The Indiana University eText Experience: Recipe for Success

10 Accessibility of the eText Platform and Accommodating Access

Brian Richwine, Manager, UITS Adaptive Technology and Accessibility Center at IU Bloomington


An early concern for IU was how accessible the eText platform would be to IU’s students with disabilities. How would the adoption of an IU eText affect a student with disability’s access to textbooks, and how accessible are the platform’s rich annotation features? IU’s IT accessibility staff developed a relationship with Courseload’s technology director and development staff. Courseload staff analyzed the accessibility of the eText platform and explored the challenges universities face in providing textbook accommodations. Courseload met with other universities and created an Accessibility Advisory Board (AAB) to gather input on accessibility requirements. (Note: In 2015, Unizin acquired the Courseload software assets—see timeline.)

Challenges in Accommodating Textbooks

When the IU eText program started, publishers were only beginning to understand the accommodation of textbooks for individuals with disabilities. Receiving an accessible format (in any form) of a higher education textbook directly from a publisher was unheard of—even receiving a largely inaccessible PDF copy of a textbook from a publisher as an ADA accommodation request frequently took weeks, if the request was even fulfilled (only about 70% of publisher copy requests were being fulfilled).

To counter this reality, IU’s alternate media center provides students with disabilities a “Scan, Read, Achieve” service where student-purchased textbooks are chopped (unbound), run through high-speed duplex scanners, and then converted into an accessible format specifically tailored to meet an individual student’s needs and preferred format. The alternate media formats needed vary widely and include zoned ‘KESI’ files for Kurzweil 3000, reading order corrected PDFs for TextHelp Read&Write Gold, large-print or high contrast versions for students with low-vision, accessible eTexts with described images and math (DAISY, accessible Word documents, EPUB), and braille+tactile images for students with very low vision or blindness.

Accommodating textbooks by converting them into alternate formats takes considerable time and effort. Before that work can even begin, alternate media staff need access to the textbook. Delays in receiving textbook information from course instructors and in receiving a copy of the textbook either from a publisher or from the student mean potential delays in providing a student access to their textbook.


How Courseload/Unizin and IU’s eText Program Facilitate Textbook Accommodation

IU realized early on that the accessibility of the IU eText program depended on two focal points: access to the textbook and access to the eText platform’s rich annotation features. The IU eText program addressed both points:

  • Access to the textbook
    • Publishers faced a long journey before they would be producing accessible eText materials that meet the needs of students with disabilities.
    • The benefits of using IU eTexts formed an incentive to early adoption and publication of required textbook information. Meeting the program’s “soft” ordering window dates means that disability service staff have access to a course’s textbook information as soon as a student registers for the course section. This eliminates delays in gathering required textbook information.
    • Publisher contract language includes provisions where IU can either immediately obtain clean PDF copies of a textbook directly from Courseload (Unizin) or the publisher must provide a PDF upon request within two business days.
    • Alternate media staff thus gain sufficient time to perform the conversion of the PDF into the student’s required alternate media format. They deliver the alternate formatted textbook to the student, ensuring the original print page navigation is available.
  • Access to the platform’s annotation features
    • University accommodation staff could not provide equal access to the eText platform’s dynamic annotation features. This required the eText platform’s interface and annotation features to be natively accessible to assistive technologies so all students have 24/7 access to those benefits.
    • Courseload (Unizin) partnered with universities and the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) so the eText platform interface and annotation features are accessible and usable via common assistive technologies.
  • Fitting it all together
    • The “Alongside” accommodation approach
      • The “Alongside” accommodation approach was created to enable a student with disabilities to receive textbooks in their preferred form (Kurzweil 3000, TextHelp Read&Write, accessible EPUB/DAISY/Word, braille, etc.) and to access the platform’s annotation features.
      • By ensuring the alternate formatted textbook maintains accurate page navigation and fidelity to the original eText’s page numbering, the approach makes it possible for a student to use their alternate format version of the textbook and find any page annotations in the eText platform. For example, a screen-reading software user can simply “Alt-Tab” from their accessible eText to the annotations in the eText platform.
    • Support
      • Communication is key. The accessibility and accommodation procedures for the IU eText program are discussed in a student’s disability services intake interview if they are authorized for textbook accommodation.
      • Students are offered training and support in using the IU eText platform via their assistive technologies. As stated earlier, confronting and interacting with an eText platform can be unfamiliar and intimidating for any individual, let alone a student needing to access such a platform using their assistive technologies. To ease the learning curve and increase confidence, IU’s assistive technology support staff provide student training.


A Move toward Native eText Accessibility—Reducing the Need for Textbook Accommodation

Today, most of the large textbook publishers have significantly matured their accessibility awareness and have developed processes to produce “born accessible” eTexts. For example, Pearson, MacMillan, Cengage, and other publishers participate in industry-wide digital publishing standards groups to address the many aspects of producing accessible eTexts. Along with this progress by publishers, many universities are successfully getting instructors to create accessible instructional materials.

With this increased availability of born accessible eText materials comes an increasing expectation of the accessibility of eText platforms. The ability to ingest eTexts, process accessibility features, present the eText accessibly, and provide basic accommodation features (such as built-in text-to-speech) to users of many diverse needs is now required.

IU participates in industry groups, works with publishers, and continues discussion with Unizin so all can work towards a future where eText platforms are natively accessible and provide many common textbook accommodation features. When all publishers and platform providers succeed in implementing this common standard, eText platforms could directly meet the textbook access and accommodation needs of students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, hearing impairments, and many visual impairments.


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Accessibility of the eText Platform and Accommodating Access by The Trustees of Indiana University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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