Adobe have failed to deliver EPUB Accessibility from InDesign

"Adobe InDesign has failed to create EPUBs to the standards required for modern accessible publishing."

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June 2023

Adobe InDesign has failed to create EPUBs to the standards required for modern accessible publishing. Despite being widely used by publishers of all sizes as the industry standard page layout tool for PDF and print production, InDesign is found to be not fit for purpose for those wanting to make accessible EPUB publications.

Adobe InDesign can export to EPUB, the open standard for accessible digital publications, however by using InDesign alone, publishers are left with many accessibility problems. These include:

  • No accessibility metadata (needed to declare how accessible, on not, an EPUB is)
  • No page lists (to navigate ebook pages to their print book equivalent)
  • Missing ARIA roles (the modern way to give meaning to content)
  • No extended image descriptions (to better describe complex imagery)
  • Incorrectly structured code and language tagging (necessary to influence screen readers)
  • Difficulty in creating sections and landmarks (which are vital for navigating an accessible ebook)
  • Bloated files with unnecessarily large and complex code.

This is a problem. Particularly as, in less than two years from now, publishers of inaccessible ebooks sold into the EU (thelargest economy in the world) will soon become open to prosecution as part of the upcoming European Accessibility Act.

Whilst publishers can be encouraged, instructed and even legally obliged to make more accessible publications, without the ability to do so in Adobe InDesign, the industry standard software for publishing, they can hardly be blamed.

EPUB3 is over ten years old. There has been ample time for Adobe to do this work but still typesetters, editors, graphic designers and indeed anyone involved in the creation and production of accessible ebooks find themselves resorting to complex, coding workarounds or a reliance on external tools or vendors.

As Laura Brady put it in her BookMachine article last year “I don’t think that anyone is actively trying to make inaccessible ebooks, but the awareness of what it takes and the technical knowledge needed make it feel out of reach.”

Opportunities to succeed!

Laura and I were both invited to be part of group of publishers and accessibility specialists including people from DAISY, Penguin Random House and more.

This wasn’t the first time this has happened but once again we made the case for EPUB and provided advice to Adobe on this subject.

We met several times last year and presented detailed issues and code examples to help InDesign developers improve the accessibility of exporting to reflowable EPUB 3.

If I was a management consultant I could put a positive spin on this and say that each of the 33 identified items on this long list of issues are a chance for Adobe to impress us!

It’s not about the money…

It’s hard to believe that the world’s second largest software company would not want to support their users in making accessible publications and given Adobe’s history I would expect them to feel obliged to typesetters and publishers to do so but, if it must come down to hard cash, I’ve done some sums to help them out…

At $18,600 per year, five full time Adobe Software Engineer Salaries in India would cost less than $100,000.

To Adobe, EPUB is 200,000 times less interesting than Figma

That is 0.0005% of the $20 billion USD price that Adobe agreed to buy Figma. Yes, it’s twenty billion, that was not a typo.

Or another way of looking at would be the proceeds of just 158 of the 26 million subscribers paying each month to use Adobe Creative Cloud.

Judged by their (in)actions

There has long been a growing displeasure with Adobe in general and InDesign in particular and they will be judged by their actions.

Last year, in 2022, at their yearly conference Adobe MAX amongst the glitz and speeches from artists, actors and comedians Adobe ran over 300 sessions. Only one session was about InDesign Accessibility and that did not mention EPUB.

After many more months of inaction, at the same event, Adobe announced and released the update to InDesign 2023,

It had one attempt at a change from the list of 33 issues logged.

It was the easiest one.

They got it wrong.

It made things worse.

The disrespectful language tag debacle

Adobe added language tags to EVERYTHING in InDesign 2023 EPUB export. Correction, everywhere EXCEPT where it should be. This disrupts text to speech systems, splitting the voiced words up individually instead of reading complete sentences aloud and applying the correct pauses following punctuation.

They did not contact the expert group to tell us they were doing this. They didn’t tell the prerelease group. They did not ask us to test it.

Laura posted the issue to the prerelease forum in November 2022 Language Tags in HTML “Language tags in HTML and EPUB exports are now fundamentally broken.” I prompted them for a response in January 2023 and again in April 2023.

A detailed explanation with screenshots and code samples (again) was posted to the prerelease forum. Eight months later the problem still exists.

Not only is this situation clearly incompetent but, perhaps worse, it shows disrespect to the group of experts who have continually volunteered time and effort to try to improve this terribly disappointing situation.

In conclusion, it is clear to me that Adobe are not going to do this vital work and at this point the most useful thing they could do would be to admit that.

I genuinely wish Adobe would prove me wrong.

Ken Jones - Circular Software