Authorship and Accessibility in the Digital Age

Tags: Technology Policy

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Internet has opened up the opportunity for creators to reach worldwide audiences. Authors can transmit digital creations in a matter of seconds by simply uploading an article or ebook, sharing a video, or posting a blog entry.1 However, authors can reach an even wider audience if their digital creations are accessible to those with disabilities.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) defines people with disabilities as “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”2 Today, nearly half a billion people worldwide are deaf or hard of hearing, while an estimated 253 million people are blind or visually impaired.3 In the U.S., nearly 5% of the population has an intellectual or cognitive disability.4 The CRPD preamble rejects a traditional medical model of disability in favor of a human-rights-based conception, noting that “disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”5 This model recognizes six domains—cognition, mobility, self-care, getting along, life activities, and participation—and emphasizes societal and environmental barriers that should be addressed to improve access.6

Inaccessible digital content is one of those barriers. Over the past decade, significant strides have been made toward making digital content more accessible. The proliferation of authoring tools with accessibility features, technical standards, legal and regulatory requirements, institutional practices, and increased education and awareness have increased the accessibility of digital creations.7

Notwithstanding this progress, the prevalence of inaccessible digital content continues to be problematic for people with disabilities. Content distributors such as Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon have been at the center of lawsuits over accessibility issues.8 Universities have similarly struggled to offer content in accessible formats. In August 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that the University of California, Berkeley was in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the University’s public legacy library, which included over 20,000 publications on the university’s YouTube channel and iTunes U platform, failed to meet the ADA’s accessibility requirements.9 The UC Berkeley case is just one of many; other universities face similar lawsuits.10

These examples have drawn attention to the problems that arise when content is not made accessible at the outset:

  • People with disabilities are denied the opportunity to access content on equal terms;
  • Authors have difficulty sharing their works with people with disabilities; and
  • Content distributors face the costs of retroactively making works accessible.

While discussion has focused on the responsibility of content distributors and public accommodations in making works accessible, little attention has been directed at the role authors and authoring tools play in digital accessibility. Many authoring tools lack or do not fully support relevant accessibility features, and authors may be unfamiliar with their use. Moreover, many authoring tools are not fully accessible themselves, hindering the ability of disabled authors to participate in creative ecosystems.

Against this backdrop, Authors Alliance, the Silicon Flatirons Center, and the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology co-hosted a roundtable to examine the roles that authors and technologists can play in ensuring that the knowledge and creativity contained in digital works is accessible to people with disabilities. These organizations share an interest in ensuring that the exchange of ideas and culture afforded by the Internet is open to all. Authors Alliance and its members worry that gaps in digital accessibility may obstruct the objective of reaching readers because they mean that authors’ works may not be accessible to all readers, and because authors’ works may be taken offline if they fail to meet accessibility requirements. Silicon Flatirons is committed to serving as a forum for developing ideas about how evolving technology, law, and policy can serve the public interest, including through its affiliated Samuelson-Glushko Technology Law & Policy Clinic, which regularly advocates for accessible technology through initiatives in telecommunications, intellectual property, and related areas. The Berkeley Center for Law and Technology supports conversations about the role of authoring tools in enhancing accessibility online as a part of its broader mission to support the optimal use of technology to advance the public good.

The roundtable brought together content creators, technologists, attorneys, academics, and advocates to discuss some of the opportunities for and barriers to the creation of accessible digital content. The roundtable was organized into a three-part discussion:

  1. Authorship and Accessibility. Participants reflected on the relationship between authors and accessibility, discussing authors’, educators’, and technologists’ interests—both ethical and legal—in making works accessible. During this session, participants further discussed the consequences of inaccessibility for authors, technologists, educators, and people with disabilities.
  2. Accessibility in Authoring Tools. Participants discussed the technologies that can enable authors to create and distribute their works in accessible formats. During this session, participants focused on the critical role that technologists have in developing and marketing authoring tools that facilitate accessibility; the tools that are currently available to authors and educational intuitions to make works accessible; and the gaps that exist in authoring tools that technologists have the opportunity to fill.
  3. Looking Ahead. Participants reflected on the conversations from the day, identifying and synthesizing the issues that most inhibit authorship and accessibility.

This report compiles insights from that roundtable, identifying some of the issues that encumber authorship and accessibility in the digital age and opportunities to address those issues. As a threshold matter, this report recognizes that these barriers exist in a certain social context. One of the main inhibitors to authorship and accessibility is the lack of awareness among many authors of the need to make their works accessible at the outset of creation. Against that backdrop, the aim of this report is modest. Although it contemplates solutions to improve the accessibility of content, its broader purpose is to spur more conversations among content creators, technologists, academics, and lawmakers to consider ways to cultivate an environment where accessibility is intrinsic to the content creation process.

First, the report considers the legal framework that governs questions about authorship and accessibility, which animated much of the discussion at the roundtable. It also provides an overview of existing technical authoring tools that can the improve accessibility of digital creations. Second, the report reviews the discussions from the roundtable that centered on obstacles to accessibility—namely, authors’ lack of awareness of accessibility needs and flaws in existing technical authoring tools—and shares initial suggestions raised by roundtable participants to address these issues.

Know What’s Next