Some of My Thoughts on Library Service Delivery and the Print-impaired

I was happily surprised last week when I contacted the Centre for People with Disabilities at the Toronto Public Library and a staff member at the Library offered to digitize a book that I had requested. I am completely blind, and therefore cannot access information available through print alone. The title that I was requesting Vision Canada: the unmet needs of blind Canadians (Cyril Greenland, 1976), was only available in print, which is not unreasonable considering the age of the work.

This event, for which I am thankful, affords me the opportunity to discuss my thoughts on the provision of library services for the print-impaired. Although I would say that my thoughts are anything but complete, and I welcome comment and discussion; I have spent a great deal of time brewing over my position, and feel certain enough about what I believe to write about it publicly. To clarify, I use the term "print-impaired" to refer to the group of persons who have one or more disabilities that prevent them from being able to use printed material effectively.

There are many public libraries in Canada. Almost any public library is going to have within its collection a number of books in one ore more alternative formats (e.g. audio and large print). To the best of my knowledge there is no public library in Canada where the size of the alternative format collection is anything more than a tiny fraction of the library's entire collection. Furthermore, some of the alternative format books available in most libraries are abridged versions of the original works. Nevertheless, for someone who is print-impaired, these alternative formats can be a useful resource, depending on the particular alternative format and the nature of the individuals print-impairment.

The CNIB also has an alternative format library available to its clients, individuals who are blind, deafblind or partially sighted and who are registered with the organization. I am not sure of the exact number of titles in CNIB's collection, but I believe that it is approximately one-hundred-thousand. This sounds like a great number of titles, and is likely the largest collection of alternative format materials in Canada. To give some perspective to the number of titles available through CNIB, the Toronto Public Library currently has in its collection approximately eleven-million titles (this includes all formats, almost all of which are print), and the New Brunswick Public Library System, has in its collection over one-million-eight-hundred-thousand items. It goes without saying, and will not be argued here, that Canadians with print-impairments have access to only a sliver of the information available to non-print-impaired Canadians through public libraries.

Looking back to the Toronto Public Library's act of last week, digitizing a title for me which until now was only available in the Library's collection in print, I ask myself two questions. Firstly, am I truly thankful for what the Library was able to do to accommodate my print-impairment? Secondly, what can be learned from this action and what further action can be taken to make more titles available to more persons with print-impairments?

In one sense my question of thankfulness is rhetorical. I am of course thankful to the Library, and its staff, for making a title available to me that until now was not. I wonder, however, how many times I and other patrons with print-impairments can make such a request of the Library before we are told 'no more'. I am therefore not overwhelmed with joy. Human rights law in Ontario requires that organizations offering a public service provide "reasonable accommodation" to persons with disabilities. Clearly further discussion needs to take place to determine what exactly is required of a public library in Ontario to comply to this law. And, it is important to take into consideration that the Library cannot necessarily comply as thoroughly as it would like without finding itself in the position of "undue hardship". Making the entirety of the Library's collection accessible to all patrons with print-impairments would cost more than many years worth of the total Library budget, which would mean that no patrons would be able to access the Library's valuable resources.

Some tough decisions do need to be made by public Libraries to clarify what types of accommodations they can offer to their print-impaired patrons. Firstly Libraries need to decide what it means to reasonably accommodate a patron with a print-impairment who wishes to access a title in its current collection that is not available in a format that the patron can use. Secondly libraries need to decide if there is a limit to the number of times they can provide this reasonable accommodation in a given fiscal year. Finally Libraries need a robust plan for ensuring that all new titles acquired are available in a format that can be accessed by the print-impaired.

Luckily the Toronto Public Library is not interested in making important decisions about accessibility alone, I am happy to share that the Toronto Public Library is interested in knowing what patrons think about its accessibility policies and practices, and has a page on its web-site titled Accessibility Policy - Tell Us What You Think.

There are three questions that I believe all public libraries in Canada need to ask themselves in order to make library services more accessible to patrons with print-impairments. Firstly, how can we make the resources that we currently have in our collection accessible. Secondly, how can we ensure that all new resources are accessible. Thirdly, how can we make resources accessible in the most efficient way possible, so as not to have libraries across the country duplicating efforts.

I do not believe that the issues that I have raised here are new or innovative, nor do I believe that they address all of the barriers faced by persons with disabilities when attempting to access public library services. I do, however, think that these issues are important, and that they merit public discussion and debate. As we all work together toward removing the barriers faced by persons with disabilities, we will enable them to be full participants in Canadian society, culture and the economy.