Photo of a boy reading an ebook on a device Photo of a boy reading an ebook on a device
Read all the news

Accessible fixed layout EPUBs? First draft of W3C best practices published

Research and development

Is it possible to create accessible publications in EPUB fixed layout format? We know how challenging it is to make fixed layout publications with accessibility in mind.

For this reason, the EPUB Fixed Layout Accessibility Taskforce has begun to identify some best practices for making fixed layout files more accessible. The taskforce is an international working group led by Wendy Reid (Rakuten Kobo) and composed of accessibility and digital publishing experts, focusing on how to make FXL EPUBs more accessible. Gregorio Pellegrino (Fondazione LIA) has been part of the taskforce since the beginning and contributed to the discussions and to the document preparation.

The taskforce has recently published a first draft of the “EPUB Fixed Layout Accessibility” document. It is a starting point to explore possible solutions to make fixed layout EPUBs more accessible: full accessibility of fixed-layout documents is not currently possible, as a fixed layout format makes it difficult to have control over the formatting of the text (for example, for readers with low vision or dyslexia).

The goal of the taskforce is to continue to work on the draft, testing the proposed best practices and improving the document. Any feedback from the wider publishing community will be more than welcomed.

In the area of accessibility for digital publications with fixed layouts, Fondazione LIA also pioneered with the implementation, in 2023, of one of the first EPUB fixed layout in the world with a focus on accessibility:

Accessible fixed layout EPUBs: a new research project by Fondazione LIA

The format

When we talk about fixed layout EPUBs, we are referring to a format that allows each graphic element to be placed in a defined position on the page, similar to what happens in paper layouts or with the PDF format. This is a very different rendering from reflow formats in which the user has control over the graphical presentation of the content, which automatically adapts to screen size and user desires (font size, font type, text alignment, text and background color, etc.).

These formats are often used in specific publishing sectors, such as children’s books or comics. In some cases they are also used for manuals and non-fiction, such as travel guides and recipe books, where the layout tries to replicate the paper version.

Best practices contents

Among the first goals the taskforce set for itself at its inception in 2021, there was the need to precisely identify best practices useful to content producers on how to ensure that FXL EPUBs can better meet accessibility requirements.

An important first step for the taskforce was to identify an official definition of EPUB fixed layout that takes accessibility into account:

An accessible fixed layout EPUB file is one that meets the accessibility requirements of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.x level AA and EPUB Accessibility 1.1, including color contrast, reading order, font layout, structural navigation, accessibility metadata, and text alternatives. Not all WCAG success criteria are applicable to EPUB documents, a more detailed list can be found in section 1.4.

In addition to this initial statement, a number of best practices are presented in the paper that address the different aspects that need to be considered in the creation of FXL EPUBs and for their enjoyment by all, such as the application of EPUB accessibility success criteria to content with fixed layouts.

Main sections of the document are:

  • content accessibility: reading order, images and alternative texts, navigation (table of contents, page lists), legibility, tables;
  • accessibility metadata for various types of publications;
  • accessibility guidance for reading systems.

In parallel, Fondazione LIA also conducted some experimental tests with print impaired people. Initial results showed that a FXL EPUB publication can be enjoyed without great difficulty by blind users with assistive technologies (text to speech, refreshable braille display), but it remains challenging for users with low vision or dyslexia, since the user has no possibility to change the formatting of the text to their liking and according to their needs (font size, font type, text and background color, etc.).

The taskforce’s work continues in the search for innovative reading modes that allow fixed layout content to be enjoyed in a reflowable mode, that is, allowing the user to control the graphical representation of the text.

The published document is a draft for which feedback comments are requested. The full updated document can be found at this address: www.w3.org/TR/epub-fxl-a11y.