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!