Q&A: Digital literature accessibility

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Wednesday, 23 July 2014 10:25am

Media Access Australia spoke with Dr. Mike Kent, Lecturer, Faculty of Humanities, School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts, Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University about the accessibility of digital literature.

Dr Kent was scheduled to speak at the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association (ANZCA) conference, which ran at Swinburne University’s Hawthorn campus from 9-11 July. The conference tackled a diverse range of issues in the media and communication space, including issues around disability and media access.

Media Access Australia: What are the accessibility issues associated with digital literature?

Dr. Mike Kent: Accessibility issues for digital literature relate to the format the literature is stored in. If you can imagine raw digital data you can access it in a number of different ways—read it on screen as text, have it read to me, or have it translated into different languages, or have it read on a braille tablet. There are a number of different accessibility options.

However, once the people presenting the information decide to lock it into a particular format it becomes trapped in that format, so you can only access it in the way they prescribe. You could try to hack it and change it, but often you will find yourself breaking the law if you do that. There have been a number of high-profile cases of people trying to crack open PDFs, for example, so that they can be read by a screen reader, but falling foul of the law for having broken people’s encryption.

In my presentation at ANZCA I was going to speak about how that linked back to the printed word; once something is written out it is locked into that format. You have to get it out of that format before you can translate it some other means. That is the fantastic affordance of digital: you don’t have to do that; it can be accessed in a range of different ways.

The flipside of that is that you can also input information from a range of different formats— voice-to-text, for example. The point is that with digital is that [information] doesn’t just go out, but also comes back in. Inaccessibility comes in when you take that utility away.

How did these issues arise?

The accessibility issues of documents arise through a couple for reasons: commercialisation and lack of consideration. Firstly, commercialisation. Information will be locked in a particular format for a particular commercial outcome. If you take for example Facebook, it makes money from us being in Facebook and wants to keep us in that environment, so it presents its data in a particular way. Interestingly, people who want to use screen readers will use the mobile version of Facebook because it tears away the clutter out of it. Also, if you embed a video in Facebook it strips out the layer of information in that video which presents the YouTube ads. Unfortunately, that is also the layer where it presents subtitles. So for commercial reasons, the information—inadvertently— becomes less accessible.

That’s also the second reason: a lack of consideration. Often, every time you make something accessible it is a choice. When you make something inaccessible, it is also a choice. Often this is done for aesthetic or commercial reasons, but then that also limits who can access that technology.

What are the issues particular to the different e-book and other digital formats?

Issues with formats can be linked to the commercialisation issue I raised before. Authors will often have a commercial agreement with a publisher that will break down the royalties for each paper book, each e-book, and each spoken word text. That bumps up against lots of different e-book formats which allow the user to also run them through a screen reader for someone with a vision impairment or to be run through a braille reader. Because of that the e-books get locked down to keep their analogue shadow. Even though there is all this fantastic digital utility, because we have a publishing agreement we will pretend that an e-book is just like a traditional paper book.

What are some of the e-book and e-reader access issues?

For e-book devices, there is that commercial agreement I mentioned before. An e-book for a particular device will have accessibility turned off. Amazon Kindle is a classic example of that. It was going to be rolled out across the University of California for textbooks, but they turned off the voice activation or the ability for people with vision impairments to access those texts—that was supposed to be one of the benefits of moving to e-readers—so that all got wound back. It was viewed as the same as just having a book because all the utility of a digital document was lost. So again, it relates to commercialisation and just a real lack of awareness.

How can digital literature accessibility be improved?

Solutions to these problems related to raising awareness of the need for accessibility. Once manufacturers of both the devices and digital files are aware of these issues—in conjunction with a bit of lobbying—they are able to make information more accessible. The University of California example for, the universities in that state are quite powerful and were able to lobby and say that you will have to change the way you present this stuff. Suddenly Amazon then said it was able to change and make information more accessible. That is about raising awareness and bringing some commercial pressure to bear. The things that make digital literature accessible for people with disabilities is also what makes digital literature accessible to anyone. If you can have a book read to you [with a screen reader] then you could also listen to it in your car, or you simply don’t have to read it. That can be a great way to access that information for a wide community of people. So, it’s the ability to put some commercial and political pressure on manufacturers that is improving digital access and will continue to improve it over time.

Where is digital literature accessibility heading?

I suspect we will have to have the same fight again every time a new wave of technology comes through. At the moment you can carry a small tablet around with you and that is an entire book collection. Over the coming years will be on the cusp of a wearable technology change—things like Google Glass and smart watches. At the moment I can’t see how you would access digital literature on a smart watch, but that’s only because I can’t yet conceive of how it would be done. That said, I can imagine the device reading things to you. So like I said before, I can see commercial and political pressure changing things, but I can also see having to re-fight past battles with the same people to make these devices accessible.

Final thoughts on accessibility and digital literature?

I think we have come out the other end. We went through a phase in the early phase of the internet —even before pictures— where the raw text was very accessible. Then we have gone through a p0hase where information has been really locked down in different formats which have not taken accessibility into consideration. We’re not going through a phase where accessibility is being considered, but as I said before, I am worried that we will have to fight accessibility fights all over again. But I am hopeful that we are entering a phase where accessibility is bound into the conception of the device or service and is not tacked on latter after people have complained.

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