Are Publishers Pushing Epub Format as Alternative Media?

8 format types for alt books

Alternative textbook formats

For years universities and colleges have demanded alternative formats of educational materials from publishing houses.  One of the largest challenges has been to produce the format students in college desire.  With a hundred different ways to produce content, some publishers say they’ve got to find a more suitable format that we can all work with –EPUB may be that format.  However, many alternative media professionals are struggling with this format because their students prefer those formats that they’ve received in the past.

Publishers use to send pdf files.  Originally these were often picture pdf files – inaccessible pdf — but this goes back a few years.  Then they sent colleges and universities pdf files that at least had the text accessible.  Alt media folks at universities could take these files and generate a variety of accessible file types, including braille, DAISY, KESI files, word or RTF files, txt files, etc.  Some students wanted their book in pdf format so they could still have the look and feel of the book design.  Others only wanted the text, and others wanted just mp3 audio files.  *Daisy was also pushed as the best at one point.  There were all sorts of problems with generating all these different file types.  No one was truly happy.

Time to Convert Books

Converting books took hours to do when tasked with adding in the semantic structure, and forget even thinking about labelling all the pictures and charts or adding back in the page numbers, too!  For each element that one student may need, the next student may not.  I recall that adding in headings structure, that was originally only graphically in place in the book, took as much time to create as the rest of the work for producing an e-book.

To efficiently generate alt formats, one really needs to start at the book design stage.  Yeah right!  That’s a pipe dream at best – this is a messy subject because it covers a lot of different types of organizations, all which in the spirit of democracy will have to find common ground. Getting everyone to agree to a format has never happened, and innovation is stifled by such concepts, regardless of the intent.

epub iconSolution for Publishers

While EPUB may be a solution for publishers, it may generate a lot of resistance from the accessibility community.  However, the money and power is in the hands of the publishers, who are at least taking responsibility for addressing accessibility – that surely should be applauded.

EPUB files have some properties that may hinder access.  The notorious one is called DRM protection.  This format is created to (most likely) protect copyright.  That has always been an issue for the publishers from day one.  I’ve never used a tool that can strip this protection, though the web shows that there are means to do it (see below for link).

Some colleges and universities may not have software that can read out loud EPUB software.  Solutions exist.  Kurweil is known to be able to read EPUB files.  ReadNWrite can also.  I cannot ascertain whether Wynn can.  They have a facility for sending files to a virtual printer, which converts them.

In the Kasdorf article referenced below, he quotes George Kerscher, CIO of the *Daisy consortium: “The inherent accessibility of an EPUB far surpasses that of PDF in many ways.”  Textbook publishers are trying to replace sending out PDF files for a more robust file format.  Many of the large companies are moving into using software they choose such as Vitalsource.  Personally, I’ve tested some of these solutions, and they do provide accessible content, but maybe not for every possible person.  I’m seeing this a

Formats and what they provide

s progress, as for the vast majority of students with disabilities these new formats work fine.   Since Daisy consortium found the EPUB 3 to be the approved for distribution noting that EPUB 3 is aligned with HTML 5 and supports audio, video, interactivity and a whole lot of other important functionalities of digital publishing.

This means that publishers can go about creating content that meets the business model of the highly competitive marketplace and reach their goals for accessibility.  But it requires a format that disability support services providers may not be ready for.

Side note:

Last year at the Accessing Higher Ground Conference (2017) the case of EPUB versus PDF was taken up by someone from the publishing industry.  Rachel Comerford, director of Content Standards at Macmillan Learning spoke about how EPUB was the solution her company was using.  She is also the co-chair for the W3C EPUB Community Group.  The main point to take away from the presentation is that times have changed and word and pdf files are not the ideal experience for students with print disabilities.  She stated “Macmillan is producing only EPUBs from copyright 2017 on.”

“The following slide was taken from her presentation:

Differences between EPUB and PDF:

  • Mobility/Reflowing – Students are reading on a variety of devices and in this case, size matters. EPUBs have a reflowable format: line length changes based on size of the screen
  • Inherent accessibility of an EPUB – Using an out of the box, unremediated EPUB is easier to use than an out of the box, unremediated pdf
  • Remediating PDF requires source file, reprints require starting from scratch – When the textbook your psych department is using goes into a new edition – you are remediating a new pdf from scratch
  • Less interactivity possible in a PDF – Students receiving a pdf while peers use an EPUB are deprived of pop-up definitions that are within the text, answerable assessment, etc
  • HOWEVER – You can’t remediate EPUBs on your own unless you know html and css, and the EPUB isn’t protected (DRM).

Format is Stripped?

Another negative about EPUB is that the documents usually are formatted like a text file.  The document flow and structure from the printed form is stripped way.   I know for some students, generally those who have vision, the structure of the file my help them with their handling a book’s complex content – especially when associated with the tables, figures, and photos.  Others may prefer the bimodal reading, but not want to lose the graphical layout which helps them understand tables within pages and other referenced graphics and sidebars.  This will also be confusing for folks trying to keep up with in-class readings.

Overall, it seems that this is a new wave of change, but it may be a bit off shore at present.  Let’s see how these changes impact both accessibility of instructional materials and the ability of universities to accommodate their print impaired students.  I hope it rolls into a bigger more universally acceptable design for learning that offers multiple formats for everyone interacting with academic content.  UDL is the future in my opinion of accessibility.

References and Resources

Removal of DRM protection.

Why Accessibility is hard and how to make it easier: Lessons from Publishers

Tool for Checking Accessibility of EPUB files

EPUB Accessibility

EPUB Accessibility Techniques


*The DAISY Consortium is a registered not-for-profit global collective of organizations committed to delivering worldwide change to achieve a common Vision that “People have equal access to information and knowledge regardless of disability; a right confirmed by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” DAISY helps to mainstream standards, develop guidelines to promote best practices, raise awareness of accessible reading systems and support open standards for inclusive publishing.

Video Player Accessibility and Ugly Acronyms

Ugly Acronyms

Some acronyms are just ugly: take for instance UAAG 2.0. When someone knows an issue, they can handle an ugly acronym. UAAG stands for User Agent Accessibility Guidelines. If you don’t know what it is, you most likely won’t understand what those guidelines mean until you read in-depth about the topic – references provided below will help you get started. However, one of the topics of accessibility most everyone is familiar with and that is captioning of videos. This accessibility topic is easy-to-understand and has been part of several noteworthy legal actions.

The reason I’m talking about UAAG 2.0 is that a secondary and lesser-known issue is that of inaccessible video players. The Web Accessibility Initiative covers both of these issues and other things such as the accessibility of browsers.

When looking at software that produces content for showing video on the web, you should be aware of whether the software video player meets accessibility standards. Professionals designing web content need to look for a few factors when picking the media player for their site.

Getting ugly GraffitiAlternatives (UDL)

First the media player has to provide alternatives for audiovisual information such as captioning, sign language interpretation, transcripts and/or audio description. That seems to be something most people are aware of. However, often overlooked is how accessible the player is. The player needs to be not only accessible using a mouse but by keyboard in through the use of assistive technology, especially screen readers.

When I run testing, I often don’t have content that I’ve created, so I usually research whether the player can show close captions. Those of you familiar with Captivate, Articulate, Lectora, Camtasia will know that you need to have a method to show captioning of content. Knowing that these are educational technologies, the issue of UAAG 2.0 usually has been addressed. But lesser-known products, often used by specific types of departments which show video content may not be up to speed with the UAAG standard. It is therefore important to look at the player controls to see if they can be accessed without using the mouse and with using assistive technology.

Companies that package video content and sell them to libraries, frequently do not comply with accessibility standards. Though federal law holds motion picture and television content to the close captioning standard, other video players have not been scrutinized by the federal government. These slip through the cracks, and cause accessibility issues for students who are blind, hard of hearing, deaf, learning-disabled etc. Captioning gets all the glitter when it comes to the conversation of accessibility, but in inaccessible player is just as serious an issue.

Even more rare to find is documentation that users can obtain about the media player to learn keystrokes or other features that were designed to improve accessibility. Test to see if there’s any documentation easily acquired through the application. Frequently basic controls such as how to play or stop a video, the ability to resize the screen presented, and volume adjustment should have documentation.

If any of these issues are missed by the manufacturer of the player, consider another player. If you cannot, then contact the company representative to discuss when in future updates these issues will be addressed.


Factors in Chosing an Accessible Player

video player supports close captions
video player supports audio description and allows narration to be turned on and off
video player supports keyboard access to all controls
controls are properly labeled for screenreader access
video player operates on all major browsers


Content developers need to provide captioning for instructional content. This is the predominant factor when pursuing accessible video content. Overlooked frequently is the actual player and it’s accessibility.


User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UUAG 2.0)
Web accessibility initiative Wikipedia page (WAI):

You Can Create Accessible Videos — Cast

Existing Accessible Players

Able Player – by Terrill Thompson (GitHub)
OzPlayer – by AccessibilityOz

AFB Accessible Player, American Foundation of the Blind
Other accessible video players exist.

Players in Review

The following webpage provides an excellent example of a comparison of HTML 5 video players:
the page describes various aspects of whether it plays on a specific platform has a JS library, CMS plug-in, and a whole lot of other interesting factors.