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.

Navigation

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

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!