"In the Information Age, access to information is a fundamental human right." from George Kerscher's presentation to the United Nations, Bangkok 2002
Copyright © 2004, DAISY Consortium
Much of the work of creating effective public policy in the technology arena is accomplished with the help of nationally and internationally recognized standards. The Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) is a standard that is recognized worldwide as an ideal approach to making content accessible to all. Publishers' collaboration is critical so that consumers, including those with print disabilities, can begin to experience the full benefits of the multimedia standard which was created with universal Design in mind. Published content, encoded in semantically rich XML, is the essential ingredient used to transform information into a multimedia product offering multi-sensory access to text, images, and sound. As publishers make the transition to XML-centric publishing processes, we should work together to ensure that access to information is a by-product that will easily and cost effectively be achieved in the new era of publishing.
Published works contain a wealth of information that has historically been difficult or impossible to access for individuals unable to read standard print. Now, organizations that are committed to information access for everyone and are working with publishers can effectively utilize the publisher's XML source files. These source files, in conjunction with the flexibility of the DAISY standard, enable an extraordinary level of access to both the printed word and emerging multimedia technologies that has never before been possible.
The Information Age started when more than 50% of the population was employed in providing information. In the USA, this happened in the early 1970's. An entire generation has now been raised in the Information Age. Education, employment, and even recreation depend on the availability of information. This realization prompted the assertion that, "In the Information Age, access to information is a fundamental human right" (from George Kerscher's ITC experts panel presentation to the United Nations, Bangkok June, 2002). Persons with disabilities which prevent them from reading print have long been deprived of access to the same information as the rest of the population. However, advancing technologies and the supporting standards are making it possible to meet these fundamental human needs in our information society.
Publishing is also undergoing a revolution. Web-based publishing, electronic publishing, and multimedia presentations are leading the way towards a new era in publishing and a new definition of what it means to "publish". To "publish" means to make public, and in the Information Age, publishers have a social responsibility to help meet the fundamental human rights of citizens with print disabilities. Leaders in our society recognize this social responsibility and are enacting policy that reinforces it.
The DAISY standard is recognized worldwide as the ideal approach to providing navigable and accessible information to persons with print disabilities. Today, some 31 countries are represented within the Consortium. There are 11 Full Members, some 45 Associate Members, and 15 Friends. The organization has grown at an especially impressive rate during the last few years. We estimate that currently more than 100,000 unique DAISY books have been produced by participating Consortium Member organizations.
The DAISY standard is widely recognized within the international community of libraries serving blind and print-disabled people. It is also an official information standard. In March 2002, The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) endorsed this standard. Both of these are formal standard setting bodies recognized in the United States. The initial and continuing concept of the DAISY Standard is a fully international standard, and to that end, the DAISY Consortium is planning to move this standard toward adoption by the International Standards Organization (ISO).
The first step is for publishers to commit to making their works fully accessible to persons with print disabilities. The commitment should be a corporate business decision that becomes fundamental to a publishing house. Ideally this would be a corporate social policy, because persons with disabilities have the fundamental human right to read published information. From a legal perspective, publishers should see the trends in policy and legislation that make it clear that this is now, or will shortly be, required of them. The solid business case, however, comes from both the marketing arm, where the publisher sees a competitive advantage in having a full-featured version available for anybody, including persons with disabilities; and from the production arm where XML becomes the backbone of the publishing process.
Publishers moving into the new era of information recognize the importance of XML in their publishing processes. XML makes it possible to create new highly functional, media-based products that reach new markets, and it can reduce the cost of creating multiple products for the print, eBook, and multimedia markets. Publishers should recognize that the disability community is not asking for anything fundamentally different from what is demanded by XML file preparation techniques; instead, we want to build on this publishing innovation.
Once a publishing house recognizes the importance of accessible information, it should begin to create semantically rich XML files that can be transformed to conform to DTBook, the Document Type Definition (DTD) defined in DAISY 3, the ANSI/NISO Z39.86 standard. The DTBook DTD has been designed as a "conversion" DTD, to make it easy to provide published works in a standard format. Publishers who have XML in their work flow should be able to easily convert (transform) their files to conform to DTBook. Commonly used transformation tools, such as XSLT, can be used to automate this process. Publishers who have not yet made the transition to XML will find a host of XML conversion service companies who can cost effectively produce DTBook files from their existing production files.
A comprehensive set of training materials is being developed to support moving content into DTBook. The first of these is the Structure Guidelines that explain the semantics of each tag (element) by reference to the Chicago Manual of Style. A comprehensive set of complementary training and sample materials is in the process of being developed to assist accessible format producers, publishers, and conversion companies.
These XML files can then be distributed to organizations serving persons with disabilities. In many countries one or more libraries serving the needs of individuals who are blind or print disabled is established to make accessible format materials available to qualified persons in that country. Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) in the USA is the nation's educational library for persons with print disabilities. Equal access to information will take a significant leap forward when publishing companies make DTBook files available to organizations like RFB&D, braille printing houses, state or provincial materials centers, or university and school districts which are able to take full advantage of the production advances these XML files provide.
It is important to design the next generation of electronic works for use by all groups of readers, and this can be done through the use of the multimedia standards established by the W3C and the DAISY Consortium. The fundamental technology at the heart of emerging multimedia is "Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language" (SMIL), a standard of the W3C. The specifications used in DAISY 3 and earlier versions of the DAISY specifications use SMIL to synchronize text, audio, and images. Video and animation can also be incorporated into materials produced using SMIL. There are proprietary multimedia systems on the market today, but reading materials produced using SMIL have been proven to be accessible to those who cannot read standard print. Not all products which claim to be accessible or to produce accessible content actually live up to that claim. A product may allow access, but that access may be cumbersome, limiting and far from parallel to the access a sighted reader has when using print. New product development plans should incorporate SMIL, and set strict requirements that published works must be both accessible and fully functional for persons with disabilities.
Libraries serving persons with print disabilities have a long history of providing accessible information. These libraries have considerable expertise in meeting the needs of people with print disabilities and have an ongoing role in applying this expertise in the production of DAISY books. They can also serve as liaisons between publishers and consumers so that both publishers and libraries serving persons with print disabilities can work cooperatively to improve and increase access to information.
Organizations with experience in providing DAISY content typically serve a readily available consumer base of qualified individuals with print disabilities. Publishers can be confident that their accessible content is distributed to those who traditionally have been both limited in their selection of accessible reading materials and who traditionally have had to wait extended periods of time to have access to the same material that their sighted peers have access to. When publishers provide semantically rich XML files, they will be helping libraries make more content available in a timely manner. XML files will lessen the duplication of effort and ensure that the resulting content is both fully accessible and truly enabling.
These organizations serving people with print disabilities have years of experience in crafting descriptions of figures, charts, graphs, and pictures necessary to enrich and clarify the text. Visually represented information, such as images, can be incorporated into a full DAISY production with text and audio synchronized together.
Public policy needs to do four things:
Policy makers should ensure that semantically rich XML files are delivered to the alternate format producers with as much lead time as possible. There are many XML tag sets in existence today, and unless the semantics of the tags are understood, it may be too complex for some alternate format producers to use efficiently. If various tag sets are used by the publishing community to deliver files, some of the gains made by receiving the XML files may be lost in time required to develop expertise necessary to utilize differing tag sets. DTBook is a powerful but simple tag set well known within the community of producers of accessible reading materials. Braille translation software, for example, natively supports DTBook. There are also Digital Talking Book (DAISY) production tools that "understand" the DTBook vocabulary. Using DTBook reduces the complexity of the production process and speeds the production and delivery of the alternate format works. In the educational environment, time is of the essence; students must have their reading materials at the same time as their sighted piers, this is their right. Policy-makers should therefore explicitly state that DTBook is the official XML tag set to be used to establish the "publisher to alternate format producer flow" of semantically rich XML files, and to establish the regulations that require publishers to provide these files.
Note: Publishers will use many different XML tag sets, but these all should be easily translated into DTBook; we are not suggesting that any requirements be placed on publisher's internal processes.
One would hope that publishers would want to voluntarily produce new products that will work for all. This is called "Universal Design" or "Design For All." The policies that are established should reinforce this goal. If it is made clear to developers that their products used in schools and in business must be completely useable by persons with disabilities, then we will see the needs of a traditionally neglected portion of our population served by mainstream software and information systems. It is critical to ensure that the products are designed for all people, and that persons with disabilities have access to a full-featured product.
Finally, we must recognize that publishing is undergoing technical change. The DTBook tag set will evolve, and modules will be identified that extend the functionality. For example, MathML is a module developed by the W3C. This and other modules can be used to extend the functionality of DTBook. Several pieces will need to be put in place before these modules can be used effectively. The Structure Guidelines will need to incorporate this markup, training materials will need to be developed, and reading system software will need to support these extensions. The complexity and perhaps the difficulty in creating an effective policy relates to how we point to what is already in place, and at the same time, plan for the future. It is not always clear how this can be accomplished. But policy-makers should identify ways to have policy stay abreast of enhancements to relevant standards.
In 1991, the Texas Braille Bill was passed in the USA by the Texas legislature, and for the first time, publishers were required to provide files to facilitate braille production. In the following years, many different bills were passed in other states. Still other legislation went into force designed for the college level. More than 30 bills are now in force that require publishers to provide files. One of the major difficulties has been the lack of a standard file specification which publishers can use to deliver the files. Hundreds of different file formats were noted in the laws, and none were fully specified. The need for a "National File Format (NFF)" was recognized.
In 2002 the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act (IMAA) was introduced as national legislation. This bill has not passed, but the provisions it describes are being moved forward through different mechanisms. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), Department of Education, an agency of the U.S. Federal government, awarded a grant to the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) to convene an expert committee to identify a National File Format and to make recommendations associated with access to educational materials. The set of recommendations from this committee was delivered to OSEP in October 2003. While this committee was doing its work, the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has been moving forward through the House and Senate. Language in this bill borrows from the IMAA and calls for the identification of a "National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (IMAS)." There are other provisions that are currently under review, but it seems certain that through one mechanism or another, a National File Format will be established.
The Association of American Publishers (AAP) strongly supports the IMAA and the re authorization of IDEA in regards to the provisions relating to providing accessible versions of textbooks to students with print disabilities. Note the June 26, 2003 press release:
The Association of American Publishers (AAP) praised the actions taken by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee in approving legislation which would create a new infrastructure to allow elementary and secondary school students who are blind or have other print disabilities to receive accessible versions of textbooks and other print instructional materials in a timely manner.
Among its key provisions, the legislation would (1) require all states to use the same standardized national electronic file format for the conversion of textbooks and other core instructional materials into accessible formats; (2) mandate that publishers provide such print instructional materials in the form of a properly-formatted electronic file to a central repository for their timely and convenient distribution to authorized entities for conversion into accessible formats; and (3) establish and authorize funding for a National Instructional Materials Access Center which would be responsible for cataloging, storing and distributing the electronic files provided by publishers. "This new legislation will significantly improve access for students who are blind or have other print disabilities," said Patricia Schroeder, President and CEO of AAP. "Providing a 'level playing-field' for blind and other print-disabled students by giving them access to instructional materials in accessible formats will open up many new opportunities. AAP applauds the leadership of Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who first proposed the provisions as separate legislation in the last Congress, as well as that of the Committee's Chairman and Ranking Member, Senators Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), respectively, for including the provisions in the IDEA re authorization legislation."
The OSEP committee facilitated by CAST has selected DTBook, the XML portion of DAISY 3, the ANSI/NISO Z39.86 standard that defines the textual content. It seems clear that alternate format producers are better suited to add value by producing the figure descriptions and other information that is needed that is disability specific. Another recommendation is that the work of the committee should be ongoing; as the technology evolves, the requirements would be updated. Specific mention has been made to extensions to DAISY 3 that would add support for math and science. It is expected that future committees will work closely with the Z39.86 Advisory committee.
The DAISY Consortium is committed to extending the standards and expanding their implementation. Math and science are areas where work is needed. The MathML module developed by the W3C is a natural direction to take. However, the supporting production software, training materials, sample reference implementations, and support in reading systems must be in place as part of the implementation process. Once this support is in place, it would be appropriate for policies to be extended to include math and science. This can be said for other modules that are developed over time as well. As the standards and the implementation evolve, the policy should follow suit.
Dr. Lawrence Scadden, former Senior Program Director for the National Science Foundation's Program for Persons with Disabilities, has been following the evolution of the DAISY Consortium. Dr. Scadden, in email correspondence July 22, 2003, had this to say:
With the increased use of electronic and multimedia instructional materials--both textbooks and laboratory workbooks--it is essential that methods be developed to make mathematics and scientific notation accessible to students who are blind or have other print disabilities. Use of these electronic media are already posing a new and serious barrier to the education of these students in disciplines essential for many employment options in the modern world. XML and the MathML module contain the elements that can provide this accessibility. Publishers must be encouraged to help extend current standards and then to adopt them for production of functionally accessible materials.
In December of 2003, the first World Summit on the Information Society was held in Geneva Switzerland. Representatives from The DAISY Consortium were among the many organizations involved in the preparatory work for this key summit. The principles and supporting standards established by the DAISY Consortium are expected to be a model for information systems used worldwide. The documents delivered at this meeting were made available in the DAISY format, so that people from around the world could experience universally designed content and reading systems. Once the leaders of nations have an understanding of the technology that has been developed and the significant benefits that it brings, it is hoped that legislation will follow around the globe. This long needed legislation would require that information be made available to all in a feature rich information system through universal, open, non-proprietary standards that have a proven track record of accessibility, because in the Information Age access to information is a fundamental human right.