The many faces of accessibility

Elsevier colleagues across the company work to ensure that our content is accessible to people with disabilities

© Tsvetkov (with insert of accessibility features on Elsevier’s ScienceDirect)

Some of the world’s most effective researchers deal with disabilities that make it difficult or impossible to read text – everything from dyslexia to blindness. But it’s essential they can use the same content as other researchers, easily and without too much delay.

That’s why we have colleagues around the world making sure our content is easy to access in a variety of forms. Here, we feature three of those colleagues, who head up different areas of accessibility:

  • Ted Gies, User Experience (UX) Lead for Elsevier Labs, is in charge of the accessibility of our websites, from our flagship journal and books platform ScienceDirect to
  • Tripp Narup, Product Manager for Digital Asset Management and Archive Strategy, oversees the storage of our book content and plans for the future.

Alicia Wise, PhDMany of our colleagues chose to focus on accessibility because disabilities have been a reality in their own lives. For example, Dr. Alicia Wise, Director of Access and Policy at Elsevier, is partially deaf and loves to read but studiously avoids audio books. On the other hand, her brother is dyslexic and embraces audiobooks for this reason. “There is no one user experience that suits all people, much less all people who live with disabilities,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important for us all that publishers focus on usability. Designing digital publications with researchers in mind is core to our mission at Elsevier, it takes real commitment and technical expertise, and our work in this area is one of the reasons I’m so proud to work here.”

Making our websites accessible

By Ted Gies

During college I was amazed at Wright State University’s commitment to providing an education to all people, including people with disabilities, some of which were severe. After college I started doing user interface design professionally and was astounded that with some care web pages could be made fully usable and understandable by people who were blind. Now, working for the largest publisher in science, technology and medicine, I feel a great responsibility to help make the published work accessible to anyone, regardless of disability.

In developing our web applications for science, we make several layers of accessibility checks to ensure that someone with a disability using assistive technology will have a successful experience. Being able to design for accessibility requires an understanding of several fields: technical mark-up, web standards and specs, how people with disabilities use computers, and overall user experience.

A disability persona matrix showing accessibility features on ScienceDirect. See the full chart on the <a target="_blank" href="">Web Accessibility page on</a>.

A scientist who is blind might navigate a web page very differently from a sighted person, but ultimately the common goal is to find and consume useful scientific content. Our accessibility team simulates what it is like to use a website feature through different disability lenses. There is a matrix of tests for this, and the first and easiest is to ensure that all functionality works with keyboard alone because some users do not input with a mouse.

A low-vision user simulation will involve enlarging the screen to 200 percent to check for a usable interface; for a person who is blind, we will fire up the JAWS screen reader and listen to each element to ensure that it works and is understandable. More recently, we added voice input as a check to our features.

Once we have done a thorough check, we bring in the Elsevier Accessibility and Usability Collaboration group, which is in its seventh year as an advisory review board. Open to anyone in higher education, the collaboration includes world-class experts in accessibility and people who deal with disabilities such as blindness, low vision and dexterity issues. The collaboration group is an integral part of enabling accessibility for our systems and often yields usability improvements for everyone.

Collaboration is a key component of ensuring that we make scientific content accessible. As an example, Elsevier recently worked with web chart library Highcharts to help ensure their SVG chart library worked for people who are visually impaired. Secondly we worked with chemistry drawing producers ChemAxon on their chemistry drawing program Marvin JS.

This Highcharts line chart shows the JAWS document regions feature – a way for screen reader users to locate the main regions of a web page.

These two collaborations are examples in which we have transferred accessibility knowledge to our vendors to positively affect their products and ultimately our products that utilize the plugins. In these examples, what we are trying to do is create machine-readable versions of traditionally graphical content – for example, using the MathML mark-up language to depict math equations instead of just bitmap images. Amazingly, when someone who is blind experiences a MathML equation on ScienceDirect, a screen reader will provide a meaningful depiction of the equation and not just its label “graphic 1.”

A journal article on ScienceDirect showing accessible math equations and the NVDA elements list – a way for screen reader users to locate the main regions of a web page.

Although scientific text content is naturally accessible to just about any assistive technology, including text-to-speech engines and braille displays, scientific content such as math, data visualizations and simulations will be incomprehensible to many if the correct mark-up or features are left out. We recently published an essay titled What goes unseen in accessible publishing: good practice and remaining gaps, which depicts some of the challenges in publishing accessible content.

Bringing our content to life

By Tripp Narup

My grandfather was a polio survivor, which resulted in his left leg being much smaller than his right. This was just a regular part of our lives, and it gave all 26 grandchildren an appreciation for physical differences. Some of my cousins have dyslexia and hearing impairments. And my mother now requires assistance due to age-related physical impairments.But the biggest impact on me has been from our customers.

In the past few years, we have added support in our XML for alternate text and long description for images. XML is the structure we use to store our content, which makes it possible to publish it to various platforms. "Alt text" is a short description of an image that helps a blind person – and a search engine – understand the image. We have created a "pipeline" that is now ready to deliver content that is specific to accessibility. We have also improved the tagging of our tables to make it easier for a screenreader user to navigate them. Here's an example of alt text used for a circuit diagram illustration in the book Foundations of Analog and Digital Electronic Circuits (Elsevier 2005):

ALT="A digital signal produced by a sender. The value of signal above the voltage of 2.5 is taken as 1 and below 2.5 is 0. The waveform is corresponding to the values of 0, 1, 0, 1, 0 sequence"

And here’s a more straightforward example of alt text to describe a painting, going beyond the title and artist to include a description of the scene itself.

Alt text = "Classic painting of George Washington and his troops crossing the ice-clogged Delaware River, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851."

We also make print-only files accessible. For more than 15 years, we have prided ourselves on delivering alternate files to disabled students in record time. When we first started supplying alternate files (digital files provided for print-disabled users), we made a commitment to a same-day turnaround. Since 1999 we have maintained that standard, and we now provide over 4,300 files a year to students around the world.

Diversity of mind at Elsevier

Empowering Unconventional KnowledgeUnconventional thinkers bring new perspectives to research and science, seeing key elements that are often overlooked. That’s why we support diversity of mind at Elsevier, employing people with different thinking styles to develop our tools and technologies – and to enable people of diverse abilities to access our research. By championing the unconventional, we empower people to go beyond the obvious, inspiring new opportunities for science and society. For more stories about people and projects empowered by knowledge, we invite you to visit Empowering Knowledge.


Written by

Ted Gies

Written by

Ted Gies

Ted Gies leads the web accessibility initiative at Elsevier and parent company RELX. He co-authored the company accessibility policies and developed several learning tools on disability and assistive technology. Fascinated by easy-to-use and barrier-free information in the STEM field, his current projects include accessible Learning Management Systems, MathML, and screen reader friendly SVG.

Ted’s background is user experience, where he has led design and user studies in fields such as geology, health sciences, and academic and corporate research. Ted collaborates with many leading universities on accessibility including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and UC Berkeley, and is an active member of the W3C Community Group AccessLearn and the DIAGRAM Center Technical Advisory Board.
Written by

Tripp Narup

Written by

Tripp Narup

After running Elsevier’s Global Books Digital Archive for 20 years, Tripp Narup is currently the Project Manager for Elsevier's Digital Asset Management (DAM) system. He became interested in accessibility in 1999 when the archive started providing alternate text files for print-disabled students. Since 2015, he has been working with his Operations colleagues to bring accessibility features to our XML.


comments powered by Disqus