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Equal Access to Books and Magazines One Step Closer to Reality

Editor's Note: Editors Note: Neil Graham is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto's Masters program in Computer Science. The following article is reprinted from Abilities Magazine, Summer, 2000, Issue 43.

Lets face it if you're blind or have a motor or learning disability that precludes your reading what's generally referred to as conventional sized print, your ability to access books and magazines is tremendously limited. We all know about the special dispensation for students textbooks and that on rare occasions, the alternate media versions arrive when they're still of use. But as for the rest of us with visual impairments, our circumstances render our choices few and poor. Either we hope some charitable organisation has produced what we need that's particularly unlikely if were looking for something recent, less popular or specialised or we must suffer the time and aggravation of scanning the document ourselves.

Practical considerations aside, this is hardly equality of access. Alternate format-requiring readers have been quick to pick up on the connection between the ability of today's computer technology to make information accessible, and various pieces of legislation aimed at curbing discriminatory practice based on disability. Of late, provincial and federal human rights statutes, most unambiguous in their injunctions about the equal provision of all goods and services, have been augmented by such positive Supreme Court interpretations of the Charters Equality Section 15 as the October 1998 Eldridge decision. They've concluded that since remedies can be found, so they should be.

It was on that basis that the Council of Canadians with Disabilities Access to Information Working Group decided a couple of years ago to approach the publishing community to see what could be done in the way of making books and magazines available for sale in electronic form at the same time, and at the same price, as their paper counterparts. This initiative bore fruits in the spring of 1998 when the Book and Periodical Council (BPC) asked the CCD to participate in its Task Force on Making Published Materials Available to the Visually Impaired. Though we were disappointed that the scope of this project had been restricted to the visually impaired portion of the population so that electronic publishing for other disability communities and, indeed, for the public at large would be left un-investigated, we agreed to participate. I was asked to represent CCD on the BPC Task Force.

The BPC is an umbrella group covering more than just publishers organisation's. It represents all interests involved in the production and distribution of books and magazines in Canada including writers, book manufacturers, libraries, etc. Its task force: 1) looked into the needs of publishers, alternate format producers and consumers with regard to the provision of electronic versions of published material, and 2) conducted a survey of blind and visually impaired consumers to estimate the size of the potential market for e-text versions of published material within that community.

Our final report was completed in late February of 1998. Two recommendations are especially noteworthy for print-disabled consumers.

The first recommends that the BPC establish a clearinghouse. This facility would collect and hold an electronic version of the final approved text of any Canadian publication. Initially, the clearinghouse would interact with publishers and alternate format producers only; yet it is clear that such an agency, particularly since it is to be run by the industry itself, could evolve into a commercial distributor of e-text versions of published works.

Second, it was recommended that HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language) should be the standard format provided to alternate format producers by this clearinghouse, though ASCII text would be provided if the publishers software did not permit the production of HTML files. This is significant because it means that files provided by the clearinghouse will be easily accessible to consumers since both HTML, the format of documents on the world-wide web, and ASCII text are readily accessible.

If realised, these developments would remove all technical, and most administrative, barriers which formerly prevented publishers from supplying versions of their products usable by print-disabled consumers.

Only one obstacle remains. That's the publishing industry's innate fear that selling electronic versions of its products imperils its control of copyright. For publishers, this is an issue of paramount importance.

Even though the results of the market survey revealed a substantial niche market for electronic versions of print publications (remember, it only sampled the small community of blind and visually impaired consumers), the Canadian publishing industry is simply not ready to plunge into the unknown waters of electronic distribution of their wares at the present time.

But market forces are making paper-based publishers all over the world become aware of the opportunities electronic publishing affords; the proliferation of newspapers available online, often in their entirety, underscores this trend. As more and more information of every description becomes available electronically, we can and should hasten the process, ensuring as we do that it encompasses not only items of short-term value like newspapers, but substantial ones such as books as well.

We have the right to be able to access information. I am convinced that publishers are keenly aware that if tested under a Human Rights Act, the principle behind this right could carry significant legal force. They are also afraid that by appearing insensitive to the needs of print-disabled consumers, they invite governmental regulations allowing non-profit organisation's to freely reproduce their products for the print disabled regulations which would, at the same time, weaken their all important control of copyright. By skilfully exploiting these advantages, alternate format users could prod publishers into providing us with timely, equitable access to all of their merchandise. How can we capitalise on these opportunities?

The CCD remains in close contact with the BPC with the hope of observing, if not actually assisting in, the design of the e-text clearinghouse. Since the voices of many groups are louder than that of only one, the CCD welcomes participation in this effort by any group of disabled people with similar ideals.

CCD also wants to mount a pilot project to demonstrate the profitability and security of publishing material in an accessible electronic format.

We would be very interested in hearing suggestions from progressive-minded publishers who might be well-disposed towards helping us undertake such a project. Ideas as to what genre of material magazines, a particular type of book, etcetera people would most like to see made commercially available in an electronic form, would help us pick areas of the publishing industry where such a pilot project is most likely to succeed. If the CCD's activities in this regard are modest they are also doable, and in the direction of equal access to printed information besides. If we all were to strive after this dream, resisting the temptation to settle for a slightly better version of the status quo, we could confidently await the day when print-disabled consumers have the same ability to access information whether in the form of a recently published novel, a scientific paper, or the manual for a new appliance that people who can use print take for granted.

Facing Future Challenges: Do Libraries for the Blind Measure Up? By Rosemary Kavanagh

Editors Note: Ms. Rosemary Kavanagh is Chair of IFLA: Section of Libraries for the Blind, and is Executive Director of the CNIB Library for the Blind in Toronto.

There are some myths about library services in general and library services for the blind in particular that need to be debunked. The first one assumes that libraries aren't necessary because the Internet exists. In some cases Internet information is like asking the man in the street and while his opinions might be helpful it wont do much for scholarly work. Would we prepare school projects on Native Canadians for example based on a dialogue with the man in the street? Or how about a cure for your persistent, chronic digestive ailments from select sites on the Internet? Just any sites? At that rate, try the guy in the street.

Good research habits didn't disappear with the arrival of the Internet and good libraries always verify sources. So if the Internet is not always reliable why is Bill Gates pouring $400,000,000 into libraries to provide access to the Internet? There are excellent resources on the Internet and many libraries have expert staff who can help you make better use of it. So how does this relate to libraries for the blind? Blind consumers need to know what makes a good library service in order to advocate for one. First we must understand that the general population needs a variety of information sources such as libraries, bookstores and the Internet for their ongoing education.

Myth number two if blind people had good bookstores they would not need libraries. Bookstores and libraries existed side by side for centuries and neither are disappearing in a hurry. Bookstores generally sell what is popular. Libraries collect and organise content based on subject expertise. No one owns every book needed for study or infotainment. Besides, libraries expand the minds and nourish creative souls in a community. Pearls of wisdom exist in both obscure as well as popular material and best content is usually what good libraries are about. Blind people need a variety of information sources that is accessible to them just like everyone else.

Myth number three is that public libraries meet the needs of those unable to read print in their communities. Lets face it, services are designed for the majority. Most communities do not have a critical mass of blind users able to influence good content for them. Canada is unique. Unlike most developed countries, it has no publicly funded national service for those unable to read print. The best countries have a national service and public libraries are part of this network. The review of the National Library of Canada called for a partnership with the CNIB and the Canadian Library Association said new federal money should go into the provision of reading materials for the blind.

Can we create successful blind students and employed professionals if we provide only a fraction of the content available to everyone else? Content is the issue! Libraries in Ontario offer millions of titles to every Ontarian able to read print but the Library of Congress data base of alternate format materials contains 350,000 titles from 5 countries! Most community-based collections of talking books are abridged. No library worth its salt would consider educating its community on half a book! Why should the lifelong learning of one group be accommodated from the public purse while others rely on charity? Blind consumers need to engage public policy makers on these issues.

Myth number four is that the digitisation of collections will solve access to publicly funded libraries for blind people. Millions of dollars are being spent on digital libraries everywhere. The Library of Congress, the worlds largest library, is going digital and, as well, the 122,000 libraries in the USA, according to the Globe and Mail (Monday, April 24, 2000). Will this mean that libraries for the blind wont exist? Don't bet on it. Many digital collections are PDF or TIFF files inaccessible to speech readers. Not all electronic files are created equal as we know and the needs of blind people are not driving this initiative.

There are indeed big changes up ahead as a result of electronic publishing and digital collections. Are libraries for the blind up to these challenges? Many began as transcription services rather than libraries building collections for blind people in all circumstances of life. Few hire professionals conversant with good sources for content and most are still likely to transcribe a book although the subject might be covered in excellent, accessible electronic journals. The next best thing to hiring subject expertise is partnering with libraries who do. This too requires a good understanding of sources of good content and a conscious strategy for staying connected to them. The same books are produced in Braille or other formats in many countries of the world including Canada. This is a wasteful use of thin resources. Collection building could be more effectively co-ordinated and research skills better deployed to finding accessible content faster. Blind consumers pay the price for less content everywhere.

Are blind people taught to use libraries well? Can those they depend on teach them good library skills? Do they know the questions to ask? Yet good consumers make better services. These are some of the questions that the IFLA Pre-conference in August 2001, Washington, USA hopes to ask of those attending. So what should blind consumers demand from public policy makers and libraries serving them in the information age? They should ask for much more content supported by public dollars, a nationally co-ordinated digital library service connected to other libraries and sources of best content, skilled information professionals, no duplication when accessible content is available elsewhere.

Indeed the CNIB Library for the Blind is going digital and was among the first libraries for the blind to acquire EBSCO Host and rights to Brittanica Online which made these collections instantly accessible to blind people anywhere. For example, there are 450 magazines in EbSCO Host. Over 17 Canadian newspapers are now widely accessible to blind people across the country with more to come. Collections are expanding with over 2, 800 new titles annually, as many as the Library of Congress puts into its network of libraries each year! While we are doing our utmost, and measure up with the best anywhere in the world, don't kid yourself, we know its not enough and so should you!