[Guest Post] Disability Inclusion in the Publishing Industry: The New Accessibility

This week we celebrate the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which is designed to promote the rights of people with disabilities throughout society, and to raise awareness of both the issues faced by people with disabilities, and what action needs to be taken to resolve these. I am a visually impaired person who has worked in the publishing industry for about 12 years, and am currently with Elsevier. I lead Elsevier Enabled, an Employee Resource Group representing people with disabilities throughout the organization. Our mission, and that of similar groups at other publishing houses, is to create more disability inclusive environments for people to work, by raising awareness of the challenges that currently exist, educating colleagues on best practice, and working across the company to remove policy and process barriers that may prevent people with disabilities from fulfilling their potential. 

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There are currently several initiatives within the publishing industry aimed at increasing access to published materials for people with disabilities. The Accessible Books Consortium includes organizations that represent people with print disabilities such as the World Blind Union (WBU); libraries for the blind; standards bodies, and organizations representing authors, publishers and collective management organizations. It works with publishers to increase the number of books in accessible formats for people around the globe who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled. These accessible formats include braille, audio, e-text, large print. They have published an Accessible Best Practice Guidelines for Publishers, which provides practical advice for content providers of all sizes. 

The migration from print to e-publishing has also seen accessibility becoming a more prominent issue. Elsevier have a Product Accessibility Commitment, which pledges to ensure all its products are ‘fully accessible to all users, regardless of physical abilities’. Pearson and Hachette also publish guidelines denoting best practice in this area on their respective websites. Publishers have also begun to understand how what was previously considered specialist assistive technology for people with disabilities, can now be commercially harnessed to enhance their products and platforms. After all, mainstream products that we now take for granted, including the remote controlfingerprint recognition software for the smartphone, and voice command technology (such as Siri) all started out as accessible solutions designed for people with disabilities, and are now mainstream solutions being used by millions of people around the world. Taylor and Francis have recently unveiled their partnership with Readspeaker, which allows users who are logged into their online e-book portal to change the font and background styles and have the text read out loud. Whilst great for visually impaired people, this feature is also helpful for the rest of the population, too.  The rise in popularity of audio as a medium for consuming book content, and the improvement in the quality of text-to-speech technology in recent years indicates that similar text-to-speech solutions might well become more widespread in the near future. This is great for people with disabilities…and everybody else! 

The challenge now is to match this undoubted progress with similar progress in terms of the recruitment, retention and development of staff within the publishing industry. As the gatekeepers for content – whether scholarly or literary – we have a responsibility to reflect the diversity of our readership, because diversity of background leads to diversity of perspective. Furthermore, if we are not diverse, we cannot expect to be able to attract a diverse range of authors. This means we risk missing out on talented authors if we are not actively including people from all backgrounds, including disability. The figures that are available suggest that people with disabilities continue to be under-represented within the publishing industry. According to a survey by the UK Publishers Association at the start of 2019, only 5.4% of respondents identified as having a disability. By contrast, 15% of the global population of working age have a disability. Overall, in both the US and UK, people with disabilities are 30% less likely to be employed than the rest of the population. The reasons for this are, of course, complicated, but the fact remains that, as an industry, we are currently failing to represent a sizeable section of the community that we serve. 

I find this perturbing and perplexing. When I look at people I work with within Elsevier Enabled, I see super talented people. I see people who have not just refused to let a disability prevent them (us) from having a fulfilling career, but, rather, have used some of the skills they have gained as a result of combatting their disability to be successful at work. Some of these include problem solving, resilience and resourcefulness. It may also include planning and relationship building, as people with disabilities work with others to make sure environments and situations are accessible to them. These are all qualities anybody would want within their organization. On a personal level, the reason I became involved in disability inclusion is because those are the qualities that I want people – hiring managers, in particular – to see when they meet someone with a disability, particularly when that person is a candidate in an interview room. I care deeply about the work we do in the publishing industry – it really is very important – and I want to see is, as an industry, do a better job at representing this sector of society in our workforces. It’s great to be able to use the UN International Day to highlight this. 

It has been extremely heartening to see how much awareness of diversity and inclusion has increased within the publishing industry in recent years. In 2019, Elsevier appointed a full-time Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Adam Travis. He has been instrumental at leading cultural change within the organization, and bringing professional inclusion expertise to the organization. This week, we officially celebrate the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities with a talk by Francesca Martinezand a panel discussion featuring the Elsevier CEO, Kumsal Bayazit, herself a passionate advocate for disability inclusion. LexisNexis, Elsevier’s sister company, are also part of the Change 100 disability internship programme in the UK. The growth of employee groups promoting disability equality, as well as those promoting, gender, race and LGBT equality at several leading publishers including Elsevier, Springer, Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press have provided a focus for discussion and a resource for raising awareness within organizations.  Reflecting on the cultural change that has taken place since I first entered the industry, it is clear we are just at the start of the disability inclusion journey within the publishing industry, but at least that journey has now begun. 

Periodically, CCC invites solution providers to share their perspectives on key challenges facing the industry. This post does not imply endorsement of a particular opinion or vendor.

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Author: Simon Holt

Simon Holt is a Senior Acquisitions Editor at Elsevier, where he is also chair of Elsevier Enabled, a network representing employees with disabilities in the organization. He is based in the UK. He is campaigner for disability inclusion in the publishing industry, and sits on the SSP’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee. All opinions presented in this post are the author’s individual perspectives.
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