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New chapter for librarians and disabled students

An audit to highlight accessible e-books has been declared the winner of the 2017 National Acquisitions Group Award for Excellence

Posted by Julian Owen | November 08, 2017 | Higher education

Most people take for granted the ability to pick up a book or a magazine and read. But spare a thought for the tens of thousands of students in the UK who can’t. They may be visually impaired, dyslexic, or have a physical problem that means they can’t actually hold a book.

For such disabled students, “accessible” books that meet their specific requirements in digital format are a necessity. Until recently, however, it hasn’t been possible to work out which text books meet individual needs prior to subscribing and downloading.

A partnership project between a group of universities, library and disability services and the education sector’s technology solutions not-for-profit, Jisc, seeks to change all that. The crowd-sourced e-book accessibility audit took place between August and November 2016 to introduce a benchmark for accessibility in e-books supplied to the UK education sector. It scores books depending on the features that make them accessible to groups of users.

The result is an interactive spreadsheet that provides useful data to publishers (to inform how they produce e-books in future), to lecturers and to users. The project was shortlisted for two awards in 2016 and has just been declared 2017 winner of the National Acquisitions Group Award for Excellence.

One of the project leaders is Alistair McNaught, who works at Jisc as a subject specialist for accessibility and inclusion. He explained: “With e-books, it should be possible to change colours or magnify text and have it re-flow to fit the page. The user should be able to navigate easily, even without a mouse, and use assistive technologies to have text read out loud, with or without being able to see the screen. 

“Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen, which is bad for disabled students and bad for education institutions, which are then at risk of litigation under the Equality Act 2010. Depending on the publishing platform, r, print-impaired students can have very different experiences when trying to read an e-book.

“Until now, the focus has always been on providing extra support or equipment to overcome the students’ problem, but we are trying to minimise barriers at source.

“A lecturer who knows they have lots of dyslexic students enrolled on their course ought to be able to determine, before creating the reading list, which e-books are suitable. At the moment there is no way of knowing other than our audit, which is the only objective source.” 

The audit tested 44 publishing platforms, covering 65 publishers and nearly 280 e-books. It is the biggest audit of its kind, ever, and the information is regularly updated. A full rerun of the process is planned in 2018.

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