On 17 April 2019, the European Union issued the European Accessibility Act, the EU directive that delineates the guidelines to make products and services accessible for people with disabilities. The legislation concerns books and especially ebooks. According to the current law, ebooks are considered a service and therefore are subjected to the requirements outlined in the document.
As a European law, the Accessibility Act will have to be transposed by all Member countries, called upon to make it active within their own legislative system. This past year, on July 16th, Italy issued the Legislative Decree of 27 May 2022, published in the Official Gazette. The Decree will officially come into effect on 28 June 2025. From this date, the new accessibility rules will become mandatory for electronic books and other devices - although there will be time until 2030 to use ebooks published before this date. Across Europe, it is estimated that more than 80 million people will benefit from this new law.
The history of accessibility
The term Accessibility refers to how settings or services are designed and developed, as well as their ability to be used by everyone, without obstacles for people with disabilities. The guidelines mandated by the European Accessibility Act and the four basic principles of accessible ebooks that we will discuss later, were developed in 2009 by the W3C and collected in WCAG, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The W3C is an international organization created to establish technical standards for the web regarding markup languages and communication protocols - including ePubs - and is the standard language used to develop ebooks. Today, the technological solutions for the creation, control, and distribution of ebooks, according to the WCAG specifics, are provided by the Daisy Consortium, a project begun in 1988 for the development of a 'talking book' (Digital Audio-based Information System).
What is an accessible ebook? The four basic principles
An accessible ebook is a digital book whose content can be adapted to different reading needs using assistive technologies, normally used by blind and visually impaired people, and defined by four key principles: to be perceptible, usable, understandable, and solid. Let's analyze them individually:
Perceptible: all senses must be able to 'perceive' the content of the electronic book. Specifically:
- all non-textual elements must be accompanied by alternative and descriptive textual content;
- audio and video content must be accompanied by alternative content, such as subtitles;
- it must allow the use of sufficient contrast to make things easy to see and feel.
Usable: the reader must be able to interact easily with the electronic book. This means that:
- all features must be accessible from a keyboard and not just from a touchscreen;
- the text must be smooth and adjustable to guarantee readers the necessary time to enjoy the content;
- it must not contain visual elements with sudden movements or sudden changes in brightness because they can cause sudden attacks in people with photosensitive epilepsy problems;
- content must be easily found online.
Understandable: the content must have a simple and sequential structure. Specifically:
- a text must be easily readable, with simple and linear characters;
- content must appear and 'behave' in predictable ways - for example, avoiding overlaps or the use of background images.
Solid: the content must remain accessible over time and therefore must be developed with programming which maintains its durability. Accessibility must also be guaranteed when technology advances, allowing the use of different applications, including assistive programs.
The technical requirements of an accessible ebook
To be considered accessible, an electronic book must meet specific requirements set forth in the European Accessibility Act guidelines:
- Update or add metadata indicating the degree of accessibility of the electronic book.
- Ensure the presence of the 'text to speech': a term that allows text to be read vocally. This programming also identifies and describes the graphic elements in an ebook by voice, therefore each image must be accompanied by alternative text content.
- The formatting of the text must always be editable to facilitate reading. For example, the font size, the alignment, the choice between serif and sans-serif fonts, the spacing, the contrast, and the background must all be modifiable.
- The insertion of pagination with anchor points is an additional function required in the table of contents, which must be well structured and detailed. Pagination allows you to easily identify and find specific points within the text.
- The structure of the content must be linear to facilitate the reading flow. In addition, acronyms and initials must always be accompanied by an extended description, and the text must not have italics, underscores, or be all capitalized.
Aligning with new accessibility guidelines: the new StreetLib developments
Accessibility should not be considered just rules to follow but a valuable inclusion tool that guarantees everybody equal opportunities for using content. The European Accessibility Act brings us a step forward in the perspective of inclusion and is a decisive innovation goal for the publishing industry. The latter should immediately consider these guidelines, to ensure that all readers can enjoy content without limitations. To this end, we are working to integrate new features within our platform and provide all the necessary tools so that publishers can create accessible ebooks with StreetLib Write, check the level of accessibility, and easily distribute them on StreetLib Store - where we are planning to highlight the accessibility features for each title in the catalog.