Presentation: Accessible Formats for People with Print Disabilities in Canada: A Short Overview on Public Library Services

This is a presentation that I did recently for an interview. The idea is to cover the distribution of accessible formats for people with print disabilities, which I took to mean how these people can access materials with focus on public libraries.I apologize for the PowerPoint look, but I did them fairly quickly and figured a template would be the faster way to get them done.


Good afternoon everyone. We have a very short time to cover a big topic, so this will be a general overview of accessible formats in Canada with focus on the access of books and other materials in accessible formats by people with print disabilities.

Who Are We Talking About?

To begin, let’s look at who we’re talking about.

In Canada, the definition of a print disability we use typically comes from the Copyright Act of Canada since it has a direct effect on what accommodations organizations can provide.

A print or

perceptual disability means a disability that prevents or inhibits a person from reading or hearing a […] work in its original format, and includes such a disability resulting from
(a) severe or total impairment of sight or hearing or the inability to focus or move one’s eyes,
(b) the inability to hold or manipulate a book, or
(c) an impairment relating to comprehension;
Source: Copyright Act of Canada

These conditions are typically described by the related type of disability, namely visual, physical, or learning disability. However, please be aware that physical and learning disabilities are umbrella terms that include many specific forms of disabilities that do not impair reading.

The rule of thumb is whether the barrier to reading can be removed simply by providing the material in a different format. If so, then the disability is considered a print or perceptual one.

What is an Accessible Format?

Which leads us to look at what an accessible format is. There is no one accessible format, and may be something different even for the same person depending on the context or purpose of the material.

An accessible format is used synonymously with alternate format, meaning that the material in question is in a format which allows the person with a print disability to perceive the content.

Typically, these formats are:

  • Braille
  • Large Print
  • electronic text (text document)
  • eBook (e.g. ePub, PDF)
  • Audio (e.g. audiobook, Spoken Word)
  • DAISY digital talking book – which is similar to an audiobook but with some added features, and requires specialized software or devices

Access to Materials

Books and other materials are frequently available in multiple formats, which can be purchased, or may be available through an organization, most notably a public library. Electronic material can simply be downloaded, and physical material is available at the library, or may be mailed or delivered to an individual’s home.

Issues arise where material does not exist in a required format. For example, many popular novels and non-fiction books are already commercially available as audiobooks, but newspapers, magazines and study material, such as textbooks, are generally not available in audio format.

For people with print disabilities, the ability to access books and other materials in the format they need also varies depending on the disability they have.


Blind and visually impaired people are generally well supported by CNIB (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind) and its library. CNIB members can request material that is not already available, and the CNIB library will purchase or produce the material in the formats needed.

However, it can be more difficult for those with other types of print disabilities to request material not already available through their public library, as there is no centralized library similar to the CNIB for those with print disabilities.

Nevertheless, some options are available to those with print disabilities, especially with more recent developments.


Bookshare Canada is an organization that provides material for people with print disabilities.

Bookshare is available as a subscription service to libraries. For those with print disabilities whose libraries do not subscribe, they also have the option to subscribe themselves.

Unfortunately, books are only provided in DAISY and refreshable braille formats, and as the name suggests, the collection does not cover material other than books.


In an increasing effort to support people with print disabilities, the recently formed Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA)

is a new national non-profit organization established by Canadian public libraries to support the provision of accessible collections for Canadians with print disabilities
Source: CELA Infosheet

CELA provides material including books, newspapers, and magazines in accessible formats (such as electronic text, audio, and braille). Additionally, CELA also provides described movies where possible and access to Bookshare. CNIB members automatically receive membership, but people with other types of print disabilities can also access their materials through their public library.

The public library in question needs to subscribe to the service, and as the service is still fairly new, not all libraries subscribe. However, CELA is working to get as many libraries on board quickly and over 600 libraries are already subscribedCNIB Press Release: Launch of new library service provides accessible books to over three million Canadians with print disabilities</a”>1. Through the support of the government and other organizations, CELA is also trying to keep the fees low for libraries.

Copyright Allowances

The Canadian Copyright Act (under Section 32) actually allows any individual or organization to create an accessible version of publisher material on behalf of a person with a print disability as long as it is not already commercially available in that format with the exception of large print.

This clause in the Act is what allows CELA partners and other organizations that serve those with print disabilities to produce accessible formats of any material required without complex copyright clearance.

Additionally, this clause means that an individual with a print disability could produce an accessible format in their own home or have another individual do it for them. While creating an accessible format from a print book may be too cumbersome and costly, if an electronic text format is available, other formats can frequently be easily created or used in various devices.

Take Away

While it is still a work in progress, libraries and other public and non-profit organizations in Canada are working to better serve those with print disabilities.


Author: Cynthia

Technologist, Librarian, Metadata and Technical Services expert, Educator, Mentor, Web Developer, UXer, Accessibility Advocate, Documentarian

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