Nov 01

A call for text-to-speech functions to be included on all electronic book platforms to improve their accessibility has been issued by a group of publishing and literary organisations.

The Publishers Association, The Society of Authors, The Association of Authors Agents and The Right to Read Alliance ­ – itself an umbrella campaign group, whose members include The Royal National Institute of Blind People ­- grouped together to issue the joint statement. It recommended that speech functions, which help many print-disabled readers access a range of otherwise inaccessible e-books, “is routinely enabled on all e-books across all platforms, at least where there
is no audio-book edition commercially available.”

The statement continued: “It is in the interests of publishers for their published content to be available and accessible to as many people as possible. This includes the broadening of the market to those with visual impairments or other disabilities”.

The recommendation follows ongoing disputes over the inclusion of text-to-speech functions on e-book readers. Last year US manufacturer Amazon allowed publishers to disable the feature on an early version of its Kindle e-book reader, after an authors’ rights group claimed that the text-to-speech function effectively breached a royalties agreement ( see E-Access Bulletin issue 110:
http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=244 ).

However, Amazon subsequently agreed to incorporate extra accessibility features into the Kindle after several American universities rejected the device as a potential teaching-aid, citing inaccessibility to blind students ( see http://www.headstar.com/eablive/?p=383 ).

Taken from e-access bulletin, a free monthly email newsletter at http://www.headstar.com/eab.

Jun 30

One of the last pieces of legislation passed earlier this year by the UK’s outgoing Labour government was the Digital Economy Act 2010, which, among other things, extended the Public Lending Right to audiobooks and ebooks in libraries.

This transfers out of copyright both physical hardcopy audiobooks in libraries, and audio/ebooks downloaded to an mp3 player or ebook reader on library premises; authors receive a payment from the government for each loan based on a rather complicated formula. The US does not currently have a similar scheme, following a failed attempt to introduce one in the 1980s.

The UK legislative change represents an attempt to simplify the model of lending non-print material in libraries which had hitherto occurred under a licensing regime which had never really functioned properly. This had made librarians reluctant to build up large stocks of such material, although interestingly customers seem to welcome audiobooks: the global electronic book distribution platform OverDrive has been extending its business in the US, and in 2008 there were 11 million loans of audiobooks from UK public libraries. Statistics for the year 2009 will soon be available. There are also some avant garde librarians who regard ebooks as key to making libraries relevant to younger members.

Since libraries have always been the key source of income for audiobooks on traditional media such as cassette or CD, at least in the UK, the change in the law has been broadly welcomed by advocacy groups for people with impaired vision. However, there are those who are critical, for example objecting to the fact that audio- and ebooks accessed remotely via download are not covered by the Public Lending Right (government lawyers said this was impossible because such activity was covered by the authors’ right of communication to the public). Many, not least the UK Registrar of Public Lending Right, feel this is a significant gap because they do not think most people download ebooks or e-audiobooks on library premises. Nevertheless, it is a step forward.

Such issues are only going to gain in importance. In 2009 for the first time the sales of ebooks were significantly higher than those of audiobooks in the US. Many of the most passionate advocates of audiobooks are moving to positions in companies associated with the download market, and Audible.com expanded its catalogue of unabridged audiobooks from 20,519 in October 2009 to 26,113 titles in May 2010.

Where does this leave issues relating to the accessibility of e-books to people with disabilities?

The recent disputes over the Kindle’s text-to-speech and over the read-out-loud function of Adobe ebooks in public libraries only makes sense in the context of an audiobooks industry fearing that in some sense the future is slipping away from it, whether those fears are justified or not.

If downloads are the future, particularly of unabridged audiobooks narrated by a human voice, then securing access to the internet and to computers in general for the visually impaired becomes of ever-greater significance. It would be a real tragedy if, just at the moment books become available in non-print formats in large numbers, a lack of access to technology in general and/or to the internet or mainstream ebook readers prevented us from reaping maximum benefit.

In this regard, ensuring internet accessibility, whether through enforcement of guidelines or through user testing, is critical and making media players that visually impaired people already use capable of playing ebooks and protected audio downloads is as important as capturing access to a mainstream e-books reader.

Guy Whitehouse is a PhD research student at Loughborough University, UK.

Taken from e-access bulletin, a free monthly email newsletter.

Jun 30

The new UK Association for Accessible Formats is to set national standards next year for accessibility of digital formats such as electronic books and synthesised speech, E-Access Bulletin has learned.

The association, a charity formed last year, refined its work programme for the next two years at its annual general meeting in London earlier this month.

This included setting suggested minimum acceptable standards for large print, Braille and audio formats by the end of 2010, followed in 2011 by work on standards for synthesised speech,
electronic books and other digital formats.

All standards will be aimed at content and service providers; transcribers; and end users, Alan Matthews, the association’s public relations officer, told E-Access Bulletin following the meeting. “The goal is to set out an achievable minimum UK standard that everyone can work towards, so the odd producer out there who is not quite hitting the mark would have something to aim at, service providers would have minimum requirement for end users, and end users would have minimum standard they could expect and service providers could not say they can’t do it, because of technical issues,” Matthews said.

“For example, if I work for a utility, and I know I should provide accessible formats, and I want to write them into a tender but I don’t know what standards to use, I could come to UKAAF. Then I would know what I am asking for is reasonable, achievable and what the end-user is expecting.”

Ultimately, the association would like its standards to be included in government regulations relating to accessibility, he said. “If we can be talking to government within five years, it would give our work a stamp of authority.”

The association will also be looking at how current law in this area, including the new Equalities Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 with its provision for ‘reasonable adjustments’ to services, affect the way organisations need to take account of format accessibility.

The meeting had been due to pass an emergency motion on whether to endorse Unified English Braille (UEB) as the “preferred” Braille format for UK use, in the face of US moves to endorse the alternative Unified Braille Code. However the meeting decided to delay a decision pending further deliberations.

Three appointments were made to the board of UKAAF: Michael Lewington, Director of Calibre Audio Library; Richard West, former chair of BCAB and Sheila Armstrong, text transcription co-ordinator at Torch Trust. The association’s president is former RNIB chairman Lord Low of Dalston.

Taken from e-access bulletin, a free monthly email newsletter.

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