Accessible Publishing: No Longer Bound by the Book

As information and activities transition to digital conception and delivery, the technology available to persons with disabilities must keep pace in order to fight info-exclusion. But designers of assistive technologies must be looking towards the shape of information access to come, not back to print-based paradigms.

Currently, that ubiquitous and familiar information-carrier, the book, is undergoing a complex transition to digital form. So many assumptions about knowledge and information are tied to print-based materials. Pages, Chapters, Table of Contents (ToCs) are deeply ingrained concepts that help us organize our thoughts and the world around us. New digital media must account for the long-standing traditions represented by the book form.

However, as the book form intersects with digital technology, surprisingly complex structures are being revealed, which, rather than point out the limitations of ‘old-fashioned print’, actually illustrate the boundaries of digital interfaces. In other words, the presumed simplicity of the book form has masked the truly complex information structures it can support.

The problem then for designers of assistive technology is to realize that the most obvious navigational features of the printed book – ToCs, chapters, and pages – while still useful, only scratch the surface of the sophisticated orientation, discovery, navigation, and manipulation of information needed to provide full access to information in digital form.

We need to shift away from basing assistive technology on reading habits and navigation techniques developed by visual readers. The truth is, those habits will not suit visual readers in the coming digital literacy any more than they will suit readers with visual-disabilities. While vestiges of print-culture will remain long after the source is gone (like using units of ‘horsepower’ to measure an engine), new modes of information access and manipulation will become dominant. Complex information, such as that embodied by textbooks and reference works, will need new access models, and for those models to be accessible, we must look beyond the book.