Adobe eBooks – Update on Accessibility Support

A few inquiries have come in about a press release earlier this week by the Reading Rights Coalition noting that the Los Angeles Public Library has suspended purchasing eBooks compatible with Adobe Digital Editions, because there is no accessibility support in our solution. This post is intended to clarify the situation and provide an update on our roadmap.
The basic concern of the Reading Rights Coalition is legitimate. Adobe Digital Editions is a PC application that replaced the eBook support that was present in older versions of Adobe Reader. While there are many new capabilities in Adobe Digital Editions, most importantly support for epub in addition to PDF, and overall its more consumer-focused user interface, Adobe Reader did support screen readers and a “read out loud” feature, neither of which is presently in Adobe Digital Editions. This is a regrettable situation. It stems from the fact that, for a number of reasons, we made the decision to build Adobe Digital Editions in a technology called Adobe Flex, targeting the Adobe Flash desktop runtime that became Adobe AIR. While the browser-based version of Flash Player has for quite some time included accessibility support, the desktop configuration has not, and neither the AIR team nor our Digital Editions team was able to incorporate accessibility support in our respective version 1 implementations.
We agree completely that eBook accessibility is critical. Adobe is helping to create the cross-platform standard for interoperable eBooks. Clearly, accessibility support is a fundamental requirement. One of the key motivations for supporting epub was that it was a more structure-based and thus more inherently accessible file format makes. So, the current situation is simply unacceptable.
So what are we doing about it?
First, the next major release of Adobe Digital Editions, expected within the coming year, is going to support accessiblity features. Earlier this week, Adobe previewed AIR 2, and we disclosed that screen reader support was going to be included. This will be a key enabler for us.
Additionally, Adobe has begun working with several vendors of accessibility-oriented software and devices to get them access to Adobe eBook rendering and DRM technology via our Adobe Reader Mobile SDK, so their solutions can consume Adobe eBooks. Our Reader Mobile SDK is not a revenue generator for Adobe; our standard terms are focused on proliferation (and with 17 announced licensees so far this year we are doing pretty well on that front). This is similar to the Open Screen Project for Flash licensing. But since many accessibility vendors are either nonproffits or have limited financial resources, we have gone even further in extending extraordinarily favorable terms to get them access to our portable document technology. I expect we will be able to make some specific announcements around this very shortly, but the bottom line is that there will soon be multiple means for visually-impaired end users to consume Adobe eBooks.
One still controversial issue is that some publishers are concerned lest non-visually-impaired consumers get access to “read out loud” functionality that would potentially undercut sales of audio books. Adobe plans in this regard are to support in our DRM system a permission setting that will enable publishers to disable “read out loud” functionality in software systems that are NOT focused on the visually impaired. But, we plan to default this permission setting to “enable” and recommend strongly that publishers not set it to “disable”. As well we plan to exempt accessibility-oriented software from being limited by this setting. We feel this approach will strike an appropriate balance between giving publishers the rights to determine how to distribute their copyrighted content, and ensuring that accessibility is provided.
Again, the current situation is unfortunate. As someone who has helped foster the adoption of epub, including the decision to support DAISY as a type of basic content within epub, it is a black eye for me personally that Adobe’s solution does not presently provide accessibility support. I am grateful that the Los Angeles Public Library has only “suspended” purchasing Adobe eBooks, and I look forward to working with our partners to, in short order, remedy the situation.