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Ebook Accessibility and the Law

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Following the shuttering of the Digital Book World blog, I'm reposting recent pieces about Accessibility. This piece concerns the legal requirements of A11Y-enabled ebooks.

It's the Law: Accessibility Mandated For Digital Books

With this series of posts, I hope to make abundantly clear the value, importance, and, hopefully, the inevitability of creating fully accessible ebooks. EPUB3’s Accessibility Standard provides a clear route to adding substance and usability to published material.

I’ve pointed out some of the practical and business opportunities afforded by including a11y in ebook publishing. Then, I described Benetech’s new certification program, which will both check conformance to the accessibility standard and provide a marketing tool via third-party evaluation. Many international publishers and end-users took part in this initiative. (See links to these articles at end of this post.)

Next up: legal requirements. Without trying to be comprehensive, I want to illustrate the law underpinning  the requirements.  A number of statutes, the first enacted in 1973, established a foundation in the US. Based in part on those, an international agreement housed in the United Nations has seen tremendous world-wide support.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The US Rehabilitation Act of 1973 took the first steps toward making everyday life more accessible to Americans. In particular, two sections targeted making content available to all.
Section 504 tells educational programs that receive federal funding:

No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…

This is largely directed at educational material, and so is administered by the Department of Education. Preschool through universities are bound by the law, engaging educational publishers. And as I mentioned in a previous post, trade publishers such as Penguin Random House and HarperCollins are joining the effort to make ebooks used in the school market accessible, which points to larger shares of their general lists being certified accessible.

Section 508, amended to the Rehabilitation Act in 1998, dictates that Federal agencies make their electronic and information technology offerings accessible to people with disabilities. Any material published by or distributed to the Federal government must comply with these statutes. Websites and PDFs were the initial focus, but ebooks have an obvious place in this conversation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

While the Rehabilitation Act deals with government organizations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 broadens the accessibility mandate to non-governmental entities, such as corporations.

In 2008, the ADA was amended to specify that the Act covers anyone participating in major life activities. These include "caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working."

It’s pretty clear that the ADA covers digital publishing.

International Action

The UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was adopted in 2003. Over 170 nations have ratified it, including Canada, Australia, Russia, China, India, and EU nations. While the Convention was modeled in part on US law, the US has signed but has not ratified the agreement.

Although the Convention was written before the widespread use of ebooks, it covers any person’s conditions that new technology may affect. Remember: new technologies like ebooks can present challenges – not just opportunities — to populations in unforeseen ways. From the Convention:

"... disability is an evolving concept and . . . results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others."

“Equally Effective” Access

Here’s the simple concept behind these accessibility laws: All material must be equally available when, where, and how any person wants to access it.

A 2013 agreement between the US Department of Justice and Louisiana Tech University stemming from an ADA-based complaint by a blind student states in part:

“Equally effective alternate access” to electronic and information technology for persons with disabilities is based on (1) timeliness of delivery, (2) accuracy of translation, and (3) delivery in a manner and medium appropriate to the disability of the person. Such alternate(s), to be equally effective, are not required to produce the identical result or level of achievement for disabled and non-disabled persons, but must afford disabled persons equal opportunity to obtain the same result, to gain the same benefit, or to reach the same level of achievement, in the most integrated setting appropriate to the person’s needs.


In 2012, a lawsuit was settled between the National Federation of the Blind and the Sacramento (California) Public Library. The basis of the suit: The library was distributing e-readers (in this case, Barnes and Noble Nooks) that lacked text to speech capability, violating both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA. The settlement: The library system will deploy accessible e-readers to blind and print-disabled patrons. A similar suit was filed against the Free Library of Philadelphia, with a similar result.

It’s not the fault of libraries that the devices they can afford to buy lacked basic accessibility features. Dedicated e-readers are much less expensive than higher end, feature-rich tablets like iPad. So, libraries find themselves as proxies between the communities that need accessibility and the manufacturers and content producers who must supply it.

From a business perspective, the more accessible ebooks that libraries have on their shelves, the more patrons they’ll attract, and that will cause libraries to push publishers to produce more accessible content . . . and so on.

Do It Now

Accessible ebooks are legally mandated for much published material. And as I outlined in previous posts, accessibility brings business and editorial possibilities for all published material.

What publishers should do now is get on the a11y train and start making their books accessible today. Books without these features will be at a competitive — and probably legal — disadvantage in the not-too-distant future. And going back and retrofitting content will be a lot tougher than doing it now.

It’s important to note that when a university is sued for using inaccessible material, the publisher will not be included in that suit. But, it’s plausible to think that schools, universities, and libraries will not buy software and digital material if it is not accessible.

In future posts, I’ll be looking at specific editorial and production ideas, and at how accessibility features are put into action by reading systems.


For more information and encouragement, has published a number of accessibility posts. Start with this piece on producing accessible ebooks by Laura Brady editor-in-chief, then explore the site for much more in-depth writing.

The BISG Quick Start Guide to Accessible Publishing (a free ebook from the Book Industry Study Group)

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 508

Americans with Disabilities Act

Equally Effective Agreement, US Department of Justice

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Accessibility on Campus and in Educational Materials