Global Specifications for Accessible Publishing - Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

Posted on : August 4th 2021

Posted by : Viswanathan Chandrasekharan

The digital transformation of the scholarly publishing industry has been underway for more than a decade. As of 2018, 42,500 peer-reviewed journals were producing 3 million articles per year in multiple languages. The vast majority of these articles are now accessed online or in PDF format.

Concomitantly, there has been an increase in the industry’s awareness of digital accessibility, and the industry has begun to focus on making educational materials accessible to people with disabilities.

Accessible digital publications can be read via different modalities: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. The text, non-text, audio, and video content in these publications must also be compatible with a wide range of browsers, platforms, and assistive technologies. Therefore, to ensure compatibility, organizations such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) have created accessibility standards that publishers can apply across product types.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

W3C is an international community that develops open standards to ensure the long-term growth of the web. It is responsible for creating and maintaining the Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG defines how to make digital content more accessible and usable for people with a wide range of physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities.

The current version of WCAG (2.1) consists of thirteen guidelines, organized around four principles of accessibility: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (POUR). Each guideline is accompanied by testable success criteria, which are linked to explanations and relevant techniques.

The four principles of accessibility

Digital accessibility is about more than simply ensuring the content itself is accessible, however. People with disabilities also need accessible tools for creating and interacting with digital content. Hence, WCAG belongs to a series of W3C-authored accessibility guidelines, including the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines (UAAG).

EPUB Standards

EPUB is an electronic-publication format. It is the industry standard for digital publications, managed and maintained by Publishing@W3C. The latest version, EPUB 3.2, supports a broad range of publisher requirements, including accessibility. W3C’s EPUB Accessibility 1.0 specification builds on WCAG 2.0 by addressing EPUB-specific issues such as discovery through package or linked metadata, page navigation, and media overlays playback, as well as optimized publications. For page navigation and media overlays playback, the specification provides additional information for understanding and meeting the objective, and it explains how the objective relates to WCAG. An appendix also defines conformance for authoring tools, distribution systems, and reading systems.

Accessibility Metadata Standards

Metadata can improve the discovery of accessible publications and their features. EPUB Accessibility 1.0 defines the types of metadata embedded in or linked to the EPUB package file. This metadata falls into three conformance categories: required, recommended, and optional. Required metadata identifies access modes (sensory and cognitive abilities required to interact with the content), accessibility features, and accessibility hazards. Recommended metadata provides more specific information about access modes based on content type, and optional metadata relates to reading systems and input methods.

ONIX accessibility metadata delivers similar information with increased granularity, but unlike metadata, ONIX is released into distribution channels. This allows individuals and institutions to make informed decisions about selecting and purchasing e-books based on the products’ accessibility profiles, often before publication.


Common accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 and EPUB Accessibility 1.0 work together to enable accessible publishing. Publishers can also leverage other useful documents, such as the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled and the PDF/UA standard, to make digital content accessible to readers with disabilities.

When scholarly publishers commit to creating more accessible, discoverable, impactful digital content, they increase their potential market share by attracting customers who rely on assistive technologies. In this way, they can turn the challenge of ensuring accessibility into an opportunity.

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