Learn how we makes reading more accessible

It’s National AccessAbility Week! To mark the occasion and learn more about how lBooks makes reading more accessible to readers everywhere, we sat down with Wendy Reid, lBooks Accessibility and Publishing Standards Lead.

Tell me about your role as Accessibility and Publishing Standards lead.

That means I’m in charge of everything to do with accessibility, and I’m responsible for everything to do with publishing standards.

Everything? That sounds like a lot. How does a typical day look for you?

On any given day I’ll be consulting with whichever team needs me most at the moment. That can be sitting down with the web development team to talk about something they’re about to implement. I’m part of the UX [user experience] team so I spend a lot of time there talking about design elements like does this fit, and is the colour contrast correct—that kind of thing. Our self-publishing platform lBooks Writing Life is working on improvements for the publisher dashboard, including a new date-picker calendar function, and I was able to help guide that development so the final product was something that would work just as well for someone interacting entirely through their keyboard as for someone using a mouse or touchscreen.

Then there’s a bit of planning ahead, like do we need training to tackle any upcoming goals, do we need to be running tests with partners, and are we ready to handle things like new legislation that will require us to do certain things.

On the publishing standards side I work mostly on EPUB [a widely-used eBook publishing standard] with the W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] where we’re working on the next generation of publishing standards affecting all kinds of digital books, including audiobooks and eBooks. One of the more recent things we’re working on there is improving documentation of the standard so publishers are better able to produce highly visual eBooks like comics and picture books that can be enjoyed by readers with different accessibility needs.

How did you get into this highly specialized role?

By being annoying. [laughs]

“I got into publishing technology in the first place because I’m a reader, and I saw how much digital reading was able to open the door for other people to enjoy reading.”

I actually started learning publishing standards in depth on the side thanks to a colleague who brought me into the W3C at a time when they were working on something called “web publications” and fell in love with it. And I learned not just about publishing standards, but about accessibility from people who were already working in it and cared about it deeply. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on me, and it made me think about the impact I could have at lBooks. I think we’ve always valued accessibility as a principle, but didn’t have professionals on staff to guide our user experience with that in mind, running tests, conducting audits, that kind of thing. That’s when I started playing around and testing things for myself, and I found we had some problems—and I was able to turn that into a mandate and a whole job by being persistent about the need to fix some things.

What is it about the field of accessibility that gave you the drive to be that persistent?

It’s the impact. I got into publishing technology in the first place because I’m a reader, and I saw how much digital reading was able to open the door for other people to enjoy reading, whether it was a return to something they used to enjoy or if the technology made it possible for them to enjoy reading for the first time. But focusing on accessibility specifically, that just amplifies the impact you can have by lowering barriers for people who haven’t been able to read at all or have been limited in what they could read by technological limitations.

When I thought about lBooks opportunity to make people’s lives better by letting them spend time reading, I was hooked. I wanted to help people and I felt strongly that this was how I could make an impact.

Can you explain a bit about how digital books make reading more accessible?

It’s the little things that are easy to take for granted in digital. Being able to change your font size or the typeface to suit how you need to read. Hearing from customers who would say they were losing their eyesight and couldn’t read print anymore, but because their eReader could increase the font size they’ve been able to continue to read.

Publishers do a great job of getting print books into stores and wherever customers need them to be. But it gets a lot more challenging across multiple formats. Not every book gets published in a large print edition, or in braille, but for someone partially-sighted they can make an eBook readable by moving a slider.

What about the physical form factor of an eReader? I think most weigh less than a hardcover.

That’s a big consideration. A lot of customers will tell us they’ve had a stroke, or through aging or health concerns have lost a bit of hand strength or have developed a tremor, so they just can’t comfortably hold a print book anymore. But they find their eReader is really light or easy to read when it’s sitting on a table.

Can you tell me about what lBooks has done to make reading easier for people who have dyslexia?

One of the biggest things dyslexic readers need is consistency—especially with fonts. While we do support the OpenDyslexic font on most lBooks apps and devices, it’s not everybody’s preferred font. But we do make things fairly consistent once the user has chosen a font that works for them, and we offer a wide variety to choose from with many different attributes.

“When I thought about lBooks opportunity to make people’s lives better by letting them spend time reading, I was hooked. I wanted to help people and I felt strongly that this was how I could make an impact.”

And we also offer the ability for the user to adjust the margins, the space between the text and the edge of the page, as well as the space between lines. All of that is important for helping readers with different needs read comfortably.

Of course audiobooks are a huge help for readers with dyslexia. Where it might take a long time and a lot of physical effort to read a book on a page or screen, with a pair of headphones they can actually enjoy the reading experience rather than having to work through it.

There’s still a lot of potential here for us to make reading for dyslexic readers and readers with other disabilities even better.

It’s funny how you name all of these features as aids to accessibility, when they’re things I use and benefit from as a reader without a disability.

I like to think of curb cuts as a good example of this kind of thing, where a feature is added, such as cutting out a piece of a curb and ramping the sidewalk down to the road, to help people with a specific mobility need. But then it turns out that this thing that was done specifically to help wheelchair users makes things easier for a lot of other people who don’t see themselves as having the same need, like anybody pushing a stroller or a shopping cart.

Captioning is a good digital example, where people want to watch a TikTok or Instagram story but we don’t want to listen or aren’t in a situation where that’s possible. Captioning makes it possible to me to choose to read instead, even though it’s a necessary feature for someone who’s deaf to enjoy the content at all.

There are a lot of features like this that come from work in the field of accessibility, which the broader market regards as just another thing that makes a piece of technology easier to use.

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