Westchester Words: UK and International, Education and Edtech

Accessibility in Educational Resources

March 08, 2024 Westchester Education UK and International, and guests Season 2 Episode 3
Accessibility in Educational Resources
Westchester Words: UK and International, Education and Edtech
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Westchester Words: UK and International, Education and Edtech
Accessibility in Educational Resources
Mar 08, 2024 Season 2 Episode 3
Westchester Education UK and International, and guests

Westchester Education Content and Services Manager, Emma Hudson, speaks to Stacy Scott, Head of Accessibility at Taylor and Francis about accessibility in educational publishing, including some of Stacy's own experiences as a visually impaired student, what it means to create 'born accessible' content and tips about what publishers need to think about when the European Accessibility Act comes into force in 2025. 

Find all of our episodes on your favorite podcast platform or at our website.

Show Notes Transcript

Westchester Education Content and Services Manager, Emma Hudson, speaks to Stacy Scott, Head of Accessibility at Taylor and Francis about accessibility in educational publishing, including some of Stacy's own experiences as a visually impaired student, what it means to create 'born accessible' content and tips about what publishers need to think about when the European Accessibility Act comes into force in 2025. 

Find all of our episodes on your favorite podcast platform or at our website.

[00:09] Emma Hudson: Hi, and welcome to Westchester Words. I'm Emma Hudson, content and services manager at Westchester Education. Today we're talking about a crucial topic that's at the heart of educational publishing, accessibility. I'm here with head of Accessibility from Taylor and Francis, Stacy Scott. Stacy, welcome and thanks for joining me.

[00:31] Stacy Scott: Hi, Emma. Thank you so much for having me. And definitely a crucial topic to me.

[00:35] Emma Hudson: Yes, definitely. It'll be fascinating to talk about today as well. Firstly, tell us about your role as head of accessibility.

[00:43] Stacy Scott: Absolutely. So, as you mentioned, my name is Stacy Scott, and I'm head of accessibility for Taylor and Francis, which is an academic publisher. So, my role involves being responsible for setting the accessibility strategy. And this is across all different departments, across Taylor and Francis Publishing. So that includes books, journals, websites, platforms, even marketing. So making sure that the content that we're putting out there is accessible. So, it could be are our tweets accessible? Do they have alt text? Do they have a camel case for hashtags and things like that? So it's very broad across the business.

[01:22] Emma Hudson: Thing that must keep you very busy.

[01:24] Stacy Scott: Yes.

[01:24] Emma Hudson: For those who might be new to the concept, could you explain what accessibility means, especially in the context of educational resources?

[01:33] Stacy Scott: Yes, it's a really good question because I hear accessibility being talked about in a variety of different ways. Sometimes we mean are our customers able to discover the content. So I've seen it used in that way as well. And often when we're looking at disability, we talk about accessibility in terms of the physical environment. But what we're talking about here is digital accessibility. And I guess more broadly, what we like to talk about born accessible solutions. And certainly in the context of education, when we talk about digital accessibility in terms of resources, it's making sure that anyone with a print disability, and that could be visual impairment, it could be dyslexia, dyspraxia. It could be a physical impairment that inhibits the ability to hold or manipulate the pages of a printed book. It's ensuring that everybody has access to the printed word, or the digital printed word, if you like. And so that means looking at creating books into formats that are accessible for everyone as much as possible, so that everyone has an equal experience.

[02:44] Emma Hudson: Brilliant. And I think it'd be really good to talk about some of the common accessibility challenges, and you touched on them slightly there that students face when they're using educational materials. And if you're happy to share, it would be great to hear some of your own experiences of that as well.

[03:00] Stacy Scott: Absolutely. So for me personally, when I went to university, I started off doing sort of HST subjects, so your sort of social science and things like that. And it was great. Apart from back then, I had to take every journal, every book that I had bought or borrowed, and I had to scan them one page at a time into a scanner so that I could read them with my text to speech screen reader, because I'm registered as blind. And so this is fine in terms of the computer reads back to me everything that I need it to, and it's all done through keyboard input. But when you're scanning page after page after page, sometimes I would scan an entire book or journal and it wouldn't have turned out correctly, or it would have been upside down, or it wouldn't be the journal that I needed. I'd scan an entire book just to find one quote that I needed, because I wouldn't be able to find it on the page. And so it was extremely challenging and I was very jealous because everyone else at uni was out there in the pub. I was just alone with a scanner. 

That was my university experience, certainly at the start, and it drove me to actually switch degrees. And I ended up doing a math degree in the end, which in some ways was more visual, but in a lot of ways more accessible, because it meant that I didn't have to scan all of these books because we worked very much off the acetates given to us by the lecturer. And a lot of it was more kind of one to one learning. So whether that was in a lecture theater or workshops and the classroom setting. And so from an accessibility point of view, that worked a lot better for me.

But flashing forward X number of years, then, it's a different world. And so we have things now, like my prior role, I was the head of the Bookshare Service UK. And what that service does is basically, it works to put all publishers materials onto the Bookshare platform so that it can be accessed by any student with a print impairment. As I talked about earlier, that service exists in other countries as well. We have Bookshare US we have in Canada, Australia, all over the place, and it can be accessed internationally as well. And so it means that there are literally. I mean, Bookshare UK. I moved to Taylor and Frances at a frustrating time, just before we reached a million books. Just to be able to get there was amazing, because I remember talking to the team saying, do you think we could ever get to six figures, like 100,000 books? That would be crazy. And the idea that we were then celebrating quarter of a million, half a million. A million. It's amazing. And these books are all available from about 1200 publishers. Entire back catalogs, all new books coming out are all available on the Bookshare website for free and in different formats to suit user need. 

And that's an example of where things have changed. But also we've seen the emergence of so many advancements in technology, advancements in the way in books, and also standards that have been set. And so now we can take an EPUB and have a fully accessible version of a book, and EPUB is certainly my preferred option. I know some people still favor the PDF and you can make fully tagged, fully accessible PDFs as well. Personally, I still find them difficult to navigate with the screen reader. It's EPUb all the way for me. I think EPUb is a lot more flexible, but it's a different world. And a couple of years ago I actually studied a course where I got to use Bookshare. And so I studied for a year, I used Bookshare. And to compare that to my experience at university is like night and day. It's so different just to be able to type in the name of the book that I needed. There it is. Download it, read it. It was heavenly. It really was. To be able to experience that in the way that I wish it had existed when I was at university.

[07:05] Emma Hudson: Just goes to show how quickly things are changing and in the right direction as well.

[07:10] Stacy Scott: Absolutely.

[07:11] Emma Hudson: Thank you for that. That's really interesting to hear how things have changed in quite a short space of time, really. And it'd be interesting to see what's to come as well. 

Stacy Scott: Yes.

Emma Hudson: I think a lot of publishers at the moment are aiming to promote inclusivity and to make their resources more accessible. Could you share some best practices for publishers when creating accessible content that benefits all students?

[07:37] Stacy Scott: So one thing I always say, and I mentioned it earlier, is that we really need to all be taking the born accessible approach. So going back and you're making your content and considering accessibility 2nd, 3rd or fourth in the list is going to create more work and more expense in the long run. And as I say, you can't unscramble an egg, right? So it's a lot more cost effective. If you make your content born accessible, consider the accessibility requirements right from the start and you never need to worry about it again. You've made it inclusive for everybody and it's there and it exists. And so that's one of the key things that I would say. 

Now, making sure that you're informed is obviously a massive part of that, and there are some wonderful resources out there and I could list so many of them. But we have the inclusive publishing initiative through the Daisy Consortium, and one of the hats that I wear is I'm the chair of the Publishing Accessibility Action Group for the Publishers Association, and that group brings together anyone who is working or who is involved in the digital accessibility space. That could be publishers, vendors, aggregators, end users, anyone who has any interest or any questions or just wants to be part of the learning that goes on in that group. So I would say that that's the second key thing. It's making sure that you are informed and you're joining these groups because there are so many others out there and they're all free. And there's places where you can get advice, information, watch tutorials, or come to a group that's completely free, like the Accessibility Action group that I mentioned, and get full support from all the colleagues working in that space. 

Think about it right from the beginning, be informed in terms of what you need to know, implement it, and then I would say, promote it. Because one thing is there's very little point in making your content fully accessible and then hiding your light under a bushel. Tell people it's accessible. Look at making sure that that accessibility is in the metadata so that it's discoverable as accessible, because otherwise nobody's going to know. And that would be such a shame because they could be using an iteration of a book that's not accessible to them and they're struggling with it, or they have to get someone to read it to them, or they're missing out on parts of it whilst you've got an accessible version there. So making sure that people know that you're working on accessibility, that you're doing it, and that that content is available, is also really crucial.

[10:16] Emma Hudson: Absolutely. That's some great advice. I attended my first accessibility action group recently and it was just lovely to have everybody just sharing ideas and knowledge. It's a really great space, so I hope more people take advantage of that.

[10:29] Stacy Scott: It was lovely to have you.

[10:31] Emma Hudson: Thank you.

[10:31] Stacy Scott: And we want it to be a safe space. And we always say that there are no silly questions because some people are further down the line, but quite often people are brand new to it and so we are all just sharing experiences. And actually, sometimes the people that are brand new to it ask a question and it goes around the table and people go, I hadn't thought of that. Okay, someone take a note. And so everybody always brings such value to that group and it's a pleasure to cheer it. It really is.

[11:00] Emma Hudson: So we've spoken quite a lot about the moral reasons, but there are, of course, legal requirements as well around accessibility. And for people listening from Europe, we have the European Accessibility act coming into force in 2025. Stacy, could you talk us through what publishers will be needing to think about for this?

[11:22] Stacy Scott: So the European Accessibility act is very long, and it's very complicated, I would say. So the reason I mention this is because I wouldn't want a publisher or a vendor to start looking into this and going, oh, this is far too big for us. This is unwieldy, because actually it can be broken down into some key components. A lot of it's about taking steps on the road. And so you don't have to have met every single bit of criteria in the EAA, but you do have to be moving, regardless of whether or not you're a large publisher or a small publisher, a small vendor, everybody has a part to play, and I think that's really important to know. 

Accessibility is not an island to use that code. I think it's really important that anyone looking at the EAA is able to draw on that support that I mentioned earlier. But some of the key things that we'd be looking at for the EAA is, are you trying to make sure that your books are accessible? For example, if you're a publisher and the content that you're distributing is predominantly scanned PDFs, those are going to be the least accessible documents you could possibly be giving out. And it sounds incredible to say this in 2023, but there are some publishers who still use that. That would absolutely be a no-no, because you cannot, unless you've run it through optical character recognition, it is not viewable by a screen reader user in any way whatsoever. And so you are cutting off anyone with a severe visual impairment from using or interacting with your content at all. So making sure that if you're using PDFs, that they are OCR, that they have proper tagging, and they have a hierarchical structure. 

And so, again, you can look at resources, you can join groups, stakeholder groups, you can look at how to do all of this. The other is looking at, could we make it more accessible? So could we actually offer an EPUB version? Because EPubs, for example, if you want to put them in the Bookshare platform, you're giving them in a secure environment to students who need them in a variety of different formats. Now, a PDF can only really be used as a PDF, but if you put through an EPUB, an EPUB can easily be converted to an MS Word Doc and even electronic Braille. And so you can take that EPUb and you can say, okay, I either want to print it in hard copy Braille, so you've got your massive Braille books, or you can take it and you can read it with what we call an electronic Braille display. It's a small device where the Braille dots lower and raise depending on what you're reading. And so every time you change a line, the dots will flatten and raise again in a different pattern so that you're reading it. And what that basically means is you have an entire library that you can carry in a handbag or a rucksack.

Things like that are so important because if you choose the right accessible format, it doesn't just stay as that format. It then opens up a world of other uses and formats for people with print disabilities. I think that's something that's absolutely crucial and a big part of what the EAA is looking for. And then, of course, you can consider other accessibility aspects. So, for example, we've made a beautiful Epub document. It looks great. We can convert it into Word, but it's full of pictures as well, because sometimes we like to make books look really pretty with pictures, or they may have some complicated diagrams in them, or graphs or charts. How does somebody with limited vision access that content? And so alt text or long descriptions, if it's more complicated, are absolutely necessary. 

And again, this is something that we talk about a lot, and it's not a huge step to take to actually just go and add a brief description to any pictorial content, whether it's a book or a journal or a website or a tweet. Adding that description can make a difference between something being completely incomprehensible to someone with, say, a visual impairment, to being fully understandable? And so making sure you have alt text is always absolutely key. Any content you put out there will not pass the accessibility checks for the EAA if it doesn't contain alt text. 

But the third key thing I would mention, and I've said it before, is about it's the hierarchical structure that's created by putting in proper headings. So just using a style sheet is not going to cut it, because that's cheating, that's giving the impression that you have headings of a different level, whereas that's not detectable by a screen reader. So actually implementing it through code so that you have coded headings. So, for example, even if it's a book or if it's let's say it's a web page or a platform, your introductory heading should be a level one and then following subsequently heading two, heading three depending on the structure. And what that means is a person using text to speech software can simply press the letter H and it jumps them to the relevant parts that they need. It allows them to cycle through in a very logical way the content that you provided. Whereas if you don't put them in, if you imagine trying to navigate, say, a web page or a book with your eyes shut, it's really, really difficult. But if you put those markers in place, it basically just allows somebody who's using a screen reader or text to speech to jump neatly to the next part. Subsequently they can jump backwards really easily. And it's not a lot of work to actually just format something as a heading. And so there are a lot of quick wins, actually, that would get you really, really far, especially when looking at the requirements of the EAA.

[17:05] Emma Hudson: A lot of publishers will be very thankful to hear that as well, that it's just a lot of small steps that they can take rather than one big thing they need to do. It would be great to hear some success stories about how improved accessibility in educational materials have positively impacted students with disabilities, if you have some.

[17:24] Stacy Scott: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we've talked about the difference between when I was at university and now, and I'd certainly consider that a success story in terms of what I was able to access both through what publishers had given me, but also the Bookshare platform that I was able to access. And I think just to touch on Bookshare again, I think we saw a lot of success stories coming out of that, whether it was a student themselves or a staff member or a parent supporting their students. We got a lot of people saying, this is fantastic. I can independently, as I did, search for a book, download a book and read a book. And it sounds so basic, but it meant so much to me and it meant so much to the people that we heard from. 

I think also we can look at success stories from publishers perspectives and also vendors and aggregators who've drawn on the resources we talked about earlier and who've been able to put out more accessible, more born accessible content that is both completely inclusive but also discoverable. And so it's meant that actually they've seen a drive towards their business, because we talk about the purple Pound, which is the money that people with disabilities could spend on your services if you made them accessible to them. And so that would certainly be considered a success story from a business perspective. 

I think also just looking at being able to support, whether it's your customers or whomever, I think making sure that you're offering a fully inclusive experience is really crucial. And through Taylor and Francis, we've seen a lot of people who come to us because they know we offer accessible solutions, both in our content and our platforms. But also, we're very transparent about what we're doing. So we make sure that our accessibility statements are up to date, talking about the things that we've made accessible where we're at in the roadmap, and sometimes in cases of things that we still need to work on. And the other important part of that is that we make sure, and this is crucial for anybody's accessibility statement, is that there is always a key point of contact, so that if something isn't quite right for somebody in terms of accessibility, they know exactly who to contact and they can expect a quick turnaround. So again, we've had a lot of feedback from people saying this is great, that actually we didn't have to wait weeks or months to have this transcribed or to have this converted. We certainly aim to go back to a customer within, I think, 48 hours as a sort of SLA. And again, it makes a huge difference. 

And so, culmination of all of these things, making sure that the content is accessible, the ways of accessing the content is accessible. And that, again, you could look at Bookshare or an in house solution, but it's not enough just to make the book accessible if nobody can kind of get at it. So all of these things making that fully inclusive experience will always generate success stories. And that is exactly what we want to hear. We want to hear that people feel they can access content in a way that works for them and that everything is born accessible and fully inclusive.

[20:49] Emma Hudson: Absolutely. It's always great to hear those success stories, isn't it? And just to remind you about that end user and the difference it makes to their lives and their learning.

[20:57] Stacy Scott: Yeah, absolutely. And also sometimes where they say, this isn't working, this needs to change, and we want to hear, what do you need? What can we do to make this a better experience? Regardless of what sort of condition or disability, whatever you want to call it, anybody's needs, everybody needs to be catered for as much as we possibly can. And we can only do that if we know the roadblocks. And so we really welcome any kind of feedback.

[21:28] Emma Hudson: And now, looking towards the future, are there any trends or updates that you think we should be preparing for?

[21:35] Stacy Scott: I'm going to answer this question in two ways. I would like to see, obviously, more publishers, vendors, aggregators, et cetera, steering towards the European Accessibility act and adhering to the Web content accessibility guidelines. I would love to see more of these businesses, companies bring in lived experience, because I think that is really crucial. How do we learn what we need to do for somebody that has dyslexia or somebody that uses a screen reader? 

And so what I see a lot of in the general world is we see a lot of people saying, oh, we need participants to come and test these solutions that we've built. And so, quite often they'll bring in people with visual impairments or dyslexia, dyspraxia, whatever it may be. Quite often it's visual impairments, especially in digital accessibility. And they say, can you test out this for us? And we'll give you, like, 20 quid for your time. That's a skill set that you really should be making the most use of, because, for example, if you look at me, I've been using a screen reader every day in my personal life for 20 years. And so even if you completely strip out my professional experience, my personal experience gives you a lot to work on in terms of what needs to happen in order to make something accessible to somebody using a screen reader. And so I would like to see a lot more people with dyslexia or with visual impairments actually being the people that implement and support the implementation and rollout of these accessible solutions. 

And so I would say, for me, that's a trend that I would love to see developing a lot more in the future. There's a lot of exciting things coming up. I mean, we've talked about how far we've come in not a very long time, in terms of accessible materials, but also websites, content, and also the guidelines. So we're looking at the European Accessibility Act. But I think it's going to be more interesting with every iteration of that that comes out. It's going to cover more and more aspects, and we're going to get to a point where I'd like to think the sort of utopia of complete freedom of digital access and inclusivity in everything that we want to be able to interact with. 

And so some of this is also going to include looking at AI. So artificial intelligence solutions. I think this is going to be really interesting, looking at how that applies to image descriptions. I think for some image descriptions, this is going to work really well as we start to go forward. But I don't think it's something that's going to completely replace human intervention, probably not within our lifetime, but you never know, because I think that there are some aspects, like if you look at something like mathematics or medicine, chemistry, these kind of STEM subjects, those can be very complicated. And that's where we bring in these long descriptions that I mentioned. So they're basically written a lot. They're much longer than your average alt text, and they're often placed differently in a document, for example, because they're huge. So I'm not sure how AI is going to cope with that, but I think there will definitely be a lot of AI based solutions that we can get really excited about. 

The other trend that we are right on the cusp of, and I've seen even in the past year, some fascinating developments again in the STEM arena. And that's particularly looking at being able to access mathematical content using text to speech software. And there's always been bits and bobs of solutions that have been sort of floating around ever since I did my Maths degree. But what we've never really had is a real easy to understand option where you can just read a book that has some math content in it and be able to then produce your own. And actually, we are now seeing the birth of that software that would allow you to do that. And so personally, I guess for me, both personally and professionally, I'm really excited to see what lies ahead in the STEM arena finally. It's something I've been working on 11, 12 years now. And so I'm really excited to see the idea that somebody could just sit down and study one of these subjects completely independently using a screen reader, is actually a massive step and then be able to enter the job market in one of these subjects as well. Because even if I look at myself, I had a first class maths degree, but nobody would employ me because the perception back then was, well, you're blind, and blind people can't do maths. It's too visual and end of conversation. I think we're going to see a lot of change in that area now, and we're already seeing it a bit. 

But I think the more solutions we put in place, the more digital solutions, the better the accessibility, the more inclusive the experience. It becomes more equal for everybody, both in terms of access to education, but more broadly than that, it's more equitable in terms of the job market, livelihood, financial independence and autonomy. It may start with a book, but actually that can have an impact on somebody's entire life. And so, yeah, I'm really looking forward to riding the next wave of accessibility, I guess, because I think it's going to be fun. I think we're going to see a lot of positive change. We're already seeing it. And so, yeah, I think the next ten years, it's going to be fascinating.

[27:10] Emma Hudson: Definitely. I mean, there's so much there that you mentioned to think about, and I think it's going to be really exciting, especially in the world of StEm, like you said, just to see where that takes us.

[27:21] Stacy Scott: Yeah, absolutely.

[27:23] Emma Hudson: Thank you for that, Stacy. And just my final question now, what's the one thing that you would like our listeners to take away from today's podcast?

[27:32] Stacy Scott: One thing I hear a lot of publishers say, oh, but you know, it's all very well for larger publishers like TNF and others because they've got the resources to be able to implement this stuff. And actually, if you're a smaller publisher, it's more difficult. And I would say, I don't know that I would necessarily go down that route of thinking, because when you're in a large publisher, yes, you have more resources, but you also have more people that you need to convince, more people that you need to align, more people that you need to bring together in order to make a whole process fully accessible. Because as we all know, it's not just one part. It doesn't just exist in one element. There are key elements involved. 

And you could be a publisher who's fully driven, but if your vendors are not on board and they're not giving you accessible content, then you're stuck. There's a whole load of people that need to be involved in a large publisher in order to make the wheel go round, I guess. Whereas actually we've seen a lot of success stories from smaller publishers where there may be ten or 20 people working there, but ten or 20 people who can easily get round a desk or virtually or in person and say, okay, now, what workflow are we going to build to ensure that all of our content is accessible? And so those conversations flow much better, much easier in a smaller publisher. 

And I think there is this, I guess, misconception that to make something accessible is very, very expensive. Now, I would say, again, going back to what we talked about earlier, if you've got a load of content and you need to then go back and you keep doing it, you keep making it, and then considering accessibility second, and then you have to go back and retrofit accessibility, you're just throwing good money after bad. But if you start at the beginning considering accessibility and making your content inclusive for everybody from the start, then actually it doesn't need to cost you any more money at all, because it can be as simple as, as I said, adding headings, choosing the right accessible formats, choosing font that works for everybody or as many people as possible, adding alt text, tagging, none of that costs any more money. And so actually, whether you're a big publisher or a small publisher, it's just as doable. It may just be that the road to get there is slightly different, but certainly the workflow. 

Making sure that that is fully accessible is absolutely crucial. You make sure that accessibility is thought of from day one, and so that everything you produce is born accessible. It makes everybody's life easier, it makes access easier for your customers, it makes it inclusive, equal, and it makes the publisher wonderful for them from a moral standpoint, but also it just makes good business sense. Again, we go back to the purple pound. We want customers, so we need to make things that customers want to buy. And so making your content inclusive involves everybody and brings all customers to your door.

[30:47] Emma Hudson: I think that's a brilliant point. The idea of having accessibility from the beginning and just reminding your team that accessibility might be necessary for some people, but it's useful for everyone. It's so inclusive, and I think it's a wonderful message that you've got there at the end.

[31:05] Stacy Scott: I think we see this a lot in mainstream technology, you know, for, you know, Alexa devices or your Google devices, all these smart home devices, they weren't built to be accessible. They weren't built for people with disabilities. But they have massively benefited people with disabilities because they're born accessible and they're fully inclusive, but they're a mainstream product. And so you can look at things like smart devices or even your mobile phones these days all have accessibility built in. They are all born accessible. And so most people wouldn't realize, like, if you take your iPhone or your Android and you look under settings, you can make it talk, you can enlarge it, you can change the color, the contrast, so many things you can do now and again, it's because it's all born accessible and it just makes for a huge, massive difference in experience and it makes it an inclusive experience for everyone. And so just apply that to your books, apply that to websites, content platforms, and again, you just make it a much better experience, literally, for everybody.

[32:12] Emma Hudson: Thank you, Stacy. I think that's a really great point to end on today. I'm sure you've given our listeners lots to consider and think about for the future. Thank you for your time.

[32:23] Stacy Scott: Well, thank you so much for having me, Emma. It's been great.

[32:26] Emma Hudson: For more podcasts from us, just search Westchester words on Spotify, Spotify, Apple, or Google Podcasts, or find us on our website.