Alderman Library

A woman is seen leaving Alderman Library on a Friday morning.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Every year, the University of Virginia churns out about 1,000 copies of textbooks, essays, books and files tailor-made for students with disabilities.

Soon, however, researchers hope that, instead of creating new files every semester, universities will be able to search a massive online repository for existing accessible copies. To lay the foundation for that hub — called Education Materials Made Accessible, or EMMA — and spread the word for future work, a new white paper aims to reconcile universities’ copyright and civil rights obligations.

“Institutions of higher education have a legal, as well as moral, obligation to make sure students have equal access to educational materials. It’s a civil rights issue,” said John Unsworth, UVA’s dean of libraries. “An increasing number of students are coming to college with various levels of print disabilities, and it’s not all about blindness — it could be ADD, dyslexia or a physical disability that makes it hard to use a traditional print book.”

Universities across the country are required to offer equal access to information for students with documented disabilities; a student might require a physical book to be translated into Braille, copied into a large-text PDF file or fed into a text-to-speech reader.

But book publishers aren’t required to provide accessible formats, creating a cottage industry for university staff members who, every semester, have to copy files into various formats. Problems compound when publishers ask a student with a disability to show they purchased a traditional textbook before providing an accessible copy, or when they send so-called accessible files that can’t be used.

“The publisher might not have an obligation to create accessible formats, but we have an obligation, and because we have that obligation, educational institutions have special rights,” said Brandon Butler, director of information policy at UVA.

The white paper, by a UVA researcher and two staffers from the Association of Research Libraries, tries to reconcile universities’ copyright and civil rights obligations. Copyright law has long protected fair use copies for educational purposes and for people with disabilities, but fear and misinformation abounds, according to Butler.

“The problem, and why this project got started, is that when it comes to accessibility, publishers are way behind,” said Barbara Zunder, of UVA’s Disability Services Access Center. “They’re allowed to give us garbage, and then we are legally required to fix it.”

Current U.S. law offers protections to university staff who create, share and store accessible copies of texts, the paper concludes, setting the groundwork for EMMA, which hopes to offer a gateway for disability services staff to search within three major online archives and find a copy of a text that meets the needs of a specific student.

“We wanted to bring some library magic to bear on the big digital collections that already exist, the HathiTrust, Bookshare and The Internet Archive, which already offer some accessible formats, but there’s no way to share information across repositories,” Butler said. “We’re going to create a meta service that will connect all three so that anyone in higher education can search across all items and find accessible texts already available.”

The white paper should set the standard for accessibility efforts moving forward, said Krista Cox, director of public policy initiatives at ARL. She also worked on the Marrakesh Treaty, which aims to make it easier to internationally share accessible formats of books for people with visual impairments.

“Our library members are very committed to making sure people with disabilities get the information they need; it’s all about equitable access,” Cox said. “It’s not fair to have a student in a class trying to use an inaccessible text when an accessible version is already out there and just needs to be shared.”

Seven universities will pilot EMMA; if all goes well, researchers hope to open the access to other universities across the country.

Hopefully, too, they said, even if a university does not participate in EMMA, the white paper will provide needed legal clarity for staff members and lawyers. It’s already having a positive effect at UVA.

“The white paper is giving me permission, in a way, to do what I’ve always done. I knew it was the right thing, but I didn’t speak up about it too much,” Zunder said. “I hope this paper puts more of a pressure on publishers to be accessible.”

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