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IMS Global Accessibility Key Principles For Digital eText Materials (EPUB)

The IMS Global Learning Consortium Accessibility Innovation Leadership Network has developed this public draft articulating nine (9) principles that all higher education institutions should consider when adopting, developing, and using digital course materials to ensure accessibility equity for all students. These principles are meant to help guide discussions and policy decisions as institutions are increasingly becoming more accountable for ensuring that all students have equivalent access to learning materials.

For the purpose of this document, it is essential to differentiate between the types of digital course materials created by publishers and those created by faculty and students. Within the context of publisher created course materials, there are generally two types. The first is EPUB, which delivers a textbook in a digital format similar to a Kindle and iBook and should adhere to a set of agreed upon open standards coordinated by the International Digital Publishing Forum/World-Wide Web Consortium (IDPF/W3C) and supported by IMS Global Learning Consortium. The second most common type is digital content in a web-based platform containing web-supported file formats that is typically kept on a publisher’s server and delivered via a publisher’s proprietary interface. Examples include Pearson MyLabs and Mastering, McGraw-Hill SmartBook, Cengage MindTap, etc.

Although these nine principles can apply to the breadth of course material types, the focus of this document is to support the cohesive and consistent delivery of EPUB-compliant and/ or accessible course materials.

The Content

Accessibility can not be achieved unless digital course content properly marked up and tagged following accessibility coding standards.  

  1. Format selection: While it is possible to make PDF content accessible, the dominant standard that has emerged is the EPUB format. It has accessibility features built in and provides support for advanced accessibility markup as well. Choose EPUB for all your content (see www.idpf.org/epub/a11y/accessibility.html).

  2. Accountability: This is an area where everyone benefits from accessible course materials.There is a number of points within the course material adoption process for ensuring accountability:

    1. Entities (e.g. institutions, departments, faculty, etc.) adopting the material need to be aware of its accessibility

    2. Campus-contracted book supplier or bookstore, with their strong publisher relationships, should be part of the solution by helping adopters and institutions ensure that digital books are in EPUB format

    3. Institution needs to have clear guidelines that are broadly shared with all stakeholders (e.g. faculty, staff, administration, etc.) for adopting compliant digital content and outlining the implications to the institution, faculty, and students when non-compliant materials are adopted

    4. Accessibility offices need to communicate range of services available to students and adopters making it clear where and when help is available

  3. Compliance: In the United States, content producers need to ensure that all materials meet and conform to the accessibility criteria that is required by the U.S. Department of Justice and follow the current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 AA as published and maintained by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Digital books should conform to the EPUB standard (currently version 3.1).

  4. Usability: All eTextbook content must provide an equally effective experience for all learners. Compliant content must be correctly marked and tagged with metadata as it is defined in the EPUB Accessibility Standard (example: descriptive alt tags). This ensures that the etext is accessible as stand-alone content. Usability transcends technical conformance and it is always recommended that human usability testing is conducted.

The Platform

Having accessible content is just the start; you must have a platform (reading system, application, etc.) to open the content that is also accessible.

  1. Interoperability is critical for the rest of the ecosystem to provide users with accessible etexts. Requiring that etexts comply with the current EPUB standard ensures that the content is interoperable with the majority of the commercially available readers. This extends to:

    1. Interoperability at the content level -- follow accessibility requirements for EPUB

    2. Interoperability with assistive technologies -- as specified in the requirements for EPUB

    3. Interoperability with reading platform and screen readers

The Provider Channel

How a student gets their content used to be a simple process. In today’s higher education environment, however, there are many options. The important thing to remember is that accessibility support for the channel is equally as important.

  1. Personalization: Course material content (e.g. etexts) supports the ability for any student or accessibility office to format content to meet their personal needs and preferences. A framework is included in IMS Global’s  AccessforAll™ - Accessible EPUB Publications and described in the Personal Needs & Preferences specification. This includes the enlargement of text and graphics, color and contrast, and navigation.

  2. Certification: Publishers and other course content providers need to supply to verification of the accessibility and compliance to the EPUB standard. EPUB accessibility conformance statement document can be found at inclusivepublishing.org

The Adopter

Often overlooked in this discussion, “end-to-end” accessibility on a campus starts with the selection of the content. When an instructor is deciding which textbooks and materials to use, understanding the accessibility of the content and the platform on which the materials are delivered are important considerations.

  1. Access & Inclusivity: All students have the right to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use.

  2. Transparency: Faculty and students have the right to know if and how course materials considered for adoption, or that have been adopted by third-party suppliers, meet the current EPUB and Web Accessibility compliance standards prior to adopting or purchasing the content.

    Institutions have the right to know as part of the adoption, procurement, and vending processes the level of accessibility and compliance with the EPUB standard for all course materials provided by third-party providers and with what software and devices the content interoperate.


We would like to thank the following contributors, IMS Global Accessibility Innovation Leadership Network participants, who lent their personal expertise to develop the document. Their intent was to create a resource that would inform and help facilitate conversations on accessibility requirements as they relate to digital textbooks (etexts). The hope is that its thematic, high-level approach will support institutional leaders and other stakeholders as they advance their practices and requirements to meet accessibility expectations.

Individual contributors:

Rachel Comerford, Macmillan
Rick Johnson, VitalSource 
Travis Lee, University of California, Office of the President
Brian Richwine, Indiana University
Madeleine Rothberg, WGBH
Jonathan Thurston, Pearson
Christian Vinten-Johansen (ILN chair), Pennsylvania State University