Imagine Living Without Books Part 1: The Importance of Supporting Print Disabled Readers

People often ask me what I do, and I tend to respond with “providing books in accessible formats to print disabled”, but most people seem to simply accept that as another job or project description. Some people do ask me to explain further, but often, I don’t think we (and that includes myself, and other people involved in the project) truly realize the impact and importance of the project.

Why I Am Writing This

Honestly, my own response to what I do has become somewhat automatic as the easiest way to explain what I do to people. I think it’s important to reflect on why we do our job and why it’s important to us and others. I previously posted about how reflecting on the project increases my motivation, but I want to go further than that by reflecting on the direct impact we (seem to) have on our users, primarily through users’ stories and comments.

Furthermore, print disabled are an underserved group, so I hope this reflection will provide some insight to others (more so than the previous writings).

Imagine a World Without Books

Every child is put in school and taught to read. It is one of the most fundamental skills to live in our world. If you are reading this text, right now, then you are most likely reading it on a screen, and reading it successfully because of the skills you learned in school.

But what if you were blind? What if you had dyslexia? What if you had issues with visual concentration? (e.g. headaches from reading on a screen for long periods)

Then maybe you’re reading this with text-to-speech technology, which is great with digital-born text. But what about books that aren’t available in electronic format?

What if you couldn’t hold the book or turn the page?

(I don’t know about you, but even with the full use of my arms and fingers, I have had trouble with some paper formats.)

Even in today’s world with the increase of audiobooks and ebooks, imagine that your access to books was limited to Amazon Kindle store or only Audible.

And that’s being generous. That’s assuming you can afford it. If like many people, you rely on the library,

imagine that your access to books was limited to Overdrive.

Oh, and then limit it to the country you live in (which if it’s not the U.S., it’s a much smaller offering than the full Overdrive catalogue), then try limiting it only to audiobooks.

Yes, you’ll find the popular fiction, especially romances (which apparently audiobook companies wouldn’t be able to survive without), but what about that award winning book? What about a non-fiction title?

(I’d be curious as to how many you find in audiobook format, or even ebook format.)

Can you find your favourite cookbook?

And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, what if the response was simply “sorry, we can’t help you”.

A Note on Accessible Format Producers and Providers

Most (I believe almost all) of the accessible format producers in Canada serve schools, whether that be K-12 or post-secondary. Some accessibility departments that provide accessible formats in schools (especially post-secondary) do not produce any of their own material, providing whatever material is available already in an accessible format. Other countries may have different models, but I believe they are similar.

However, at least in post-secondary, students only receive course-related material. I imagine in K-12, students receive some leisure reading, but it may be limited to what is readily available.

For people not in school, or for non-school related material, some countries have a well-established national program (usually tied to the national library), such as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) in the United States, a service provided by the Library of Congress.

In Canada

Unfortunately, in Canada, there is no such national program provided by a government entity. In the past, visually impaired readers could sign up with CNIB Library, a registered charity. Until recently, if you had any other type of print disability, you didn’t have this option.

With the newest Copyright Act, the term “perceptual disability” (aka print disability) is clearly defined. Public libraries have adopted the definition regarding who is eligible to access their accessible format collections and other related services. While the majority of the promotion of these services are frequently targeted at seniors, some libraries are doing a great job promoting it to younger readers, especially kids during the summer months when they’re not in school.

Along with the new Copyright Act, CNIB Library morphed into CELA, where public libraries pay the charity organization for their print disabled readers to have access. Unfortunately, if a public library cannot afford CELA’s fees, then the readers in that area will not have access.

The National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS) is also provided through public libraries, but is paid for by the provincial and territorial ministries (usually related to libraries and literary). Thanks to their support, the non-profit project (coordinated by the BC Libraries Cooperative) provides access to their collection and support without further cost to the public libraries in the participating provinces and territories. Unfortunately, readers in non-participating provinces currently do not have access to NNELS.

There are pros and cons to both models and I’ve heard that both organizations are considering changes to funding and access models, so we will see what happens. Hopefully, whatever changes are made, it means increased access for print disabled readers.

A Side Note

While school-related, national organizations, and some other organizations are non-profit, there are also corporate entities that serve print disabled readers.

Bookshare is probably the most well-known, and they have deals with many publishers to be the only organization receiving digital files for conversion from them (more so in the US than Canada). The main issue with Bookshare is that it is subscription based (with an annual fee), so you cannot simply pay per title. Organizations have a per title per user fee option, but there are some restrictions for that too.

Of course, some organizations not specifically geared for print disabled also serve their needs, such as e-book or audiobook distributors (most notably Amazon/Audible, where you have the option to pay monthly/annually or by the title).

Connecting People

No matter how they do it, accessible format production organizations are supporting print disabled readers and connecting them to books (and other materials) and to other people. It is important that we support their efforts and push our governments to do so as well, whether that be through funds or legislation (such as the [Marrakesh Treaty[(, with some explanation on implementation in Canada by Michael Geist).

This was originally going to be one post, but it’s getting longer than I intended, so this post is to be continued in part 2.

Author: Cynthia

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

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