It’s estimated that one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability. Although there is a moral and business case for ELT publishers to make their books accessible to disabled students currently less than 10% of the world’s printed materials can be read by someone with a print disability. This gulf is sometimes called the ‘book famine’ and it is particularly damaging in developing countries where disability is more prevalent and where learning English is essential for economic opportunity. The 2013 WIPO-backed Marrakesh Treaty which protects the rights of disabled people to make accessible copies of publications without reference to copyright law is a more pragmatic reason why we should be moving towards inclusive publishing. The good news is that the shift from paper to digital text makes publishing books that are ‘born accessible’ – that have accessibility in mind from the beginning – much easier. Practically then what can publishers do to improve the accessibility of their content?

Teaching English as a second language usually relies heavily on text based resources which presents a problem for the estimated 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired.

The Daisy Book Reader is the most widely used application by visually impaired readers to convert print to audio and the Daisy Book Consortium offers guidance on how publishers can structure their content to improve the user experience on this platform. Refreshable braille displays like the Orbit Reader 20 can be used to plug into Kindle, Adobe Digital Editions and iBooks as well as read content stored on an SD card. Screen reading apps such as Voiceover (for iOS) and TalkBack (for Android) make everyday navigation on laptops, mobiles and tablets easier. ELT publishers should be aware of how students who are print disabled are using assistive technologies in the classroom. Pearson has recently announced that they are moving to a ‘digital first’ strategy with their textbooks (even if initially only with their US college market) – a move that is likely to have a positive impact on visually impaired students.

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Equally significant are the challenges of learning English as a foreign language for deaf and hearing impaired students. Certain activities that may typically be used in an ELT classroom such as watching a video or listening to a recording will need to be adapted so that these students can participate fully. ELT publishers can make their multimedia content more accessible by adding closed captioning or media overlays that highlight text in time to an audio track. Research from the University of Leeds has shown that using ‘British Sign Language for full explanation and discussion of English where the written English is used as the model’ is the most effective learning strategy for deaf students. Publishers can choose to provide BSL images or videos alongside text (the BSL Sign Language Dictionary has 21,000 videos available online) to increase the accessibility of speaking and listening activities. The upcoming European Project Dedalos is developing a special e-learning platform with ESL content ’suitably adapted to the needs of hearing impaired people through the use of contemporary animation and digital video technologies.’

The Accessible Books Consortium recommends EPUB 3 as the ‘gold standard’ of accessible digital publications. The major advantage of EPUB 3.0 is that it is aligned with Semantic HTML5 with which publishers have much more freedom to add meaning to their HTML tags. We can for example indicate that sections of a text are a <table>, or an <image> instead of wrapping everything inside generic <div> and <p> tags which makes the content much easier for a screen reader to navigate and conveys much more meaning to the listener. Semantic markup should be used to indicate the normal reading order of a text and secondary elements such as images and footnotes should be displayed in nested tags within their parent element. Publishers should also use separate CSS files to ensure that styling is kept separate from the structure and content of the book as doing so limits the number of formats that it can be accessed on.

Specific ways that publishers can improve the accessibility of their EPUB 3.0 files include:

  • Creating a navigation document using a declarative table of contents to assist screen readers
  • Providing alternative text for images, graphs, charts and diagrams
  • Using a fixed layout with reference to page numbers where a print equivalent is available
  • Adding Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSML) which a text to speech generator will use to make a synthesised voice sound more like natural speech
  • Providing captions and transcriptions for video and audio and media overlays which synchronise audio and text
  • Communicating accessibility features in the product’s metadata

Keeping accessibility in mind from the start of the publishing process means adding features that benefit all readers. It also makes it more likely that publishers can find ways to monetise their content in the future. If you are an ELT publisher looking to improve your accessibility the Daisy Consortium has developed an open source tool for checking your EPUB files. Help and information is also available at and

Written by Anna Cunnane, from bookmachine