Overcoming the challenges of accessible publishing


Almost five years ago, I learned about my first major project as a fresh Typefi employee: I was to implement a multilingual, multi-format accessible workflow at a specialised agency of the United Nations. No pressure!

Fortunately, I am multilingual and had a lot of experience with multiple formats, but I had no idea what this accessibility thing was all about.

Needless to say, the learning curve was high. However, I did not have to go at it alone: colleagues had done some of this work before, and the internet is a veritable treasure trove of information.

Now, after five years of helping Typefi customers successfully implement accessible publishing workflows, I have learned a thing or two about accessible publishing challenges—and how to overcome them—that I would like to share with you.

Why do we even do this?

That is not a question I came up with as I was writing this blog, but quite literally the one that gets asked most often when we talk about making content accessible.

One of the issues is human nature: we have a big blind spot for things we are not directly confronted with. If you are lucky enough to be a part of the 90% of the world[1] that can consume content without a problem, it is easy to forget that 10% of the world cannot.

A second issue is the human brain: the moment that there is talk about disability, it conjures up pictures of Sir Stephen Hawking in his chair. However, we forget that less extreme forms of disability are far more common, and can make a big difference when it comes to accessing published content.

For example, I have a disability in the form of red-green colour blindness—a visual impairment that affects about 8% of the male population worldwide.

It doesn’t make me a danger in traffic because I can see the difference between red, orange and green traffic lights perfectly. But if you design a table that uses tints of red and green to differentiate between positive and negative results, I will have a really hard time consuming your content.

Based on my experience, content creators are roughly divided into three camps when it comes to producing content in accessible formats.

Those who must.

If you are working for or are a part of a UN agency or government institution, then chances are very high that you need to make your content accessible, as dictated by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and national legislation such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (US).

Those who see an opportunity.

Though somewhat rarer, I have certainly worked with companies that were not required to provide their content in an accessible format but have decided to do so anyway.

Whether the opportunities these organisations see are of a monetary kind or spring from an inclusive mindset, there are a few things to think about:

  • 90% of the world’s content cannot currently be read by blind or partially sighted people.[2]
  • By 2030 the number of elderly people (60 years and older) with various disabilities will reach an estimated 1.4 billion.[3]

That’s a lot of consumers who need accessible formats in order to experience your content.

Those who just don’t see it (yet).

Whether the reasons are technical, monetary, or practical, some organisations just aren’t ready to implement accessible publishing yet.

Challenge 1: Thinking “visually”

Formats such as PDF are a big challenge; or rather, the challenge is what PDF as a format represents—a visual depiction of information.

In the early days of the internet, PDF was almost the only way for publishers to offer heavily designed content in a digital space. This—combined with the fact that the 90% of people that can see PDFs tend to naturally preference them over less visually appealing formats—has led to PDF becoming a de facto standard for digital publishing around the world.

More accessible digital formats—such as HTML, reflowable EPUB, and DAISY—are much less visual than PDF. Though HTML can do a lot of amazing things from a design perspective, it is not (yet?) up to par with PDF. Reflowable EPUB is a step below that, and DAISY doesn’t have any visual beautification at all since it is a format entirely dedicated to being read out loud.

Therefore, these formats can be quite challenging to “sell” to content producers, despite the fact that content created in these formats can be more readily consumed and understood by almost anyone.

It can also be hard for sighted content creators to overcome their natural visual bias. During one of the implementations I guided, the customer reported during testing that the alternative text would not show up in the PDF when they hovered their mouse over a graphic.

They did not realise that a person with a visual impairment would not hover a mouse over the image. Rather, their read-out-loud software would read the alternative text to them.

Challenge 2: Authors or editors?

One of the biggest challenges that content publishers face is who is responsible for actually making the content accessible. I have noticed this personally when implementing workflows, but it is also a message I picked up at industry events.

To clarify this statement, let’s take a step back and determine what makes content accessible. The exact requirements depend on various factors like local legislation and organisational guidelines, but the following are bare minimum requirements:

  • Descriptive alternative text for graphics and charts;
  • Tables that are not images and which are designed for representing structured content;
  • Proper heading structure (Heading 1 is followed by Heading 2, not Heading 3).

Generally, the author—being the subject matter expert—is best suited to ensure their content conforms to at least the first two basic accessibility guidelines. Unfortunately, practical examples show that many authors do not have accessibility ‘front of mind’ when they write.

This means that the responsibility regularly falls to the editorial and design staff. However, they are often faced with heavy pushback when they do suggest redesigning a graphic or a table to be more accessible.

Challenge 3: Technology

One might think that technology would play a large role when thinking about the challenges of accessible publishing, but this is far from the truth.

Sure, technology guides decisions for accessibility, like “Which EPUB readers we support?” and “Do we make a DAISY version as well?”. But my experience as a Solutions Consultant is that decisions related to technology are easily made.

No matter which technologies you choose, they are all useless if you don’t use them correctly. To give you an example, most digital technologies have support for displaying alternate text, but if you don’t provide alternate text for your graphics, the technology can’t make it magically appear.

In conclusion

Accessible publishing may seem like a daunting task filled with technological pitfalls and endless discussion. There is no doubt that accessibility requires some changes in the way organisations work, and how the people within those organisations think.

But these are not unsurmountable obstacles by any means! Overcoming these challenges simply requires awareness, commitment, and follow-through.

There are plenty of online resources available to help you start creating accessible content and, of course, if you’re a Typefi customer, you have your Solutions Consultant to guide you.

Remember, some accessibility is already a whole lot better than no accessibility at all. So, make a start today—the 10% will thank you!


  1. World Report on Disability. World Health Organization. Accessed 15 May 2018.
  2. Marrakesh Treaty Ratification and Implementation Campaign. World Blind Union. Accessed 15 May 2018.
  3. World Population Ageing 2015 Highlights. United Nations. Accessed 15 May 2018.

Guy van der Kolk

About Guy

Guy van der Kolk first got hooked on publishing while attending an international school in Ivory Coast, where he used Pagemaker, Photoshop and an Apple Quicktake 100 camera to help create the yearbook. After many hours of hard work, while holding the final printed product, he knew this was an industry he wanted to be a part of.

Having spent the first 17 years of his life in West Africa, Guy is fluent in three languages and has a multicultural background that has served him well in his career. As an IT consultant and trainer for an Apple Premium reseller and now as a Senior Solutions Consultant for Typefi (based in the Netherlands), he has spent the last 15 years training thousands of people to get the most out of their software.