Fixed-layout EPUB3: Accessibility Made Possible (in a Rather Unconventional Way)

Cartoon: children dancing around an oversized ebook
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This is a guest post from Paolo Albert.


Fixed-layout: the kryptonite to a11y

A couple of years ago I was invited to a round table with the Publisher’s Italian Association to introduce our software solution PubCoder to some members of the IDPF and DAISY Consortium, the organization committed to accessibility as founder member of the IDPF itself. People seemed very keen to listen about the software, as one of the few EPUB3 authoring tools out there. Well, once I started speaking I suddenly realised that nobody knew one key piece of information about the software, which undermined its popularity among this audience. There was outraged silence when I made it clear that PubCoder exports FIXED-LAYOUT only.

Give fixed-layout a chance, children love it

I was told on that occasion – and not for the first time – how bad the FXL format is for accessibility. There are several good arguments for this prejudice.

  1. Reading order In FXL it is author-driven and not device-oriented. All tools associated with creating FXL ebooks to provide correct reading order.
  2. Interactivity Javascript is a black box. No declarative assertion is provided in order to understand what is happening on the page.
  3. Semantics Bad habits in FXL seem to drive authoring software to present a collection of meaningless <div>s, quite meaningless to any assistive technology.

I do not intend to discuss these arguments, with which I in fact totally agree. That my popularity – and the software’s – will continue to remain low within standard organizations, doesn’t matter. What counts, and this is the key point here, is how children with special needs can take advantage from EPUB3 fixed-layout – in an unconventional and non-standard way maybe, but equally important: for people’s lives, of their families and, generally speaking, for a society that believes in ethical values such as inclusiveness.

Children with special needs can take advantage from EPUB3 fixed-layout

Let me introduce here two specific and concrete case histories, two projects we have been working as a team, in PubCoder, in the last couple of years.

Case study 1: accessibility for dyslexia

The first project is called FROG – which stands for FRee cOGnitive ebook, i.e. “intelligent” book, i.e. “100% accessible” ebook (I am quoting from the blog’s presentation,). The initiative comes from Mobidys, a french company specialized in accessibility solutions, in partnership with French publisher Nathan.

They have a collection of specially designed children’s illustrated books. They all have a built-in menu that triggers an adaptive content for various cognitive disorders, with a particular focus on dyslexia. The menu is always accessible and allows users to trigger a number of text and audio manipulations, according to the kind and quality of the cognitive disorder (see screenshots). For instance: highlighting text, highlighting syllabus, dark and light mode on text, letter-spacing, and much more. Technically speaking, this is possible through a combination of two factors: a pre-ingestion manipulation of the text (here is where a pool of experts, leaded by Mobidys, comes in) with a specific html and CSS tagging profile. And a toolbar with buttons capable of interpreting and toggle styles and multimedia according to the specifications of that profile. All is tied by the webview’s local storage, which retains the preferred options triggered by the user/reader.

Screenshot 1: the cover (tap on page number)

Screenshot 2: text tagged as defined in the contextual menu with accessibility options

Screenshot 3: contextual menu with accessibility options

Case study 2: accessibility for autism

The second project is called Libri per tutti (“Books for everyone” in italian). Promoted by an association named “Paideia” (“Education” in greek), the aim is to to promote tailor made digital objects for the dissemination of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). AAC is an area of research and clinical practice that seeks to compensate for temporary or permanent disability of people with complex communication needs. The population of children to whom the project is addressed is quite large: children with cognitive impairment, children with motor, language, or attention deficits, and children with autistic spectrum disorders.

A team of clinical experts and developers worked together starting from a children’s book to make it digitally accessible to these children. The outcome has been a digital “template” prototype in fixed-layout content using symbols from Widgit (https://www.widgit.com), the most commonly used set of symbols for word translation into visual representations of concepts (see screenshots). Paideia and PubCoder are working close together with a group of children’s books publishers to create a digital bookstore of fixed-layout ebooks taking this approach, working from the prototype the team has been working on.

Screenshot 1: template with image on top and text on bottom (with read-aloud)

Screenshot 2: text translation in symbols

Screenshot 3: Read aloud on symbols

Screenshot 4: drag & drop game

In conclusion: give fixed-layout a chance, children love it

In both projects the output is a neat EPUB3 fixed-layout. Specific reading apps have been developed to optimize User Experience.

FROG Reader can be downloaded:

– on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/bt/app/frog/id1178646894?mt=8

– on Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mobidys.frog&hl=en

In all cases content is made keeping in mind one of the most important principles of accessibility: no “special” or “separate” contents, but editions for all. There are clearly special add-ons, so that entire classes and families can enjoy sharing the same book.

I am aware that these solutions fail to scale. First of all they require clinical experts in the content creation; secondly accessibility functions live in the content. Yet, now thousands of children have access to content like never before, in a form – an illustrated book in fixed-layout – wonderfully suitable for their needs.


Paolo Albert is founder and CTO of PubCoder, a digital publishing software which allows anyone to create highly interactive ebooks and apps without having any programming skills. He is responsible for the overall development workflow and roadmap, product specifications, and publisher’s projects.

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