The European Accessible Information Network is a community of organisations and individuals who are examining new approaches to accessible content processing. The EUAIN network is funded by the eInclusion thread of the European Commission 6th Framework IST programme and is co-ordinated by FNB Netherlands (for recent publications cf. sources).

EUAIN brings together the different actors in the content creation and publishing industries around a common set of objectives relating to the provision of accessible information. Accessibility for print impaired people can be an increasingly integrated component of the document management and publishing process and should not be a specialised, additional service. Print impaired here refers to people who are blind, visually impaired or dyslexic. EUAIN takes the broadest definition of content creators and provides the support, tools and expertise to enable them to provide accessible information.

This article outlines the role of trusted intermediaries in accessible content processing workflows, giving examples of successful collaboration between content providers and specialist organisations. The regulatory challenges are also mentioned as are a number of technical and organisational considerations.

Technology and standards to serve groups with special needs are at hand
From a technical perspective, earlier problems relating to the digitisation of materials have been largely overcome and recent formats (such as XML, RDF, METS, MARC21 etc) provide a realistic basis for implementing the different aspects of this work. It is now possible to address the key concerns of content creators and providers and coherently to address issues such as: automation of document structuring, adherence to emerging standards, workflow support, digital rights management and secure distribution platforms.

For example, the recent Forrester Research report which foresaw publishers changing current business practices to match the internet's speed and convenience with the multichannel publishing model is now finding some practical application, which can offer greater consumer choice, variable presentations and delivery which is of crucial importance for those who require alternative formats. In Austria, it has been found that when publishers consider accessibility, their data can be re-used several times for multichannel publishing. As the lifetime of a book gets shorter and shorter, publishers frequently have to offer access to digital versions of that book and taking this into account when constructing the layout brings us much closer to real accessibility in the wider sense. Indeed, it has been the accessibility community that has in many ways pioneered new structures for digital content, as these developments are often borne of need. The recent EUAIN Workshop on Generating Structures examined these developments across Europe and the report is now available.

Similarly, emerging international and European standards provide an excellent basis for the creation of accessible information at a more fundamental level than has previously been possible. Whereas many earlier solutions have been at a ’workaround’ level, with an accessibility component added at the end of the content creation process (if at all), it is now possible to see DAISY 3.0/NISO z39.86 as the de facto XML standard which can allow content creators significantly to enlarge their markets through the adoption of this inclusive format (cf. sources). Indeed, the navigational possibilities afforded by DAISY 3.0 are thus available to everyone, and not solely to those people who are print impaired.

At a European and national level, there now exists a clear desire on the part of publishers and associations of publishers to collaborate closely with experts in this area in order to provide truly accessible materials. Indeed, in several countries recent legislation has added an extra push to these concerns. This convergence at a technical, regulatory and political level means that the pieces of the jigsaw are now in place to make a significant breakthrough in the provision of accessible information within secure environments.

Trusted intermediaries and secure environments
Trusted intermediaries establish a personalised relationship between content holders and specialist organisations whereby publishers and agencies serving blind and partially sighted people work together in a secure and trusting environment to increase the quantity and timeliness of titles available in an accessible format. Within trusted intermediary frameworks, DRM is an enabler of controlled access. A number of different security methods are being developed or are already in use for making content available in this way.

As far as security is concerned, the higher the level the more likely publishers are to allow content to be made available in accessible digital formats. At present, the security systems used are simple, they use basic encryption technologies with key exchange mechanisms. The potential for the release of content is considerable – although there are few recorded instances of such occurring. Once decrypted, content is available to anyone, authorised or not. The ability to attach content to particular devices, or better to provide access only to authorised users, requires a level of DRM sophistication that is not yet generally in place in services catering to the needs of visually impaired people.

By way of illustration, in Belgium the national newspapers De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad are offered in an electronic version (DiGiKrant) and a Braille paper version (BrailleKrant). This is achieved through means of a trusted intermediary. By placing a small specialist team within the newspaper publisher’s offices, the alternative versions of the newspapers can be produced at the same time as the standard newsprint. Other solutions involve the news content being edited by external specialist organisations using online delivery mechanisms or delivery on CD-ROM.

In the Netherlands, an agreement was reached with the Dutch Publishers Association (Nederlands Uitgeversverbond) and the specialist organisation FNB whereby a small fee is paid for each title that is transformed into an accessible format. In addition, publishers have agreed to allow access to digital source files where feasible. This approach is an excellent example of an organisation (FNB) operating as a trusted intermediary and ensuring that the output materials are only given to registered end-users across secure distribution platforms.

In France, BrailleNet (cf. sources) has established contracts with more than 80 publishers and with an organisation managing the rights on behalf of publishers and this is the contractual basis of the Helene Server. Organisations that have been certified get an authorisation for a secured access to source files. The server Hélène contains both literary and school books in French and publishers who have contracted with BrailleNet provide the files. In the UK, RNIB has good working relations with several publishers and has been developing the trusted intermediary concept, and one collaborator is one of the world’s largest publishers.

Challenges ahead
DRM solutions prevent content from being accessed by any person that has not been authorised to do so. This protection can happen at different levels, ranging from opening and reading the document to copying and transforming it. Agencies producing materials in alternative formats to serve persons with disabilities need to access content in order to transform it into formats that are suitable for those who cannot read it in the way it has been originally produced. Naturally these considerations also apply within mainstream publishing workflows where accessibility can also be incorporated.

The European Directive on Copyright (2001/29/EC) expresses the right to access content without any technological protection measures when the exemption for persons with disabilities has been adopted by the national legislation but at the time of writing this EC Directive has been implemented in a variety of different ways. WIPO has also recently included similar exemptions as a recommendation to those countries in the process of setting up copyright legislation. A further problem related with copyright and intellectual property rights has to do with trans-national interchange of materials. Some copyright legislations allow only for the use and transformation of documents within the boundaries of the country where it has been originally produced, which automatically eliminates the possibility of making it available to persons with the same needs, sharing sometimes the same language, in a different part of the world. The World Blind Union (WBU), IFLA Libraries for the Blind Section and WIPO have recently initiated a survey to examine the barriers to international transfer of accessible materials in order to draw conclusions and to make recommendations on any need for changes to national laws or international treaties received the support of many countries.

Alongside these regulatory challenges, a number of technical and organisational challenges are also relevant. In this sense we must see accessibility itself as a process and not a product, a characteristic shared by DRM systems. When considering notions of access, four further issues are noteworthy:

  • access to structured digital formats
Currently there are many digital formats that are inaccessible to persons with disabilities even through adaptive technology. Those formats that are based mainly on images that are not described properly are very difficult to access. Very little attention is paid to structuring information through tagging. Documents that use tags for describing the different elements in their structure (like XHTML or XML) are of great use for those agencies producing accessible materials. Emerging multimedia formats offer opportunities to embrace accessibility issues, especially when they're based in highly structured formats and MPEG is particularly important in this respect. Within MPEG modelling environments, interfacing between Accessibility and DRM objects is highly feasible.

  • access when and where it is needed
When information has to undergo complicated and costly adaptation post-processes before becoming truly accessible, the delay in getting access to that information can be excessive. Access to information in digital formats allows for easy and fast distribution to anybody at any time. The distribution of source files in a format that can be easily translated into other accessible formats allows also for customization of the information before being finally delivered to the user in the required format. Just-in-time distribution (as opposed to Just-in-case storage where everything is digitised) would actually help in making information accessible in a more efficient way.

  • access to source materials
Accessing materials at source prevents agencies from spending resources on re-digitising final products. This saves time and resources in giving services to those who cannot read printed materials. If that source material is provided in a format that is already prepared for further transformation and in an agreed standard form, the time and resources saved will be even bigger. However, content providers are usually reluctant to provide publishers of materials in alternative formats with their digital masters. Fear of piracy and the evident ease in which this happens in the digital world are usually the main reasons given by publishers. As noted above, agreements with publishers in which these agencies are seen as trusted intermediaries seem to be the most viable solution to this situation.

  • access to consistent content
Publishers of accessible materials are aware of the importance of creating consistent content. Their function is to make content accessible, the same content that is available for persons without disabilities, without altering it, without adding to or taking any information away from the original, except where extra information is needed to describe what cannot be made accessible otherwise (pictures, charts, graphics, etc.). It is important for content providers (e.g. medicine labelling) that correct and approved information is used and nothing is lost during the transformation process. Using the information provided directly by the original publisher helps in guaranteeing this. It is also important for the impaired user that no information is lost, so that the content they can access is exactly the same as that originally published. Greater co-operation is required between EU countries to avoid duplication of effort and expense as separate national practices prevent from interchanging materials that are already available in other countries.

Bottom Line
It can be seen that the choice of appropriate technical protection measures for making content accessible is not straightforward and involves different considerations. The trusted intermediary approach has provided concrete examples of successful collaboration. Where appropriate, light DRM solutions have been applied. Further research is required to examine accessibility in the wider sense and to examine the requirements for modelling accessibility and DRM within emerging multimedia environments.


About the authors: The authors co-ordinate the EUAIN network for FNB (NL) and RNIB (UK). David Crombie is head of the FNB International Projects department in Amsterdam, alongside researchers Roger Lenoir and Neil McKenzie. The team has been active in many EC funded research projects over the last ten years, in particular relating to eInclusion, Cultural Heritage and Digital Libraries. David Mann is a Campaigns Officer for RNIB, and has focussed in particular on copyright issues and on the Right to Read campaign. As well as working at national level, he has been active in developing links with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the International Publishers Association. Contact:

Status: first posted 26/01/06; licensed under Creative Commons