it on their smartphone, tablet, or computer with their screenreader; and some students have told the disability services, “Thanks, but I don’t need you to start getting the books for me this year. I’m already reading them.” [applause, cheers] If you or someone you know is a student, you should start asking for accessible EPUB. You’re going to love it. There are literally millions of EPUB e-books out there; that should keep you pretty busy.

Karen’s session just before me was entitled “The Continued Significance of the National Library Service," and I agree strongly that specialized library services will continue to be really significant. The longstanding inequality of access to books will not be solved for everyone overnight. For the reasons mentioned by Karen, special library services should continue to be supported, and the DAISY Consortium will continue to provide technology solutions and standards as we have done for the last twenty years. Through our capacity-building program I’ve described to you, we will extend information about accessible reading solutions to new parts of the world, supporting the practical implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty. By our leadership in the publishing industry we are ensuring that the books that are published today are accessible as they should be.

There has never been a more exciting opportunity in history than right now. DAISY is your organization, delivering the technical solutions to end the book famine, working at a global level, punching above our weight, and together with the powerful voice of the NFB in challenging injustice, we’re going to get this done. Happy reading. [applause]

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