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Removing Access Barriers to The Canadian Library System: a Brief Submitted to The Task Force on Access to Information For Print Disabled Canadians

Editor's Note: September 18, 2000


The National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality ("NFB: AE") is pleased to submit this brief on removing access barriers to the Canadian library system to this Task Force.

Currently, the NFB: AE has members in seven Canadian Provinces and one Territory. Its membership is comprised of blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind adults, parents of blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind children and other interested members of the public. One of the primary goals of the NFB: AE is to improve the opportunities that are available for all blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind Canadians to participate effectively within Canadian society. NFB: AE strives to accomplish this goal through advocacy and public education initiatives.

In July of 2000, the Task Force released a list of twenty- one questions which it asked all interested members of the public to address to assist the Task Force in arriving at its recommendations. Most of the questions focused on the needs of individual Canadians and do not provide a forum for a group such as NFB: AE to respond effectively to them. As a result, NFB: AE will only deal with Question 21 namely: "Are there any other questions that you would like the Task Force to address?"

In NFB: AE's submission, there are three additional questions that the Task Force should address in its report. These are:

  1. Does every Canadian have the right to access information that is available through the public library system within her/his own community;

  2. Do Canadians who are blind, vision-impaired or deaf blind have the same access to the Canadian library system from within their own communities; and

  3. If the answer to question 2 is no, what measures should be put in place to improve access to library-based resources for blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind Canadians?

A number of groups have already made presentations to this Task Force which deal with the technical issues that are required to make materials available to people who are print disabled in multiple formats. Instead of focusing on this issue, NFB: AE proposes to deal with the issues being considered by the Task Force on a philosophical and legal level. Insofar as the technical issues for producing and distributing materials to individuals who are print disabled, NFB: AE adopts the recommendations made by the Council of Canadians with Disabilities as submitted in CCD's brief to the Task Force. It is also important to note that specialized libraries such as the CNIB National Library are still an integral component in preparing materials in multiple formats and distributing them to blind, vision- impaired and deaf blind Canadians. In addition to examining new technological advances, provision must be made to ensure that the traditional hard copy formats of materials, e.g., cassette tapes, Braille and large print, are still made available to the print disabled community both through the public library system and through specialized libraries where appropriate. While it is hoped that the need for specialized libraries will be lessened over time, the infrastructure is not currently in place to diminish their role in any meaningful way.

Does every Canadian have the right to access information that is available through the public library system within her/his own community?

In NFB: AE's submission, this question should be answered in the affirmative for the following reasons:

  1. Roch Carrier, the Chief Librarian of the National Library of Canada, has publicly stated in the press release announcing the creation of this Task Force that "every Canadian has the right to access the information they need to participate fully in Canadian society". The public library system has at its disposal much of the basic information which Canadians rely on regularly to pursue their leisure activities, political interests, monitoring of current events, educational materials and the like. In addition, there are many seminars and other programs that are held at public libraries which are of interest to many members of the local community. Libraries have always been viewed as vast receptacles of information which are accessed by Canadians from the time that the first book is read to them until the time of their death.

  2. Access to information is essential to all Canadians at every stage of their life. If information is inaccessible, the gap between those who have access to the information and the rest of society will widen on a daily basis. As the gap widens, those who do not have access to the information will lose the ability to compete in all aspects of life against those individuals who do have access to the vast information resources provided by libraries.

  3. Every Canadian who is involved in the workforce is required to pay taxes. These taxes fund access to Canada's library system at all governmental levels to one extent or another. It only seems reasonable that those who are paying to support a system including the system in place in the community where they live, would have full access to it. The library system that is available in Canada is publicly funded. In such circumstances, there is a responsibility imposed upon all levels of government under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and under Human Rights Legislation to ensure that the services provided through the library system are provided equally to all Canadians without discrimination based on the grounds enumerated in such legislation.

Do Canadians who are blind, vision-impaired or deaf blind have the same access to the Canadian library system from within their own communities?

The answer to this question is clearly NO at this point in our history. Most novels, research publications, newspapers and other reference materials are not available in multiple formats at all let alone through the public library system. While some information may be obtained off websites, often the full article cannot be obtained from the web site. In other cases, a substantial fee per article is charged which is far in excess of the charges that another member of society would incur if he/she had access to the same newspaper on microfiche.

The Canadian tax system also imposes barriers to access to the library system. In some jurisdictions, provincial sales tax is charged on audio books when such a tax is not charged on their print equivalents. This increases the cost for the library which is purchasing materials in multiple formats solely because of the tax treatment of these items. The same barrier is imposed on blind or vision-impaired consumers who may purchase audio books for their own use. This increase to the cost of purchasing these books which already exceeds the costs of obtaining the printed equivalent, creates a significant additional expense for both libraries and consumers alike to access materials in a useable format.

Once a specific text has been produced in print, it often takes a year to eighteen months to have that same book produced in Braille or on cassette tape. The time for producing the book in large print is somewhat shorter. This delay in providing access to information to blind, vision-impaired and deaf-blind Canadians puts them at a disadvantage when compared to other Canadians who are enrolled in the school system or who are participating in the workforce.

Some publishers have attempted to address this issue by providing some of their texts in an abridged version for release on cassette tape. This does not provide true access to the publication since important information and details are often excluded from the abridged versions.

Without question, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind is the largest producer of materials in multiple formats in Canada. As a registered charity, it only has so many resources to devote to this endeavor. When the resource budget for a given year runs out, the production of materials is significantly reduced. The CNIB library has run large deficits for the past number of years simply to maintain current production levels.

Blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind Canadians are already at a disadvantage since the number of books produced in multiple formats is significantly below the number of printed books which are published each year. Depending on the statistics that one reads, the percentage of books produced in multiple formats each year as compared to the overall number of books published in a given year ranges from 3% to 10%.

The library system has been impeded in its attempts to provide materials in multiple formats because of the actions of publishers themselves. Often, publishers will not make the electronic versions of their texts available so that these materials can be produced in formats other than regular print. In other cases, the lack of a standardized electronic book publishing format also provides a barrier to access electronic texts.

While the provisions of the Copyright Act allow a producer to produce a text in an alternative format without seeking the permission of the copyright holder, this entire step could be avoided in producing books in Braille, electronic text and in large print if a publisher made the electronic version of the book available to producers of materials.

In addition to the hard copy materials that are available throughout the library system, many libraries have now provided Internet access and access to video movies to their subscribers. In the former case, many libraries do not have computer systems which are accessible to blind, vision- impaired or deaf blind Canadians. Even where the systems are available, the staff at local libraries often do not have sufficient training on how to use the equipment so that appropriate training can be provided to anyone wanting to use the specialized equipment. Similarly, there is no training budget available to blind, vision-impaired or deaf blind Canadians to learn how to use the equipment that may already be available to them within the library system. With respect to the latter case, most of the video tapes that are available do not have a described audio track on them to explain to the blind or vision-impaired person what is happening in a given scene when dialogue is not present.

As various public libraries have experienced budget cuts over the past number of years, staffing complements have been reduced. This has had a disproportionate affect on blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind Canadians since there is often no one available to assist them in finding books within the library itself. Even if a library does have accessible computer systems, optical scanners and the like, this equipment will be of limited use to individuals who are blind, vision-impaired or deaf blind if it is impractical or impossible for them to locate the materials they wish to read with accessible equipment.

Many Canadians who are blind, vision-impaired or deaf-blind may want to access information obtained from libraries in their home environment. In many provinces, it is difficult to obtain funding for the purchase of computers, synthetic speech programs, large print programs and other equipment. This kind of equipment is used by people who are blind, vision-impaired or deaf blind to access printed material.

Finally, some libraries have adopted the strategy of one size fits all people who are print disabled when purchasing materials in multiple formats. There is a tendency in some cases for libraries to assume that they have met their obligations by purchasing audio books. However, these books are not accessible to individuals who are deaf blind. Similarly, large print texts are not accessible to people with no vision.

As a result of the barriers to access identified above, many blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind Canadians have steered themselves away from accessing the public library system altogether. Instead, they have relied on specialized libraries to obtain their reading materials to simply avoid the problems of inaccessibility to the library system within their own community. There are many within this community who are simply not aware of the services that may be available to them through the public library system since there is a presumption that the system itself is inaccessible. It is equally important to remove this perceptual barrier as it is to remove the technological and other barriers to access which have been identified above.

If the answer to question 2 is no, what measures should be put in place to improve access to library based resources for blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind Canadians?

Several presenters to the Task Force have recommended that a council be set up to manage the production of materials in multiple formats. This council would ensure that duplication in production does not occur and that the quality of the materials produced remains consistent.

NFB: AE supports the creation of such a council. It would operate at arm's length from government. Its members would consist of members from government, producers of material in multiple formats, representatives from the publishing industry and most importantly, representatives from among the ultimate consumers who directly benefit from receiving materials in multiple formats.

In addition to the creation of the council identified above, the Federal Government, either on its own or through the National Library, must contribute significant financial resources to fund the operation of the council itself and to fund the costs of producing the materials in multiple formats. It is simply not acceptable to rely solely on the charitable sector and private businesses to be the only entities responsible for raising funds for multiple format production. The government has a significant role to play in this area. Currently, Canada is the only one of the G seven industrialized countries which does not provide funding for library services for the blind, vision-impaired or deaf blind.

Once government funds are allocated for the purposes identified above, these funds should be separated out of all other library services budgets to ensure that the level of funding for multiple format production and distribution remains consistent. The government should enter into partnerships with publishers, registered charities and other private businesses to ensure that as much material as possible is produced in multiple formats.

The Federal Government should use both its fiscal resources and moral persuasion to convince publishers to provide electronic versions of their texts to producers of materials in multiple formats and to the average blind, vision-impaired or deaf blind consumer. Funding subsidies to the publishing industry should be denied to those publishers that do not take meaningful steps to make their electronic texts available.

The National Library should both provide funding and training support to local public libraries to ensure that the necessary computer equipment and adaptive devices are available for use throughout the library system. Similarly, these resources should be used to train library staff on the basic use of this equipment. This will allow the staff to provide assistance to individuals with print disabilities who are using the equipment within the library system. Staff should also be trained on the appropriate procedures to follow in assisting someone who is blind, vision-impaired or deaf blind in finding books, periodicals and other types of material of interest to the individual consumer. Finally, all provincial governments should be encouraged to establish funding programs similar to the assistive devices program in Ontario to provide funding for computer equipment and access devices for print disabled persons.


Access to information in multiple formats for people with print disabilities is the most essential right that must be protected to achieve full equality for this group of Canadians. The inability to access information affects such fundamental skills as literacy, independence and advancement within society.

The NFB: AE has provided a number of recommendations which it believes will assist in the removal of barriers to access to information for blind, vision-impaired and deaf blind Canadians. As new technologies develop, new barriers will inevitably result. It is hoped that consumer groups, governments, service providers and private businesses can all work together to ensure that barriers relating to access to information are substantially reduced or eliminated entirely. It is hoped that one day, the library system in Canada will be accessible enough such that Mr. Carrier's wish that all Canadians should have access to the information they need to participate effectively within society has been fully achieved.


Robert J. Fenton President,

National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality