California's Pioneering Accessibility Legislation, Twenty Years Later. What’s Next?

On Monday, September 16th, 2019, the Consumer Accessibility Information Label Association (CAILA) hosted an event in Sacramento to mark the 20th anniversary of AB422, which was pioneering legislation by the state of California that required textbook publishers to give electronic files to state colleges and universities so they could provide better accommodations to students with print-related disabilities. The purpose of the event was to show how far we have come and how far we still have to go to ensure students with disabilities have equal access to education.

I started off the meeting talking about the impact of AB422. In one respect it has been very successful. The legislation put publishers on notice that disability service providers in the three post-secondary systems in California knew digital files were being used to produce textbooks, and those files were needed by students who had disabilities that kept them from using printed textbooks.

The California Community College system opened the Alternate Text Production Center (ATPC) in 2002 to consolidate publisher file requests from the over 100 campuses in the system, and the ATPC became the model for the national AccessText Network (ATN), which was started by the Association of American Publishers in 2009. I said publishers have distributed hundreds of thousands of files at no cost in the last twenty years, which they would rather not have to do, so why aren’t we closer to having fully accessible textbooks available on the open market?

Promising to get back to that question after the three speakers had their say, I introduced Joshua Hori, Assistive Technology Analyst at the University of California, Davis. Joshua spoke eloquently about the variety of apps and programs that are available to help students adjust their materials to their needs, such as changing fonts, colors, and voices used in text-to-speech. He noted that these programs rely on the text being unencrypted, but some publishers have been pushing him to send students to proprietary platforms rather than providing the unlocked files.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, Head of Accessibility at VMware, gave a great talk on issues and opportunities related to employment for people with disabilities. Sheri mentioned that despite working in a “billion dollar” office park in Silicon Valley, many accessibility challenges remained in her own job. Sheri talked about the importance of recruiting and retaining people with disabilities, and how students with disabilities could be better empowered in the workplace if they could utilize the assistive technologies that they had adapted to suit their individual needs (“Bring Your Own Device” - BYOD). She also talked about the inadequacies of “accessibility overlays” that try to make up for websites that are not designed with accessibility in mind from the start.

Georgina Kleege, professor at UC Berkeley and author of several books, including one of my favorites, Sight Unseen, started off by saying how nice it was she could download an accessible version of a new novel (The Testaments by Margaret Atwood) from Bookshare the same day it was published in print. While that is a significant improvement over that past, she went on to discuss some things that had not changed much, including the challenges of using a course-management system that was not very accessible to instructors with disabilities. She finished by talking about her ongoing campaign to make cultural spaces such as museums fully accessible, and how that meant disability and access being part of the curation process from the start, not something only considered after an exhibit was designed.

I wrapped it up by talking about what I think is the untold story – that even though technology has been available to make textbooks more and more accessible, students with disabilities are still facing many of the challenges and barriers that they were twenty years ago. AB422, for all its promise, did not succeed in pushing publishers hard enough to make their products fully accessible. My belief is that accessibility advocates focused on other things rather than building bridges with publishers, and now the disability divide is still very much evident in education at all levels.

One simple but significant step towards giving accessibility the recognition and representation it deserves is to require publishers and distributors of educational materials to label their products with accessibility information so that students with disabilities know what they are getting. During the meeting I proposed that California follow up AB422 with a bill to do just that. I’m calling it the College Accessibility Information Labeling Act and will be organizing a campaign to have it introduced during next year’s legislative session. California’s Governor Gavin Newsom has spoken about his own experience with dyslexia, which should aid his understanding of how important this issue is.

I’d like to thank the attendees, the presenters, the ASL interpreters from A Show Of Hands, High Spirits Event Planning, Asante Catering, and the staff of the Sacramento Library Galleria for making this event flow so enjoyably and smoothly (and thanks to the Capitol Corridor train for not being later than it was ;-)

A picture of Georgina Kleege, Robert Martinengo, Joshua Hori, and Sheri Byrne-Haber sitting and chatting in a meeting room.

A picture of Georgina Kleege, Robert Martinengo, Joshua Hori, and Sheri Byrne-Haber sitting and chatting in a meeting room.

What goes in to an accessibility label, Part 2

In the last post I reviewed the accessibility information VitalSource includes with some of their products. My understanding is that the publisher has provided the information that is displayed in a pop-up when the accessibility icon is clicked.

While VitalSource is definitely the leader in this area and deserves credit for trying, the information fails to meet their ambitions that “Students can confirm if their assigned course materials will accommodate their needs before they purchase the content.”

The reality is that students with disabilities have many different needs because there are many different types of students. An accessibility label needs to describe the product as best as possible while acknowledging that it still may not be enough.

I have taken a shot a rewriting VitalSource’s label for this book. Here is the text of the VitalSource label:

View Accessibility Property Standards

Accessibility Summary

This publication includes mark-up to enable accessibility and compatibility with assistive technology. Images, audio, and video in the publication are well-described in conformance with WCAG 2.0 AA. Structural navigation may be inconsistent.

Accessibility Features

  • longDescription

  • displayTransformability

  • alternativeText

  • resizeText

Access Mode

  • visual

  • textual

Access Mode Sufficient

  • visual

  • textual

Accessibility Hazard

  • none

Here is the revised version:

Accessibility Statement

VitalSource and the publisher of this title are committed to meeting the needs of students with disabilities. The following information is provided to help students determine if this publication will be accessible to them. Please visit our accessibility page for more information. Your feedback is appreciated so we can continue to improve our products.


  • This publication contains mark-up (also known as tags) to enable navigation by screen-reading software.

  • Page numbers that correspond to the print version of the book are included.


  • Visual material such as pictures, charts, and graphs, are accompanied by textual descriptions.

  • Elements of the display such as font size and color can be adjusted.

Known Issues

  • Not all headings in the book can be navigated to directly and some navigation may be inconsistent.

  • When included with the product, multimedia supplements such as videos and interactive components may not be accessible. Please contact us for more information.

  • This publication can only be opened by Bookshelf, which is compatible with many screen-reading programs. If you use another type of assistive technology please contact us for support.

There is still a ways to go to make this information relevant and useful to students with disabilities. One suggestion for VitalSource is to revamp their accessibility page, which has a lot of good information, to make it more focused on practical information for students (perhaps make a accessibility page in the Bookshelf section).

Another suggestion is to stop using the word “features” when it comes to accessibility. VitalSource is not the only organization to do this (in fact, I may have used that terminology in the past). “Feature” implies something added for the benefit of the customer, when in reality, without accessibility the product is unusable by a person with a disability. It may be a matter of semantics, but words matter. Accessibility should not be a feature - it should be a fact.

Please add your questions and comments on the label.

What goes in to an accessibility label, Part 1

When I give conference presentations on the accessibility label, two questions usually come up: does the label harmonize with existing standards, and is it a rating system? Actually, the rating question is usually expressed as an assumption: the purpose of the label should be to tell people if a product is good or bad.

But the answer to that has always been no - the label is not a rating system. Through the label, the vendor should provide unbiased, objective, and complete information about the product so the consumer can determine if the product is accessible to them. What works well for one person with a disability may not be accessible to another. A rating system implies an independent evaluation has been done, which is beyond the scope of an informational label.

The standards question is more nuanced. The answer is neither yes or no. The issue is that technical standards do not always translate well to consumers. Technical standards are like plumbing. It’s important that everything behind the scenes meets standards and works well together, but the consumer is mainly concerned that when you turn on the faucet, water comes out. While it’s great that a product is compliant with appropriate accessibility standards, the consumer wants to know if they can use it and what problems they might encounter. I think VitalSource is relying too much on standards and not enough on communicating clearly with their customers (I’m looking at you accessMode).

Based on research and development of the accessibility label over the last few years, here is a high-level outline of what should be in an accessibility label.

Accessibility Statement

This is a place for the vendor to assert clearly and concisely how they have addressed accessibility. This should not be marketing-speak, but objective, verifiable facts. But even if the vendor does not have extensive information to report, they can use this section to describe their commitment to accessibility in terms of specific actions, such as a readiness and capacity to address problems.


The ability to navigate electronic documents is critical to their accessibility. To navigate you have to know where you are, where there is to go, and be able to move around as needed. Common navigational aids are a table of contents, headings, and page numbers. The vendor should list what navigational aids are present and how they are implemented.


Content is the letters, symbols, pictures, charts, graphs, table, lists, punctuation and other elements (not to mention multimedia) that can be present in a digital document. Text is the most common type of content, but images are vital components of many books and should be described. Other important educational content is structured information, such as tables. The accessibility label should describe what types of content the reader will encounter.

Known Issues

This is where the “fine print” goes - things the distributor knows may cause problems when accessing the document. I suspect most people will go directly to this section, which is understandable when you consider how many potential accessibility issues there are. The challenge is prioritizing and focusing on issues that are most important to people with disabilities. As mentioned in the last post, the ability to open a document using software of the users choice is an important aspect of accessibility, so the use of DRM that restricts that ability is an issue.

In Part 2, I will use the textbook from the VitalSource as source material for an accessibility label based on the above. Stay tuned!

A review of VitalSource's accessibility label

When VitalSource, a division of Ingram, acquired CourseSmart a few years ago, they became the nation’s largest distributor of post-secondary electronic textbooks. At the time, Rick Johnson, Vice President of Product Strategy at VitalSource, was a member of the Center for Accessible Materials Innovation’s National Task Force, which I had assembled for the U.S. Department of Education’s “First in the World” grant that funded development of the accessibility label at Georgia Tech from 2014 to 2018.

The goal of the Task Force was to refine and improve the label while exploring the ramifications of an accessibility label in the commercial market for educational materials. By the time the grant ended we had piloted the label with the Task Force, disability service providers, and students with disabilities (my report on the label can be found here).

Earlier this year, VitalSource announced that “All eTextbooks and course content in the VitalSource catalog with one or more accessibility features will now be clearly designated with an icon.” In this post I will review the accessibility information provided for the book “Human Anatomy & Physiology Laboratory Manual”.

It’s great to see the “Accessible” icon first among “eTextbook Features” (although that may be alphabetic ordering of the features). When the accessibility icon is clicked, a window pops up with some information, which is the same format as the other features in the list.

The first item is a link called “View Accessibility Property Standards” which links directly to the W3C’s WebSchemas/Accessibility page, which “outlines the version 2.0 accessibility properties.” There is a lot of information on this page that doesn’t apply to the book in question, which isn’t very user friendly. It would be better if they linked to a VitalSource page explaining more about the standards in less technical terms.

The next item is an “Accessibility Summary”, which states that this publication contains mark-up and includes image descriptions, but that navigation may be “inconsistent”. Not the most encouraging start, but at least it sounds honest.

After that is a section titled “Accessibility Features” which contains four elements. Unfortunately on my 13” laptop screen, the names of two of the elements are truncated, so determining that “displayTransf…” equates to displayTransformability on the Schema page takes more work than it should (on my phone, all the names get truncated).

The four elements are:

  • longDescription, which means descriptions are given for visual material. This is of course an important element for visually-impaired students so it’s good to see it here.

  • displayTransformability, which means “Display properties are controllable by the user”, which sounds helpful but no specifics are given. Most hardware and software ereaders have some capability to change display properties, so without details this isn’t very informative.

  • alternative text, which means “Alternative text is provided for visual content.” The distinction between alternative text and long description (if there is one) is not described, which seems unnecessarily confusing.

  • resizeText is not listed on the Schema page that I could find. It would seem like a property of display transformability, as resizing text is a common feature of hardware and software ereaders.

The next sections are “AccessMode” and “AccessMode Sufficient”. Both sections contain the same two elements - “visual” and “textual”. AccessMode is the “human sensory perceptual system or cognitive faculty through which a person may process or perceive information” and accessModeSufficient is a “list of single or combined accessModes that are sufficient to understand all the intellectual content of a resource”.

My best guess is that this means the person reading this publication needs to be able to perceive textual and visual information. Does this mean a visually-impaired student would be missing some of the “intellectual content”? I have no idea. But I am 100% sure this is something that should not be unclear in an accessibility statement.

The last section is “Accessibility Hazard”, which is a “characteristic of the described resource that is physiologically dangerous to some users”, such as flashing text, sound, or motion simulation. While this information could be very helpful to someone who is sensitive to one or more of those issues, I think students with disabilities might be thinking this category would include anything that keeps the publication from being fully accessible, such as inconsistent navigation, as alluded to in the summary.

There is an important accessibility element not shown on this list, but that is referred to on the VitalSource accessibility page. That is, in the language of the W3C schema, whether “digital rights management or other content restriction protocols have been applied to the resource”. To some people in the accessibility field (including me), DRM can fairly be considered an accessibility hazard when it prevents the reader from accessing a publication with the assistive technology of their own choosing.

According to VitalSource, “Content delivered through the Bookshelf online reader and mobile applications employs DRM protection” and “Files can only be opened in Bookshelf”, but they go on to say that Bookshelf is compatible with JAWS, NVDA, SuperNova, and other programs. I think it’s understandable for a student to be unsure if they can use popular assistive technology like Kurzweil 3000 or Read & Write to access a VitalSource publication (I believe the answer is no to both). This information should be a part of the accessibility features list.

To summarize, the only thing the accessibility list tells us for certain is that this book contains descriptions of images. The rest of the information isn’t specific enough for a student with a disability to determine if the book will be usable to them, so they will most likely request an accessible version from the disability service provider at their school, who will in turn request a file from the publisher.

While I give VitalSource an “A” for innovation and leadership, this information will not break the costly and time-consuming cycle of remediation of textbooks for students with disabilities. In the next post I will go in to detail about the CAILA accessibility label and the thinking behind it.

Ps. “accessMode” and “accessModeSufficient” are just plain bad!

How will an accessibility label increase the number of accessible books?

While developing the accessibility label at Georgia Tech I researched other types of labels, looking for evidence about if and how such labels actually worked. One well-known label with high visibility to the general public is Nutrition Facts, found on most food packaging. There has been a lot of research done on Nutrition Facts, and after an exhaustive review (as in, I soon got tired of reading about it), I came to the conclusion the main importance of the Nutrition Facts label is that it sends a message that nutrition is something we should be considering. People still buy candy bars, sugary cereals, and salty soups (canned soup has a LOT of salt), but Nutrition Facts is there to remind you society (through a government mandated label) cares about your health (you can download my research paper here).

This insight, as I mentioned in the last blog post, helped me realize an accessibility label could do more than simply convey information - it could change disabling attitudes. The social model of disability “identifies systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that mean society is the main contributory factor in disabling people” (Wikipedia).

Publishing in accessible formats has historically been seen as a specialized activity. For example, the Chafee Amendment of 1996 made it “not an infringement of copyright for an authorized entity to reproduce or to distribute copies or phonorecords of a previously published, nondramatic literary work if such copies or phonorecords are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities.” Authorized entities are “a nonprofit organization or a governmental agency that has a primary mission to provide specialized services relating to training, education, or adaptive reading or information access needs of blind or other persons with disabilities;” (cited here).

I believe the main systemic barrier to progress in accessible publishing is not copyright law, but the ingrained perception that people with disabilities need (or want) to be represented by “authorized entities”. An accessibility label serves as a reminder from society that the needs of people with disabilities are not “special” - they are requirements. Once the label becomes widespread, the number of accessible books should not only increase, but we will finally have a way to measure print equality.

I would like to think the publishing industry sees the logic of voluntarily adopting a standard accessibility label, but if that is not the case, legislation is the next best thing. Mandating an accessibility label for educational materials will not only be an improvement for students with disabilities, it will symbolize the commitment of society to equal access for all.

Why do we need an accessibility label?

In my twenty-plus years in the accessibility field I have met many hard-working and creative individuals at educational institutions, non-profit agencies, assistive technology vendors, educational publishers, and many others, all dedicated to improving access to education for people with disabilities. While there have been advances, it seemed to me that innovations in accessibility and inclusive publishing were slow to reach those who need them the most - students. After years of observation and research, my conclusion was that three main factors were impeding progress:

  1. Institutional inertia in higher-education.

  2. Institutional inertia in the publishing field.

  3. Institutional inertia in the disability field.

The first two points probably don’t come as much of a surprise, but the third might. I came to believe that many non-profit and government agencies in the field had become too entrenched in the “authorized entity” and “trusted intermediary” model of providing services to students with disabilities, and were thus missing opportunities to move accessibility in to the mainstream.

When I conceived of the accessibility label I thought of it mainly as informational, like the Nutrition Facts label on food. As time went on, I realized it could play an even more important role - making accessibility more visible as a mainstream issue, and empowering students with disabilities as customers rather than charity cases. While the primary purpose of the label is to provide information, it’s overarching goal is to change the perception of accessibility from a special, technical issue to one of full inclusion in the marketplace - a requirement, not a feature.

Welcome to CAILA!

Hello and thanks for stopping by. I started CAILA to promote the idea that students with disabilities deserve to know if their textbooks and other educational materials are going to be accessible before they buy or rent them. The concept of an accessibility label arose from the report of the Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education for Students with Disabilities (AIM Commission), available here. I developed the label while working at the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation (formerly AMAC), with grant support from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE).

In this blog I will explain more about the accessibility label, how it works, and why legislation can help implement it. Stay tuned!