Tell us a little about Books without barriers and IPEd
Books without barriers is a comprehensive set of guidelines for publishers on how to implement accessibility. It outlines the barriers to reading that people with print disability may experience if their needs are not supported, and describes how to avoid creating these barriers at each stage of the publishing process.

The first section of Books without barriers focuses on understanding the needs of people with print disability, establishing accessibility policies, planning and organising publishing workflows. The second part delves into content development, addressing writing and editing techniques, creating accessible tables, and considerations for children’s books and for mathematics and science materials. The third part provides guidance on describing images and tables, and offers a range of examples for different types of illustrations. Finally, the fourth section outlines the production of accessible books, encompassing design, digital formats, audiobooks, and the crucial steps of testing and reviewing for quality assurance.

The Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) is the professional association for Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand editors. IPEd coordinates initiatives that benefit Australian and New Zealand editors, including an accreditation scheme, professional development opportunities, advocacy, awards for excellence in editing, and maintaining and promoting a set of standards for editing practice.
In late 2020, IPEd set up a working party to research and create resources that address the needs of readers with print disability. Although the focus was initially on creating guidelines for editors, it quickly became clear that for the information to be truly useful, we would need to cover the whole publishing workflow, from concept to publication.

Our aim in writing was to collect as much advice on accessibility specific to book publishing as possible in one place, so that publishers, writers, editors and other contributors can avoid lengthy searches for information. It was also important to us that the guide be made available as a free resource, and we are very grateful to the Copyright Agency for helping us achieve this goal.

What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the Accessible Books Consortium Excellence Award?
Being shortlisted has offered a great opportunity to share the guidelines with publishers everywhere, not just in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Much of the information included in Books without barriers can be easily adapted into other languages and publishing contexts, and we are hoping that publishers in other countries will use the guidelines to tackle accessibility in their workflows.

What made you decide to tackle accessibility issues and how did the cooperation with the Australian Publishers Association come about?
We were both members of the Australian Inclusive Publishing Initiative (AIPI). The initiative was launched by the Australian Publishers Association (APA) in 2016 to tackle accessibility issues in Australia, so the APA was a natural partner to publish and promote Books without barriers.

AIPI was launched in 2016 as a cross-sector forum to foster a collaborative, consultative and consensus-based approach to tackling accessibility problems in Australia. Its members include representatives of the publishing industry, authors, agents, editors, designers, indexers, libraries, copyright organisations, disability associations, government and accessible-format providers. The aim of AIPI is to increase access to published material for people living with print disabilities in Australia.

In 2019, AIPI published Inclusive publishing in Australia: An introductory guide, co-authored by Julie, which explains the business, social and legal reasons for creating accessible publications. (The publication is available for free download from the AIPI website in EPUB, PDF, Word, braille and DAISY formats.) While the guide was well received, a study by Agata of Australian publishers in 2020 found that a lack of skills and knowledge continued to present significant barriers to achieving this goal. So (with co-authors Kayt Duncan and Maryanne Park) we wrote Books without barriers to build on the introductory guide, by explaining not just why but also how to go about implementing accessibility best practice at every stage of the publishing workflow.

Were there, or are there still, misconceptions about tackling accessibility?
Yes, absolutely. The needs of people with print disability have been traditionally relegated to alternative format providers and disability organisations, with access provided by specialist libraries. Some publishers still see the publication of accessible formats as a niche endeavour.

While we have now created extensive guidelines on how to publish “born-accessible” books, there are still significant barriers to adopting inclusive publishing practices. As well as limited awareness of accessibility and a lack of understanding of the needs of people with print disability, publishers report capacity, cost and copyright concerns as challenges. The fact that Adobe InDesign, a key industry software used for book design and layout, still does not fully support the production of accessible EPUB3 files is problematic. Much of the accessibility-specific markup needs to be manually added at the end of the process, using additional software such as Sigil, Calibre or Oxygen XML Editor, which adds extra cost and time to the production process.

What are your plans for the future?
We have already delivered several talks and workshops on inclusive publishing practices and are planning to conduct more training in the future.

We both teach the Master of Publishing at the University of Sydney and will continue to develop and incorporate accessibility considerations into our teaching. Our hope is that future generations of editors and publishers will come to see accessibility best practice as an inherent part of the publishing process, and just as important as using effective language and creating engaging book designs.
Agata is also currently working on a project with Dr Jo Kaeding, developed in consultation with the Australian Library and Information Association, which aims to develop a greater understanding of the role of public libraries in facilitating access to books to individuals with print disability. We hope to uncover how familiar librarians are with the needs of people with print disabilities, and what resources and services public libraries offer, to identify key challenges and areas for improvement. Agata is also planning to continue with her research into the challenges of the adoption of inclusive publishing practices and the production of “born-accessible” publications.

Are there any particular experiences you would like to share or do you have any messages for publishers?
While changing traditional publishing workflows in order to produce “born-accessible” books may feel overwhelming, publishers should remember that tackling accessibility is a journey not a destination. There are a few things they can easily do to improve access to books for people with print disability:

  • Promptly share suitable files with alternative format providers when requested.
  • Have a clearly defined and accessible policy, and procedure for requesting content on their website.
  • Make a commitment to change by becoming a signatory of the Accessible Book Consortium Charter for Accessible Publishing.