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Publishers, universities struggle to provide timely access to accessible textbooks

For visually impaired students, a lack of accessible learning materials “creates enormous barriers to success.”


When Alycia Pottie was a teenager, she lost most of her sight to a combination of glaucoma and uveitis, a form of ocular inflammation. She’s been legally blind ever since, and for the past four years, as a psychology student at Mount Saint Vincent University, she’s relied on the accommodations that many visually impaired Canadian students use: large-print course materials, extra time on exams and, critically, accessible electronic textbooks.

But in almost every class, she says, her semesters began with her waiting for most of her books – sometimes for a week, sometimes two, sometimes more. Because publishers require proof of purchase before providing accessible texts, Ms. Pottie bought hers far in advance of her fellow students, submitted proof of payment through her university’s accessibility services department, and then waited. Then, slowly, the same bureaucracy unfolded in the other direction, as publishers created an accessible text, then dispatched it through accessibility services and finally on to her.

“There isn’t enough staffing in accessibility services to keep on top of publishers,” says Ms. Pottie. As a result, when textbooks arrive late, “you’re trying to do two or three weeks of prior work on top of current work. You’re set up to fail.”

Ms. Pottie’s experience isn’t unique or even especially egregious. Last year, McGill University law student Didier Chelin filed a complaint against the university with the Quebec Human Rights Commission, alleging he had been left without accessible course materials for months, and wasn’t provided with a scribe for exams and assignments as required. A decision in the case is still pending and could take years.

The problem is so widespread that last October, CNIB (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind) president John Rafferty sent a letter to university presidents nationwide, exhorting them to treat the issue with greater urgency. Mr. Rafferty says the response overall was “underwhelming,” leaving the organization examining next steps. “I know universities have a lot of pressures, and this is a small population of only about 4,500 students across the country,” he says. “But it creates enormous barriers to success for them.”

Athol Gow is manager of library accessibility services at the University of Guelph. He points out that even when textbooks do arrive, copyright concerns mean they’re often tied to proprietary platforms provided by the publisher, rather than being made accessible in students’ preferred accessibility software. “Students often have to learn how to use multiple platforms, with different logins, layouts and feature sets, just to read their texts,” he says. As well, because accessibility services staff at many universities handle requests from students with a panoply of disabilities, the formats that work best for one student may not work well for others.

Mr. Rafferty at CNIB says that while fixing these issues will take time, as well as coordination between educational institutions, governments and publishers, there is one area where universities can start making immediate fixes: in-class handouts and other professor-created content, especially materials reproduced from academic journals, presentations and news sources.

“Blind students are the ones most affected by course content provided or created by professors,” says Jeff Buhse, an assistive technologist at the University of Manitoba’s accessibility services department. “With articles and handouts in class, there’s often little stress institutionally to make that kind of content accessible.”

There are a number of simple things professors can do, such as ensuring that handouts are free of margin notes (since they can easily confuse screen-readers), and that photocopies from newspapers, journals or magazines don’t contain superfluous snatches of adjacent articles. PDFs must be readable by optical-character recognition software, meaning they must originate from a clear, sharp original scan.

Ms. Pottie says that while most of her professors were sympathetic to those concerns and eager to help, “there are always bad apples …there is a system in place to deal with accommodations if they aren’t met, but you have to go through a long process. It can feel as if you’re being put on trial.”

That’s where stronger legislation is needed, says Mr. Buhse. But, in Canada, accessibility legislation, like so much else, varies from province to province. “Manitoba is behind Ontario, for example,” he says. “Ontario passed provincial accessibility legislation in 2005, and ours didn’t come until 2013. So we’re playing catch-up, and things have slowed down in the past few years in terms of implementing.” The federal government recently passed Bill C-81, the Accessible Canada Act , but it only applies to Parliament, Crown corporations, the federal government and private-sector businesses under federal jurisdiction.

So, for the time being, the responsibility to provide accessible materials falls on a patchwork of individual professors, university bureaucracies, publishers and non-profits. Capacity varies widely by province and even by university, making for a fragmented and challenging landscape for students to navigate.

“We’re trying to create a shift, as an organization, in employment levels by Canadians who are blind or partially sighted,” says Mr. Rafferty. “A big part of that is creating an education system that enables a lifetime of economic participation.”

Ms. Pottie, who graduated this past May, says “there were lots of times when I wanted to give up. But I’m glad I didn’t. Even the most terrible times taught me so much about how to advocate for myself, and that’s going to be important for the rest of my life.”

What is an accessible textbook?


That depends on the nature and severity of a person’s disability, and their preferred format. For students with visual impairments, it may mean a braille book or one in a large-print format. However, most visually impaired students today use screen-reading software that vocally reads text from digital textbooks provided in a variety of formats (including PDF, EPUB and others). If documents are properly structured, screen readers can voice content such as headings, page numbers and descriptions of images. Popular software includes JAWS, NV Access and Apple’s VoiceOver, all of which allow users to navigate texts using a combination of keyboard and voice commands, rather than a mouse.

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