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.