Thursday, March 31, 2011

The blind leading the blind

A screen reader is a piece of software that converts written words to a computer-generated voice. The technology has improved over the years, and I guess some of these programs are at least satisfactory, even if listening to a book read by a screen reader will never be as fulfilling an experience as listening to an audio book recorded by a skilled voice artist.

For a publisher who is trying to accommodate people with visual impairments, producing a version of a book that works with screen readers is much less expensive than producing an audio book or a Braille book. And now that a large number of books are being packaged as electronic books (e-books), it should be no trouble to do this. At least that’s the theory.

There are some snags, though.
First, the popular e-book readers have visual controls for navigating the text. This makes them unsuitable, and therefore the main e-book file formats (.mobi for Kindle and .epub for everyone else) don’t solve the problem.

Instead, the preferred format is something called accessible PDF. This is a PDF file in which Alt tags have been embedded so that there is a verbal description associated with every picture. The PDF also has a document structure set up so that the order in which the screen reader reads the elements on a page can be controlled.

That’s the theory.

In practice, books undergo frequent revision in the last stages before they are released. So it would be very inefficient to have to start with a regular PDF after every revision and reenter all of the Alt tags, then reimplement the structural arrangement for the screen reader. Therefore, ideally, one should be able to create the Alt tags and the reading order in the original document before creating the PDF.

Now all of this—creating the book layout and generating the PDF and making it an accessible PDF—is done entirely within the integrated Adobe Creative Suite. So the programs should communicate with each other correctly.

Further, because this is Adobe’s technology, Adobe ought to have good documentation and support for the process.

Not so much. On both counts. The documentation for the process omits a great deal of critical information, and the actual output process does not work as advertised. At best the solution is partial.

This is all pretty new, though.
It’s so new, in fact, that Bowker, the company responsible for assigning ISBNs in the U.S. and for publishing the Books in Print database, have never heard of the accessible PDF format before. They learned about it today from a client of mine who is the person on whose behalf I had to disentangle the production process in the first place.

Bottom line.
I’ve now figured out what is needed to produce a proper accessible PDF that works for people with visual impairments using screen readers. Bookmark this post. If you need to produce such a book in the future, get in touch with me. What I’ll charge you for a consulting fee to walk you through it is much less than what it will cost you to figure it out on your own.

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