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The Challenges of Academic Research: A Conversation Between a Graduate Student and Her Advisor

Editor's Note: In 2009, Chelsea Mohler entered the research-intensive Masters program in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Western Ontario, where she experienced new challenges and barriers due, in part, to her limited sight. Below, she and her advisor, Lisa Klinger (Lecturer, School of Occupational Therapy), describe the barriers and the strategies they used to overcome them. They provide alternating perspectives.

Chelsea: In the first year of my masters, I, like all other students in my program, was required to take four mandatory courses, two of which covered research methods and were reading-intensive. As advised by the university's disability office, I obtained a detailed list of reading materials early on from course instructors, and gave it to the disability office. Unfortunately, the course materials did not arrive on time, so I could not begin my course readings at the same time as the other students. After discussing the option of completing my courses on a reduced timetable—one course per term for four terms, rather than the suggested four courses in the first two terms—to permit for delays in the delivery of reading materials in an alternate format, it was decided the reduced timetable would be the most effective option.

Lisa: I am primarily a lecturer in a School of Occupational Therapy, but I also accept a few research Masters' level students every year. When I was asked to supervise Chelsea, my approach was the same as it is for any student interested in working with me—we need to be able to get along well together and be comfortable giving and receiving constructive feedback. The values that I learned as an OT very much came to the fore. I accepted Chelsea as a person first; if we were at ease with one another, then I believed we could overcome any problems together. While this is a useful starting point, it did lead to some difficulties, as I often didn't anticipate barriers. I now realize that I might have been more proactive (for example, helping Chelsea obtain accessible readings sooner).

The reduced timetable that Chelsea describes has resulted in requiring, and paying for, an extra term to complete her degree.

Chelsea: As part of the program, all students had to take one course in quantitative research methods; this course involved sophisticated statistical calculations, graphs and charts—all very visual. In order to ensure that I understood course materials, I hired a tutor in consultation with my supervisor and the disability office. This extra assistance had to be paid out-of-pocket, as funding for such services was not available through the university's disability office. The tutor created tactile models of graphs, reviewed and explained (in a non-visual way) course lectures, and translated equations into a format compatible with screen reading software (JAWS). This was time-intensive, so the progress of my research was slightly delayed.

Lisa: I must admit that I didn't anticipate the degree of difficulty Chelsea would have with the material in the quantitative research course, perhaps because I tend to specialize in qualitative research. Thankfully, she is a strong advocate for herself, and she immediately spoke with me and with the course professor as soon as it became clear that she was struggling with the material. The willingness of the course professor to provide accommodations, in combination with the tutoring, enabled Chelsea to do well in this course. Chelsea and I also discussed the additional costs that she was assuming for the tutoring, but the disability office has a policy that tutoring is not an allowable expense. While this policy is designed to prevent students with disabilities from having an unfair advantage over other students, in Chelsea's case, this policy was unhelpful.

Chelsea: During the second year of the program, I began focusing on my research project. In order to do research with human subjects, ethical approval is required from the university's ethical review board. This meant completing a lengthy application outlining the study aims, methods of gathering data and obtaining consent from participants, and strategies for recruiting participants. The ethics application form, however, was not accessible with screen reading software, as all of the formal instructions were only available in a portable document file (PDF); this form of document is a scanned image of a printed page, and cannot be read by adaptive software. While it was possible to request the application form in an alternate format, the time this may have taken could have significantly delayed the research. In addition, there was no process for electronic submission of research proposals, so I obtained a research assistant in order to word process, print, and make the necessary copies of the ethics document in a timely manner. I provided feedback to the review board detailing the current barriers for students with vision impairments, and suggested methods to change current forms, documents and policies to better facilitate this process.
To carry out my research, I conducted semi-structured interviews with seven blind and partially sighted participants. Prior to my first interview, my advisor and I discussed how a researcher with a vision impairment could gather information on interviewees' non-verbal language.

Lisa: By second year, Chelsea was becoming more independent in arranging accommodations. Whereas in first year I had to assist her with completing any documentation in PDF format, by second year she had hired an assistant to handle these sorts of barriers. The qualitative methodology she had elected to use also has specific requirements that include conducting, recording and transcribing interviews with participants at a time and place convenient for the participant; keeping notes of observations made during the interviews, including the participants' facial expressions and body movements; and organizing the voluminous content of the interviews into themes that enhance understanding about the particular question being researched. Because of the visual nature of some of these tasks, Chelsea needed to draw on additional help from her assistant. With the help of a senior administrator and the support of the Dean of the Faculty, we were able to arrange a special internal university grant to cover the expenses of the research assistant. This extra bit of money has been helpful in allowing Chelsea to meet the requirements of the program.

Chelsea: As part of a research Master's degree, I was required to search for and synthesize many different forms of literature. Most of the information was either available online as a PDF file or as a printed book or article. I could not limit my literature search to only those articles that were accessible, as many of the most relevant textbooks detailing constructivist methodology (qualitative social and situational research) were only available in printed format. Through working with the university librarian, strategies were implemented to convert these inaccessible materials into an accessible format. However, with limited resources available, this process was time-consuming and resulted in many delays. The supports provided by the library services also extended to locating books and other resources that could be searched via electronic databases.

Lisa: We are fortunate to have a librarian who has a strong interest in issues of accessibility for students with disabilities. The librarian was instrumental in giving Chelsea reasonably rapid access (within a week or two) to the literature she needed. The work of the librarian supplemented the services of the disability office, which has too few resources at its disposal to rapidly scan and convert textbooks and journal articles, given the needs of the university's growing population of students with disabilities.

Some Final Thoughts

Chelsea: In order to successfully complete a research master's degree, I needed to have a clear understanding of what accommodations I would require throughout the process, and how these accommodations would impact the timelines of the program. For example, receiving texts in alternate formats often takes more time to produce, and thus my courses were completed in a two-term period, rather than in the one term taken by most students. Having a strong sense of the course and degree expectations enabled me to not only manage the timing of my research project, but allowed me to plan how I would acquire the necessary resources (E.G. a research assistant) I would require for completion of my research.

Lisa: In working with Chelsea, I have learned a great deal. In particular, it's clear that in order for a student with a vision impairment to be successful at the graduate level, he or she must be very organized, plan ahead, anticipate barriers, be determined to succeed, and advocate strongly for her/himself. As a supervisor, I have had to be supportive, willing to spend some extra time and energy engaged in advocacy, and open to new ways of doing things. It's been an interesting and satisfying process. The experience of supervising a graduate student with a vision impairment would be much improved, however, if university processes and policies for such students were more specific and based on greater sensitivity to actual barriers; if there was an effective and easily accessible mechanism for students to recover additional expenses incurred as a direct result of the vision impairment; and if accessible versions of books and journal articles were more readily available.

Note: The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians is a strong supporter of self-advocacy, the timely provision of textbooks in alternate formats, and accommodations that level the playing field for students who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

Education: Past, Present and Future

Editor's Note: Antonina Caruana is an AEBC member. She has attended both McGill University and the University of Montreal, and is a licensed social worker.

Many changes have occurred over the last two to three decades for students who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted. Personal computers, adaptive software, the internet, note-taking devices, and texts available in various formats have all helped to transform the ways in which blind people access course materials, take tests and complete assignments. Along with improved public attitudes towards inclusion, these technological advances have meant that more and more students with vision impairments are being integrated into the regular classroom--from the elementary and high school levels right through university and continuing education classes. The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) has also played a part. Since its founding in 1992, the consumer group has advocated for increased braille instruction, timely conversion of textbooks into alternative formats, availability of accessible materials in libraries, and for increased website accessibility. But its advocacy is ongoing, as the education system is still not truly inclusive.

In the mid 1980s, blind students who did not attend segregated schools had to adapt to a “sighted” classroom with whatever support or technology was on hand, as adaptive devices such as talking computers and scanners were not yet available. They read large-print enhancements or braille transcriptions of printed documents, and listened to audiocassette recordings of classes. Texts were read onto tape by volunteers and submitted assignments were typewritten. Exams, on the other hand, were administered orally, or dictated by someone, then transcribed onto paper. Even though such learning methods increased students’ workloads, it was the only way they could be integrated into the regular classroom. At the time, there were no groups like the AEBC to advocate on behalf of blind students.

By the late 1980s and 1990s, when computers with screen readers and scanning software finally made their way into the education system, blind students were using pre-recorded textbooks, available through Recording for the Blind in the United States and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Toronto, as well as volunteer readers who would tape otherwise unavailable class materials onto cassette. But both methods could be problematic. Often the pre-recorded textbooks that were available were older editions than those currently being used. In addition, it was not uncommon for there to be too few readers to record materials for each course. When readers could not be found, texts often went unread, putting a student’s ability to keep up with exams and assignments in jeopardy. Also, as the internet had not yet appeared, blind students required research assistants. Research material then had to be brailled or recorded onto cassette before a blind student could access it--this on top of their usual course materials. And, if there was a shortage of texts on cassette, one can only imagine what was available in braille. Braille transcription can be a costly and lengthy process, and many students turned to readers, computers or other devices for their educational needs, though braille devotees usually incorporate the code into their studies somehow.

With the 1990s came screen-reading programs such as VERT, Screen Reader and JAWS, as well as scanning software like Kurzweil and Open Book. Operating systems like Windows also began making an appearance. For braille users, devices like the Braille Mate were much improved. Scanning course materials onto disc so that they could be read with a speech program became an integral part of one’s research and studies. Such technological advances permitted greater independence for blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted students, and encouraged more to pursue higher learning and complete their post-secondary programs, not to mention entertain career aspirations equal to their sighted peers.

With the advent of the 21st century, advancements in adaptive software and, of course, the rise of the internet, spelled increased independence and success for blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted students. For example, they were incorporating Power Point into their class presentations, something unheard of just ten years earlier. Emailing notes and assignments became as integral as using a tape recorder or brailler. Using the internet to download one’s own materials, conduct research, and read articles, journals etc. meant that they could independently complete class requirements. Being able to access books online, or through interlibrary loan, no longer meant sifting through hours of printed materials with a research assistant and then having them converted to cassette or braille. Even though computers and software programs have become such an important part of a blind person’s life, both in and out of the classroom, many still often choose to combine both braille and computers in their studies. Once computers became a fundamental part of a student’s education, organizations like the AEBC began advocating for improved website usability, timely access to alternative-format textbooks, and increased financial assistance for students in acquiring adaptive technologies. It also began offering scholarships to post-secondary students in the late 1990s.

Today, blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted students are much more easily integrated into the classroom, not to mention prepared for course requirements, than they were just 20 to 30 years ago. Third-party software programs, braille devices, scanners, note takers, reading and recording equipment, and video magnification devices have given people with sight impairments incentives to pursue education at all levels. The World Wide Web, access to internet sites, online courses and the use of interlibrary loans has also given students academic independence for advanced studies and research. Downloading and uploading texts, obtaining books on CD, using the Victor Reader and recordings on the Victor Stream, are a far cry from having to rely on cassettes, out-of-date textbooks, and volunteer readers. From elementary school to continuing education classes, inclusion is slowly becoming a reality.

A far greater number of persons with vision impairments are now in an integrative educational environment than 30 years ago. No longer does print have to be an inevitable hindrance in achieving higher education and career aspirations, as it can now be accessed in many ways. Consumer groups like the AEBC are on stride, but more needs to be done to increase accessibility and then to translate that into true inclusion. In the end, it comes down to one thing: full integration and accessibility are possible if society’s attitudes towards blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people and their abilities can be improved, and if all stakeholders have the willingness to see it through.

The Changing Nature of Public Libraries

Editor's Note: The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) has been advocating for accessible public library services for years, and is currently engaged, in a Coalition with other groups representing people with print disabilities, in attempts to have the public library system provide more of its services through mainstream means, rather than print-disabled Canadians having to rely on segregated and charitable disability-related organizations for their information needs. John Rae is AEBC's 1st Vice President.

Many of us believe our public library systems should do more to better serve Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted. While this is reasonable for us to expect, as we also pay taxes that support our local libraries, do we make good use of what's currently available at our local library?

For a long time, many blind persons never thought about visiting their local library, and many of us probably still don't. After all, why should we? The CNIB Library sends us some books through the mail and over the internet in braille, large print, audio and electronic formats, and too many of us still assume public libraries have little to offer us...

But times have changed!

Libraries do remain repositories of books, mostly in print. Libraries also now offer an increasing range and variety of audio books, recordings and the chance to download materials electronically. Many libraries also offer adaptive equipment, such as low vision aids, and screen-reading and -magnification software, to conduct research. Inter-library loans can help us gain access to materials in the collections of libraries in other parts of the country that our own system may not have.

Many libraries also do much more. Many offer public lectures on a wide range of topics, from upcoming theatrical productions to the chance to hear and even meet noteworthy authors. Many also offer book clubs, which provide the opportunity to come together with like-minded citizens to engage in stimulating discussion on a new or classic work.

The future of library service requires a two-sided approach. Public libraries do need to do more to serve Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, but we must also do our part, to expect more from public libraries, learn to patronize them more, and participate more in the programs they offer.

Today, many local libraries are threatened by the prospect of cutbacks, and they need more patrons. The more we look for programs that will interest us, and get involved, the more likely our public library will do that better job of serving us that we seek.

This is a win-win idea, whose time has come.

Pornographic Magazine for the Blind Launched

A pornographic magazine for the blind has been launched--complete with explicit text and raised pictures of naked men and women. The book, the brainchild of Lisa Murphy and called Tactile Minds, is designed to be "enjoyed" by the blind and visually impaired--and is on sale for 150 pounds.

Among the 17 raised images include a naked woman in a "disco pose", a woman with "perfect breasts" and a "male love robot."

Canadian Lisa says that she made the book to fill a gap in the market, adding: "There are no books of tactile pictures of nudes for adults.

"We're breaking new ground. Playboy has an edition with braille wording, but there are no pictures."

She said that she made the book after realizing that the "blind have been left out in a culture saturated with sexual images".

Between 1970 and 1985, Playboy printed copies of its famous magazine in braille--but without raised pictures.

Reprinted from the Telegraph (United Kingdom), April 12, 2010.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

Editor's Note: Chris Stark is a long-time advocate for increased access, universal design and true inclusion. He is an AEBC member living in Ottawa, Ontario.

It seems to me that the older I get, the harder it is to be independent. While my specialist and hospital clinics communicate with me by email, Health Canada and its agencies do not. Canada Pension Plan will, but I have to call and then wait three weeks. The Ontario government is no better in providing accessible information. I do get pills in bubble packs, paid for by the pharmacy/government, with the packs containing the correct doses of medication for each time of day for a week. This means I can avoid taking the wrong pills in the wrong amounts at the wrong time. Recently, I was asked to monitor my blood glucose level. Here, I outline the research I did on talking blood glucose monitors.

Finding information about products that can be used by persons who are blind is not always easy. As a first step, I spoke with a number of people who are blind, and received a great deal of useful and practical advice. I strongly suggest that others do likewise.

The Canadian Diabetes Care Guide website ( was helpful in learning about blood-glucose monitoring. While the United States continues to use imperial measurements (milligrams/deciliter), Canada began using millimoles/litre in 1967. Make certain the device you choose can give readings this way.

An article I found particularly useful was "Evaluating Glucose Meters: Talk is Cheap, But Access is Golden" ( Published by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the United States, it says: "The contemporary meters are smaller, faster, and much less expensive than older choices, require only a tiny drop of blood, and are easier to use. However, buyer beware! While these meters are being aggressively marketed to blind and low vision users, only the Prodigy Voice is totally accessible. Despite the hype, you will find that you need sighted assistance to use essential functions such as time and date, and memory review on many of these products." Another NFB article is "The Talking Blood Glucose Monitor Revolution" (

Present choices for talking glucose monitors include Prodigy Voice, Prodigy Autocode, Oracle, Advocate, Redi-Code, Companion, Embrace, Clever-Chek, Smartest Smart Talk, and the Accu Check VoiceMate. I have tried the Prodigy Voice and the Oracle.

There are basically three activities involved in monitoring your blood sugar level: pricking the skin with a lancet from an applicator; getting some blood and putting it on the test strip; and having the blood glucose monitor read the result to you. Also, in my case, doctors want to see the record of readings.

Both the Oracle and Prodigy monitors come with manuals in audio format. While I found each manual adequate, the one for the Prodigy contains a chapter on carrying out a blood sugar test as someone who is blind, which I found useful.

Each talking glucose monitor comes with lancets and lancet devices, but it appears that it doesn't matter which ones you use; there are universal lancets available that fit most lancing devices. The test strips used for each monitor, though, are specific to that product. Once you decide on which monitor to use, the correct strips have to be purchased. The talking monitors are usually free or very low cost, but the test strips are fairly expensive. The Prodigy I use requires the Prodigy Voice strips.

Both the Oracle and Prodigy come with software to install on a computer to record readings. Each has an internal memory to keep track of about 400-plus readings. While the Oracle software is not accessible without using a mouse, the Prodigy software is supposed to be accessible, though it was being updated at the time of this writing. The company did acknowledge that the software would be reviewed by people who are blind to make sure it continues to be usable.

I personally find the Prodigy more user friendly than the Oracle. It is easier to get blood onto the strips and get a reading, and the review and settings functions are totally accessible. While I can control the Prodigy independently, sighted help is required to alter the Oracle's settings and read the history of results. The downside of all of this is that neither device is available in my province and test strips have yet to be approved for use. Therefore, you have to order the devices from a supplier.

The Prodigy can be ordered from several U.S. places, which ship it as "Medical Supplies for the Blind." They go right through customs, but you should check on regulations (Canada Customs: English: 1-800-461-9999; French: 1-800-959-2036). Future Aids/The Braille Superstore is a Canadian company that sells the Prodigy in provinces where the device has been approved for use (Toll Free: 1-800-987-1231; Email:; Website:

As a newbie, I found it challenging to tell if I had punctured the skin to get enough blood to test. But as the Prodigy manual says, "Don't give up, keep trying and practice, practice, practice." And though I shouldn't be, I'm appalled at the lack of locally available, useful information. Diabetic organizations and most pharmacies had no information for people who are blind. The only device they knew about, and could get, was ten-year-old technology, the Accu-Check VoiceMate, in which the audio is an add-on. It is the most expensive of them all, costing $400-$500.

Compared to when I was younger, the same old problems persist--lack of resources and lack of accessible information, not to mention people who know nothing about blindness except perhaps pity. This has motivated me to outline my impressions and experiences as a new user, hoping to help others who find themselves in a similar situation.

Braille Illiteracy is a Growing Problem

Ronnay Howard is 9 years old and legally blind with cornrows in her hair and a smile on her face. She sits in front of a keyboard in the resource room for the visually impaired at Engleburg Elementary School, her small hands moving methodically over six large keys. She is writing in braille, spelling out a single word--furious. “I know I'm really good at it,” she says.

This is how braille is learned and how it is preserved, one student at a time, one word at a time. Technology has been a great leveller, a blessing in this modern age for those with visual impairments. It has enabled tens of thousands of people to access written material quickly, to hear what they cannot see. But there is an underside to the use of technology, to all the cassette tapes and digital recordings of everything from romance novels to textbooks to government forms. It is called braille illiteracy.

The National Federation of the Blind has been waging a campaign to ensure that those who are visually impaired learn how to read braille. According to a report issued last year by the advocacy group, fewer than 10% of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind in America are braille readers. Reasons for the low rate of braille literacy include a shortage of braille teachers, schools not offering braille to students who have low vision, and a so-called “spiral of misunderstanding” that the system is slow and difficult to learn.

The report also zeroed in on the “paradox of technology,” which makes braille more available than ever before yet also makes more audio available, too. Now, people routinely use audio to read, with digital technology or computer software that translates the written word into speech. “Every time a new technology came along, they said this is the thing that can replace braille,” says Marc Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind’s Jernigan Institute in Baltimore.

Braille Takes Back Seat: Riccobono, a Milwaukee native who was diagnosed with glaucoma at age 5, says that during the 1960s and 1970s there was an influx of blind students into the public education system. With a shortage of braille teachers, a convenient way to educate the children was with audio devices. “You had a whole generation that grew up without braille,” he says.

The bicentennial of the birth of braille’s creator was celebrated last year. A blind Frenchman named Louis Jean-Philippe Braille created a system of raised dots to allow the blind to read. He did it by modifying a French military code that was used by soldiers to communicate in the dark without using lanterns.

Braille opened up a new world of possibility and education. During the middle of the 20th century, about half of visually impaired school-age students in America read braille. Now, it’s around 1 out of 10.

In Milwaukee Public Schools, about 20 students--out of 130 visually Impaired--read braille. Some students in the system have multiple disabilities.

“People realize that braille is literacy,” says Hope Good, who works in program support at Engleburg Elementary. “You can't spell or punctuate with a tape recorder.”

Marilyn Harmon, who teaches the visually impaired, says most braille readers “catch up with their sighted peers by the fifth grade.” For adults, it’s trickier. Harmon took a semester-long course in braille and needed two tries to pass a state certification exam. “Braille is making a comeback,” she says. And Milwaukee provides a key to that resurgence.

At the central branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, a remarkable collection of transcribers and technicians keeps braille alive. This is the home of Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement Inc.--known as ABLE. The non-profit group provides braille transcriptions as well as audio items for those unable to use print materials.

Cheryl Orgas is ABLE’s executive director. Blind since birth, Orgas was the first member of her family to graduate from college. For her, braille is a cornerstone of education. “Seventy percent of the blind are unemployed in this country,” Orgas says. “Of the remaining 30% who have jobs, 80% of them know braille.

“Braille is attached to literacy and to success in employment.”

For audio material, the group uses 24 volunteer readers. For braille, there are 12 volunteer transcribers. Most of the volunteers work at home. It takes around 20 hours to transcribe, proofread and then print 69 pages of braille. The organization transcribes around 1,000 items into braille each year.

“We're doing estate plans, tax returns, opera librettos and symphony orchestra programs,” Orgas says. “The budget for this organization is in braille.”

Cheri McGrath, ABLE’s board president, has been blind since birth. She recalls that when she was a child she knew she needed to learn braille. She remembers being in a bathtub and discussing with her mother the various spellings and meanings for teddy bear, bare arms and Bayer aspirin. “If you didn't have a written language, you'd be the odd man out,” McGrath says. “Spelling brings us together.”

Reprinted from the Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee, February 2, 2010.

Accessibility at Universities is "A Moral Obligation"

"Disability is one element of the identity that makes a person whole," says Rabia Kedhr, speaking in Brock's Sankey Chamber. As a university student, Rabia Kedhr was accommodated, but she wasn't always included. And that's something higher education needs to change, she says.

In a May 14 speech in Brock University's Sankey Chamber, the well-known accessibility advocate recalled, as a blind student, having to study alone in a room in the library. There was equipment to accommodate her, she said, but she was excluded from the normal study tips, gossip and other student bonding.

"No one knew why Rabia went back to the secret room in the library," she said. "While the rest of them went to study hall, I missed out on building those relationships. It excludes you from the norm."

Kedhr's talk was sponsored by the Office of Human Rights and Equity Services and the University Accessibility Coordinator. She recalled an Economics professor who told her that, because of her blindness, "My style won't work for you." In the end, she managed to demonstrate to the university that her poor grade wasn't because of her ability to learn, but because she wasn't accommodated.

She only knew about social events from her friends, she said. The events were mainly promoted through print advertisements, which weren't accessible to her.

These are examples of struggles students with disabilities face every day. The province's Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act is part of creating a more accessible world, she said.

"Equality in the context of disability means we have to create campus conditions that serve all of us," she said. "We have to accept that people with disabilities and people without disabilities are, in fact, the same. We have to start from that common ground of belonging."

Kedhr is a consultant with DiversityworX, specializing in accessibility and social inclusion. She has more than 15 years of personal and professional experience in accessibility, community development and outreach with persons with disabilities.

Future decisions on accessibility need to include people with disabilities, she said. And each organization needs "internal champions" who will fight for it.

"In doing so, you contribute to the ultimate quality of life of every student," she said. "Education is the true foundation of peace and prosperity. It's the bedrock of any civilized society. We have a moral obligation to make it accessible."

Reprinted from the Brock News, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, May 19, 2010:

Equitable Access to Print

Editor's Note: Beryl Williams is an AEBC member who lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When she retired from teaching to raise her children, she became active in the disability consumer movement.

I have been unable to read conventional print throughout my adult life and have relied entirely on audio books, produced and provided through a number of not-for-profit, voluntary, charitable sources. Over the years, I have enjoyed a wide variety of classic and contemporary fiction and non-fiction. There has been a significant interest throughout the past two decades in increasing parity between print and alternate format collections in Canadian public libraries. There has also been a noticeable increase in audio books produced by commercial publishers; however, the largest proportion of alternate format titles is still produced through the benevolent auspices of that same voluntary, charitable, non-profit sector.

In compliance with Canada's Copyright Act, these non-profit producers are granted exempt status from copyright royalty payments. This requires that such alternate format publications must only be made available to registered, eligible non-print reading Canadians. This has effectively created special/segregated library services for those unable to read conventional print formats. This, in turn, has effectively restricted accessibility and availability of preferred reading choices for one specific segment of Canadian society.

In contrast, commercially produced titles, usually audio, not having the copyright exempt status, are available to anyone wishing to listen to, rather than read, a book. The market for commercially produced audio has exploded over the past five years, along with another growing trend towards provision of electronic digital texts online for purchase or loan. As a result of technical advances in production and publishing, individuals requiring audio formats also now have greater preferred reading options.

Public libraries have risen to the challenge of Inclusion and equitable access for print handicapped Canadians, and are prepared to put their collective support fully behind the concept of making a publicly funded and operated public library system a reality for everyone across Canada. As a public library patron for over 40 years, I have witnessed significant changes in the variety of services provided to enhance the library experience for those unable to access conventional print information. These include: personal assistance with locating specific titles; technologies to enable access to newspapers and personal print reading material; online availability of community, provincial and national information; and a genuine willingness to accommodate the needs of library patrons, regardless of differences or limitations.

It is important to recognize and acclaim the proactive involvement of both stake- and Rights-holder organizations in pursuing equitable access to Canadian public libraries for patrons who historically have been compelled to accept limited access to the services and benefits provided to other Canadians, through Canada’s National Public Library System. I believe that this is a very complex issue for all parties concerned, and will require serious cooperation and collaboration from every quarter--all three levels of government, commercial publishers and authors, alternate format producers, libraries and all end users--if Canadians unable to use conventional print information are to be afforded the Right and Responsibility to participate and benefit fully from equitable access to public libraries across the country.

New Resources

Editor's Note: Compiled by John Rae, AEBC 1st Vice President

- A growing number of Canadians are realizing that success in combating poverty depends on action being rooted in a strong human rights framework. To watch a 9-minute video entitled The Story of Human Rights, go to:

- Critical Disability Discourse (CDD) is an online, bilingual, interdisciplinary journal that publishes articles focusing on disability experiences. Access the journal at:

- "The Consumer Vision" is a publication covering topics of interest to people with disabilities. To read past issues, visit For information, contact Bob Branco at or 508-994-4972.

- The American Foundation for the Blind is offering a reduced rate for its individual subscriptions to the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB). For $65 (U.S.) individual subscribers receive 12 print issues of the journal and online access to more than 10 years of content. A one-year online individual subscription costs $25 (non-U.S. subscribers will be charged an additional $36 for shipping&handling). Contact AFB Press at 800-232-3044, email or visit:

- ABISee offers the Eye-Pal SOLO, a self-contained device that instantly reads from newspapers, books, magazines etc. Simply place a document face up on the device, and it reads the printed material aloud. It can also output magnified text to a screen. Requires no computer skills or sighted assistance. Learn more at:

- HumanWare recently released its Orator software for BlackBerry Smartphones. This screen reader application enables blind users to access and operate BlackBerry Smartphones. For further information, visit:

- The Audio Dart Master is a fully speaking electronic dartboard featuring talking menus and game instructions, announcements of every hit, inside and outside indicators, large buttons and more. Dart games offered include various countdowns, high score, golf, baseball and cricket. Also available are a portable stand, roll-out carpet and tactile toe line. Visit or call (763) 383-0077.

- "Stitch by Stitch: Sewing with Low Vision" is a 185-page book providing detailed descriptions and large images of adaptive techniques and tools for such crafts as sewing, knitting and embroidery. Also included is a chapter on locating low vision aids. Available in large print only, for $25 (U.S.). Contact Horizons for the Blind at (815) 444-8800, or email:

UK's First Educational E-Book Library Launched Online

The UK's (United Kingdom) first online library of educational textbooks in a range of digital formats accessible to visually impaired students has been launched. ”Books for All” is a joint project between The Seeing Ear (, a website which provides electronic books for visually disabled people, and the University of Edinburgh. It allows authorized and registered teachers and students with visual impairments to access an online catalogue of alternative format educational books for free.

Accessible books are uploaded to the database by teachers, and can then be freely downloaded by other schools or registered users in formats such as plain text, Word and PDF. Tony Dart, chief executive of The Seeing Ear, said the system should eliminate the problem of people across the UK having to convert the same book into a format accessible for visually impaired students many times. "If a book is a set text, it's very often converted locally, with varying degrees of quality. This way, we can have one person upload an e-book to make it available for everybody."

Dart said that if successful, the project would have a "vast and positive impact" on accessible e-learning. There are currently around 100 educational titles available through the service, and Dart says he hopes this number will increase as more schools join. Around 250 schools are already registered.

Future plans to improve the service include a collaborative editing system to correct any mistakes to uploaded texts, and an online converter to automatically switch between accessible formats as required.

Reprinted from E-Access Bulletin, ISSUE 120, December 2009, the free email newsletter on access technology by people with impaired vision:


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