Accessibility is becoming increasingly important in the publishing industry as the new European legislative framework requires the entire digital publishing industry to become accessible to persons with disabilities and elderly people by June 2025.
The European Accessibility Act will set new EU-wide minimum accessibility requirements for a range of products and services, including e-books and the digital publishing ecosystem; its scope is to strengthen the right of persons with disabilities to access goods and services available in the EU internal market. The Directive will have an impact on the whole publishing value chain, from publishers to distributors.
In this scenario, many publishers are nowadays in the process of adapting their production and distribution workflows to provide e-books that are accessible since their first publications and services such as research and purchase fitting the needs of print disabled users. This shift will also improve their capacity to increase readers ‘engagement, by making the wide EU catalogue of digital publications available to everyone.
On the other hand, being a reader is not only about reading books, but even about connecting with authors, publishers and other readers. Since physical and digital book fairs are important social and cultural occasions to build a bridge between the publishing world and the audience, accessibility is one of the main topics of interest of the Aldus Up – Building Bridges in the Book World, a large-scale cooperation project co-funded in the framework of Creative Europe Programme 2014-2020.
At this purpose, Fondazione LIA, an Italian not for profit organization that promotes the culture of accessibility in the publishing field, carried out a survey about the accessibility of European book fairs, under the coordination of the Book studies department of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and in collaboration with the Research Department of the Italian Publishers Association.
The survey represent the first available analysis at EU level on the theme, especially from a qualitative point of view as the most representative European book fairs took part in the research: professional fairs – Bologna Children’s Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair and Liber International Book Fair – as well as generalist fairs – Latvian Book Fair, Buch Wien, Vienna International Book Fair, Più libri più liberi (Rome), Vilnius Book Fair, Bookfest (Romania), Lisbon Book Fair, Thessaloniki Book Fair, Bokmässan – Göteborg Book Fair, Madrid Book Fair, Napoli Città Libro, International Istanbul Book Fair, Salone Internazionale del Libro di Torino, Book World Prague.
A structured questionnaire, prepared after a fruitful dialogue with the participants about existing practices, was submitted to each of them to investigate four areas of interest:
- Physical accessibility;
- Digital communication channels;
- Initiatives on accessibility both for general public and professionals.
According to the European Disability Forum there are over 100 million persons with disabilities living in the European Union and according to the World Health Organization it is estimated that in Europe there are over 2,550,000 blind persons and over 23,800,000 with low vision.
Accessibility is about giving equal access to everyone. Without being able to access the facilities and the services found in the community, persons with disabilities will never be fully included. In most societies, however, there are innumerable obstacles and barriers that hinder persons with disabilities. These include such things as stairs, lack of information in accessible formats such as Braille and sign language, and community services provided in a form which persons with disabilities are not able to access. This principle applies either to physical or digital spaces.
A crucial aspect of accessibility in every organization and in every field, is the development of a culture of accessibility, encompassing different aspects, with the goal to make it a shared value rather than a responsibility of a single team or department. At this regard, most of the book fairs already considered how to improve the physical fair experience for people with disabilities: a fair collected opinions about its level of accessibility among persons with disabilities, another one asked visitors’ feedbacks about their experience, two of them trained some employees on the theme, and the majority has already established different partnerships with organizations representing persons with disabilities.
As for Universal Design – the design of products, environments, programmes, and services to be usable by all people without the need for adaptation – it is still a practice already adopted by half of the book fairs.
Accessibility of physical spaces
Accessibility of physical spaces is the area where many initiatives are already in place. All book fairs provide barrier-free entrances, halls, corridors, toilets and ticket offices. Rest areas, meeting and conference areas and wardrobes are in most of the cases accessible, according to the respondents. Reserved parking slots for people with disabilities are also available in a large majority of book fairs.
Furthermore, reduced or free tickets are also available in most of the cases, and most of book fairs have appointed a responsible to take care of accessibility.
Orientation is a crucial issue for people with a sensory impairment such as persons with sight or hearing loss or that have a physical disability. The most used signages are visual and audio, some fairs have both audio and visual signage, but only one has tactile-plantar signage.
Half of the respondents provide assistance of devoted personnel and volunteers and three of them organize also special guided tours or offer other customized services for people with disabilities. The support for sign language during events is provided by 2 fairs.
The third area of research was the accessibility of digital communication channels with the goal to understand how book fairs communicate digitally to their visitors, both professionals of the book sector and generic public.
Accessibility, especially related to digital communication activities, is still a new topic for bookfair as it is for the publishing industry.
When it comes to digital accessibility (publications, event programs, web platforms, websites, social media, catalogues, newsletters, documents, videos) there are some cases of excellence but many book fairs are still in the process of understanding how to implement accessible practices, mostly due to lack of knowledge on what digital accessibility is and which are the technical standards to follow as this theme is still very new in many different sectors.
The production of accessible documentation for example is a theme where there huge improvements and adjustments will be required, not just by book fairs but by every content producer.
As for videos, widely used especially in the pandemic years during online events and conferences, it is important to provide subtitles and closed captions. Captions are designed for viewers who cannot hear the audio in a video, while subtitles are designed for viewers who can hear, but do not understand the language spoken in the video. As some fairs are already providing these services, many others state that are working on it.
In this section accessibility has been analysed regarding the inclusion in the professional program of events organized during the fairs or in specific events addressing the inclusion of people with disabilities in the cultural program.
Events can be an effective way of promoting and communicating accessibility, by offering book professionals the opportunity to widen their knowledge and skills on how to create and distribute accessible publications. They can also promote awareness on the relevance for everyone to access to contents among the general public. Between 2019 and 2020, apart from some exceptions, due the pandemic the overall number of meetings and conferences offered by book fairs has diminished remarkably.
Apart from the exceptional situation of 2020, answers show that 15 book fairs out of 16 have a programme of meetings and conferences. Until now, 4 book fairs have already organized events and online seminars about accessibility for the professional audience, often in collaboration with Fondazione LIA. The European Accessibility Act and its implications for the publishing industry have been the main topic of these events.
Concerning the general public, 4 book fairs have organized events on the theme of accessibility.
To promote inspiring causes and initiatives, 5 fairs also have a “charity of the year initiative” and 2 fairs provide awards for initiatives regarding accessibility.
This survey, which aims to be a first step towards the implementation of more accessible best practice to enhance the attention to accessibility of book fairs, highlights that overall European book fairs are already informed on the theme and have started to implement accessibility-related practices in regards with architectural aspects and providing fundamental assistance services in the fair location to support the participation of persons with disabilities.
Getting to know users’ needs and working alongside organizations representing persons with disabilities and with accessibility experts is important to learn more on the subject and foster the adoption of accessible solutions. Furthermore, the adoption of the ‘Universal Design” approach, also defined “Born accessible”, should become the driving value for any activity in order to allow everyone to have a rich experience.
More specifically, for the accessibility of the physical spaces could be useful the designation of a responsible person, professional training for the personnel, the provision of different kinds of signage, and customized services for people with disabilities. Supporting the exhibitors to better enhance the experience of the visitors during their staying and offering services for sign language interpretation during the event or conference and for subtitles and closed captions during online events could be further initiatives to put in place.
Moreover, a deeper knowledge of what digital accessibility means in terms of standards, formats, guidelines and tools could help making more accessibility-focused decisions. Making online contents and activities accessible for people with disabilities according to standards is a step required to guarantee equal access to digital initiatives thus increasing audience engagement for all visitors: websites, conferences platforms, videos, applications documents, social media channels should all be developed and maintained in accordance to accessibility requirements. Subtitles and captions should be implemented in all cases as the choice of the digital platforms should be accessibility-driven.
Lastly, the organization of workshops, seminars and discussion about accessibility for book professionals as well as for generic public could further provide chances for improvement and discussion, especially in regard to the European Accessibility Act.
The goal is to work so that accessibility is seen as an ecosystem where all the aspects are connected together, since the lack of one element could undermine the whole system and the efforts to create the others.
Aldus Up will continue monitoring the situation and support the adoption of accessible practices as book fairs represent a crucial place to raise awareness in the publishing sector.