Four levels to accessible communications

I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!


Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.

The four levels are:

  1. discovery—can users find your communication?
  2. acquisition—can users get your communication?
  3. use—can users use your communication?
  4. comprehension—can users understand your communication?

Continue reading “Four levels to accessible communications”

Collapsing the dimensions of communication space

In June, I was lucky enough to attend Information+, a phenomenal data visualization and information design conference at Emily Carr University. One of the keynote speakers was Colin Ware, renowned for his pioneering work on visual thinking and cognitive processing. At the end of Ware’s talk, Yanni Loukissas, assistant professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, asked him: “Don’t we have an ethical obligation to consider people who have colourblindness or stereoblindness in our visualizations?”

Ware responded, “As a designer, I always want to use of all of design space,” suggesting that limiting the palette only to the colours that people with colourblindness can discern, for example, would be too restrictive.

I’ll come back to Ware’s comment in a bit, but first I want to focus on the concept of design space, which refers to the universe of choices—media, typeface, type size, colour, and so on—available to the designer. The metaphor doesn’t tend to be used outside of design, which is a pity, because it’s handy. I’ve found it useful to think of design space as a subset of communication space, which itself is a subset of creation space. Continue reading “Collapsing the dimensions of communication space”

Cheryl Stephens—Audience awareness (Communication Convergence 2015)

Who are we writing for when our audience is the general public? “The general public is an amorphous concept,” said plain language champion Cheryl Stephens in her talk at Communication Convergence. “I wrote 20 years ago that there was no such reading audience as the ‘general public,’” she wrote in a handout. “I said that any organization would have gathered data about their customers, clients, patients, or participants through their marketing or client-service research. They would share this information with their communication consultant.”

“But I’ve come to see that this does not happen or does not solve the problem,” she continued. “Too many of my clients were not collecting the sort of information needed for better communication.”

What Stephens proposes is an approach to understanding who might be in your general reading public so that you can take steps to make communication more universally effective. First, we must try to overcome the curse of knowledge—“when better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.” We also have to acknowledge that people from different cultures think and see things differently. Most importantly, we need to consider some of the hidden reasons our communication may not get through as intended.

Cognitive biases

Cognitive biases arise from information-processing shortcuts, the mind’s limited information-processing capacity, emotional and moral motivations, and social influence, among other sources. They’re good for evolution because the shortcuts let us process information in less time, but they can lead our thinking astray and cause inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretations, and irrationality. A person’s construction of social reality—not objective input—determines behaviour. When you put together your communications, ask yourself, “How are people going to misunderstand?”

Stress and anxiety

Stress interferes with our capacity to focus, process information, and think clearly. Stress can arise from any number of sources—harassment or abuse, physical or mental health problems, personal or work problems, poverty, fear, and even exposure to excessive noise, just to name a few. Post-traumatic stress disorder and grief also interfere with comprehension. Stress can be transient and situation specific, or it can be chronic.

Language issues

Aphasia, autism, dementia, head injury, neurological diseases, and hearing impairment can all affect language comprehension. And Canada, being a country of immigrants, has a large proportion of people learning English as a second language. Images can be a huge help: people process images instantaneously, and with a different part of the brain.

Invisible illnesses

These illnesses can be mild, hidden, undiagnosed, or unrecognized. “If it’s hidden from you, it may be hidden from the person who has it.” Stephens said she could tell us first-hand that diabetes interferes with thinking. Mood disorders like depression can also affect how well a person thinks. Patients who have chronic complex diseases have six or more diagnoses and are typically on several medications at a time. Whether from the diseases or as side effects of the drugs, disabling fatigue and difficulty thinking and remembering are characteristic of this group. Many of them are also in severe pain. They would not have the patience for material that takes too long to read.

Invisible disabilities

Ontario defines “disability” as follows:

(a) any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,

(b) a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,

(c) a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,

(d) a mental disorder, or

(e) an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997; (“handicap”)

(From the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001)

Disabilities may be

  • visible or invisible
  • congenital or acquired
  • physical
  • mental or psychiatric
  • mobility-related
  • sensory
  • intellectual or developmental

For example, said Stephens, one out of twelve people have some degree of colourblindness, and often the only clue that something is a link, for example, is the colour.

The Association of Registered Graphic Designers’ guide, Access Ability, offers strategies for maximizing the accessibility of your print and online documents.

Literacy challenges

Forty-two percent of working-age adults have low literacy skills (level 1 or 2 as defined by the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey). They have limited vocabulary and lack the skill to parse sentences and so can’t draw intended meaning from text. Some readers may have emotional or psychological problems that interfere with comprehension or may lack knowledge of the content.


“The legal system discriminates against people,” said Stephens. She said that the Supreme Court of Canada recognizes differences that are disabling because of external barriers or stigma imposed by societal norms, procedures, and institutions. In other words, discrimination is socially constructed, and it can lead to functional limitations, real or perceived.

“Everybody appreciates material that’s simple, clear, and well designed,” she said. As communicators, we should acknowledge that people with reading difficulties aren’t a separate target group—they are all of us, at some point in our lives. By considering these invisible impediments to comprehension, we can better empathize with our readers and be sensitive to their needs.

Stephens has written a paper that explores these concepts in much more detail. Contact her to get a copy.

Accessible documents for people with print disabilities

In prepping a PubPro 2015 talk about editorial and production considerations when creating accessible documents, I ran into information about both the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) and the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS). Confused about the differences between them, I emailed NNELS for clarification, and librarian Sabina Iseli-Otto wrote back: “Would it be alright to call you? I know it’s getting late in the day but 5 minutes on the phone would save 20 minutes of typing (seriously).”

That five-minute chat turned into an impromptu phone interview, and Iseli-Otto gave me permission to share with you what I’ve learned. (The information in most of this post I got from her, but I’m also including a bit of what I found through my own research for my talk.)

Print disabilities and copyright

Print disabilities include:

  • blindness or visual impairments,
  • physical impairments that prevent a person from holding or manipulating print materials, and
  • cognitive impairments, like ADHD, dyslexia, or learning or memory problems due to a brain injury, that impede reading and understanding.

Although colourblindness isn’t considered a print disability, documents should be created with colourblindness in mind.

About 10 percent (a conservative estimate) of Canadians have a print disability, but only about 5 percent of published works are accessible. Most people with print disabilities aren’t using public libraries.

Section 32(1) of Canada’s Copyright Act spells out an exception to copyright that lets people with print disabilities, and those acting on their behalf, create and use alternate formats of copyrighted print materials (with the exception of large-print books and commercially available titles).

Accessible formats

The following are some of the accessible formats for people with print disabilities:

  • E-text: plain text (.txt), rich text (.rtf), Word (.docx)
  • EPUB 2 & 3
  • Accessible PDFs
  • MP3s
  • large-print
  • Braille

E-text, EPUB, and accessible PDFs can be read by screen readers such as JAWS and VoiceOver. Not all PDFs are accessible—Adobe offers a way to check a document’s accessibility and has guidelines for creating accessible PDFs.


CELA formed about a year ago following a change to the funding structure at CNIB (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind). CNIB had, over the past hundred years, amassed Canada’s largest collection of alternate-format books in its library, and CELA, with the support of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, took over administrating this collection. The CNIB library still offers services to existing clients but will refer new clients to their local public library to access CELA’s services.

The shift of oversight from CNIB to CELA will hopefully allow more people to discover and use this extensive collection. Although it was always available to everyone with print disabilities, given that it was under the purview of CNIB, people who didn’t have visual impairments may not have realized that they could access it.

CELA has also partnered with Bookshare, an American online library for people with print disabilities. Rather than owning its content, Bookshare operates on more of a licensing model, controlling pricing and the licensing fees.


NNELS is also about a year old, with a lean staff of only four people, and, unlike CELA and Bookshare, is funded exclusively by provincial governments, which gives it more transparency. It has a much smaller collection but owns perpetual rights to everything in it. NNELS takes patron requests and works directly with publishers to add to their collection. Nova Scotia helped negotiate a fixed rate for NNELS with publishers in the Atlantic provinces, and Saskatchewan has funded an initiative to create accessible EPUBs for all Saskatchewan books, which will be added to the NNELS collection. Whereas CELA focuses on partnerships with public libraries, NNELS also works with public schools and universities—for example, it has a content-exchange agreement with the Crane Library at UBC .

Recent policy changes relevant to people with print disabilities

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act

According to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA),

Organizations will have to…provide accessible formats and communications supports as quickly as possible and at no additional cost when a person with a disability asks for them.

The law was enacted in 2005, but the regulations for information and communications didn’t come into effect until 2012, when all sectors had to make all emergency procedures and public safety information accessible upon request. For other types of communications, the AODA requirements were phased in beginning in 2013 for the public sector and beginning in 2013 and 2015 for private and non-profit sectors. (Respectively, I think? The website doesn’t make that bit clear.) If you work with Ontario businesses, you may be called on to provide accessible communications.

The Marrakesh Treaty

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities laid out exceptions to copyright so that signatories could freely import and export accessible content, obviating the need to duplicate efforts to convert works to accessible formats in different countries. Although Canada was instrumental in writing the treaty, it hasn’t ratified or signed it. However, in its 2015 budget, unveiled last week, the Government of Canada announced that it would accede to the treaty, meaning that people with print disabilities could soon have access to a lot more content.

Publishers and accessible content

I asked Sabina Iseli-Otto how publishers can make her job easier.

“We’d prefer to get EPUB files or accessible PDFs directly from the publisher. Actually, I’ve been really, pleasantly surprised at how often publishers will say yes when we ask for them. I mean, they can always say no—they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts—but it saves public funds if they send us those files directly.”

If a publisher refuses to provide accessible files, the copyright exception still applies, which means that NNELS would still be able to create an accessible format, but it would have to:

  1. acquire a hard copy,
  2. scan in the pages,
  3. run optical character recognition (OCR) on the scans,
  4. clean up the text file (e.g., deleting running headers and footers),
  5. proof the text.

“More than anything,” Iseli-Otto said, “we want to hear back quickly” from publishers, regardless of what they decide.

I asked if the files NNELS provides to patrons have digital right management (DRM) on them. “No,” she said, “but we make it very clear to them that if they abuse them that they’re putting our whole operation in jeopardy. Some of them appreciate having the access so much that they’re actually quite protective of their files.”

Our conversation had focused on books. What about periodicals and grey literature? “There’s certainly demand for it,” said Iseli-Otto. “We’d love to do more of that. And I’d like to turn your question around: what can we do for publishers to make it easier to collaborate with us? I’m not sure how to build those relationships.”

(Can you guess who I’ve invited to PubPro 2016?)

Publishers who’ve been in business for longer than a decade will recognize the steps NNELS has to take to create accessible formats from a print-only book: they’re identical to what publishers have to do if they want to reissue a backlist title that has no retrievable digital files. Could Canadian publishers partner with an organization dedicated to creating accessible formats so that, in exchange for digitizing the backlist for publishers, the organization could add those files to its collection at no additional cost?

Editorial, design, and production considerations for creating accessible files

In my PubPro 2015 talk, I mentioned a few things publishers should keep in mind through the editorial and production process so that the output will be accessible—especially since having to retrofit an existing document to adhere to accessibility standards is more labour intensive and expensive than producing an accessible file from the outset. I focused mostly on the effect of editing and production on screen readers.

Style considerations

Screen readers will not always read all symbols. The Deque Blog has a summary of how three of the most popular screen readers interpret different symbols. (It’s a bit out of date but still a good place to start; thanks to Ashley Bischoff for that link.) Testing on VoiceOver, I found that although the screen reader is smart enough to read “Henry VIII” as “Henry the eighth,” “Chapter VIII” as “chapter eight,” and “World War II” and “World War two,” it reads each letter in “WWII” as if it were an initialism. And it reads 12,000 as “twelve thousand” but “12 000” as “twelve zero zero zero.” I also found that it doesn’t read the en dash before a numeral if the dash is used as a minus sign, saying “thirty-four degrees” for “–34°.”  It’s best to use the actual minus sign symbol − (U+2112), which my version of VoiceOver reads as “minus sign.” The same goes for the letter x used in place of the real multiplication symbol × (U+00D7). My version of VoiceOver doesn’t read a tilde before a numeral, so ~8 mL would be “eight millilitres” instead of  the intended “approximately eight millilitres.”

In any case, if you’re editing and deciding between styles, why not choose the most accessible?

Language considerations

Plain language best practices apply here:

  • chunk text and use heading styles,
  • break up long, complex sentences, and
  • aim for a natural, conversational style.

Headings and short chunks of text offer context and digestible content to the listener. Screen readers are actually already quite adept at putting the stress on the right syllables depending on whether a word like reject is used as a verb or noun—when the word is in a short sentence. It can get confused in longer sentences.

Image concerns

For images:

  • Offer alt text—text that is rendered if the image cannot be seen—for substantive images but not decorative ones. (Add an alt attribute in the code, but leave it blank—i.e., alt = “”—or the screen reader will read the filename. You can add alt text directly in InDesign.)
  • Don’t use colour as the only way to convey information. Make sure colours you choose to distinguish between two lines on a graphs, say, will not occupy the same grey space when converted to greyscale. Alternatively, use different styles for those lines or label them clearly directly on the graph.
  • Don’t turn text into an image to fix its appearance. We often see this practice with equations. Screen readers do not read LaTeX. If you have equations or mathematical expressions, convert them to MathML or offer alt text using the Nemeth MathSpeak system.

In essence, because ebooks are like websites, applying the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 will ensure that your ebook will be accessible. The BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit also has useful guidelines for publishers. I would recommend at least spot checking a document with a screen reader to uncover possible ambiguities or reasons for misapprehension.


Huge thanks to Sabina Iseli-Otto for her eye-opening insights!

Open textbooks and the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (webinar)

In fall 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project was launched to reduce the financial burden on post-secondary students, who spend an average of $1,200 per year on textbooks. As part of Open Education Week, BCcampus hosted a webinar about the project as well as the associated BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, created to help people who develop learning resources to make them as accessible as possible from the outset.

Open Textbook Project (presented by Amanda Coolidge)

In 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project received a grant of $1 million to develop open textbooks for the top-forty enrolled subject areas. It received another $1 million in 2014 to create resources for skills and trades training. BC has now committed to working together with Alberta and Saskatchewan to develop and share open textbooks.

Many people think open textbooks are e-textbooks, but what makes them open is their Creative Commons (CC) license: they can be copied, modified, and redistributed for no charge. Instructors can therefore change open textbooks to suit their courses, and students are able to get these books for free. In two years the project has saved more than five thousand students over $700,000 in textbook costs.

BCcampus carried out the Open Textbook Project in three phases:

  • First, they collected existing textbooks with CC licenses and asked faculty to review them.
  • Second, they modified these books based on faculty reviews. At the end of this process, they had covered thirty-six of the top-forty subject areas.
  • Finally, they funded the creation of four textbooks from scratch.

Open textbooks are now being used in fourteen post-secondary institutions across the province, and BCcampus has eighty-one textbooks in its collection. To create these materials, they use Pressbooks, a plugin that lets you write once and publish to many different formats.

Accessibility testing (presented by Tara Robertson)

Tara Robertson helps run CAPER-BC, which provides alternate formats of learning materials to twenty institutions across the province. They specialize in accommodations, including remediating textbooks for people with print disabilities. One reason the Open Textbook Project is exciting, said Robertson, is that instead of taking something broken and fixing it, she now has the opportunity to make the textbooks accessible from the start.

Seven students with special needs volunteered to test the open textbook resources for accessibility, reading selected chapters from textbooks in five subject areas and offering feedback on their usability. Robertson also ran a focus group with five students. She found recruiting testers challenging, and she acknowledges that the students who participated in the focus group, all of whom had visual impairments, were not representative of the many students that had other print disabilities. Still, the testers offered a lot of constructive feedback.

The chapters the students reviewed each had features that might interfere with assistive technology like text-to-speech software: formatted poetry, tables, images, quizzes, and so on. Testing revealed that the software would skip over embedded YouTube videos, so the textbooks would have to include URLs; formatted poems were problematic when enlarged because readers would have to scroll to read each line; and layout sometimes led to a confused reading order.

Robertson sees the accessibility consultation with students as an ongoing process to refine accessibility best practices.

BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (presented by Sue Doner)

BCcampus has just launched an accessibility toolkit for faculty, content creators, instructional designers, and others who “don’t know what they don’t know about accessible design.” Their aim is to build faculty capacity for universal design and to highlight the distinctions between accommodations and accessibility. Accommodations involve individualizing resources and providing alternative learning options for students who identify as having a disability. If we were proactive about creating materials that were accessible from day one, we’d have no need for accommodations.

Universal design recognizes that different students learn differently—some prefer visual materials, whereas others prefer text, for example. It offers students multiple access points to the content, and it’s better for all students, not just those who register with their disability resource centre. For example, aging students may appreciate being able to enlarge text, and international students may benefit from captions to visual material.

The toolkit offers plain language guidelines for creating different types of textbook content with a student-centred focus, using user personas to inform key design concepts and best practices. It asks content developers to think about what assumptions they’re making of the end users and how those assumptions might affect the way they present the material.

It might take a bit of time for creators of some types of content to catch up with all accessibility features—for example, video and audio should, as a rule, come with transcripts, but a lot of YouTube content doesn’t, and you may run into copyright issues if you try to offer material in different formats.

The next steps for BCcampus are to incorporate the toolkit into the development process for all new open textbooks they create, to modify existing textbooks for accessibility, and to encourage the province’s post-secondary community to formally adopt these guidelines. The toolkit, like the open textbooks, are available under a CC license and can be thought of as a living document that will change and grow as different types of content (e.g., math) becomes amenable to accessible design.

Doner sees these steps as “an opportunity to create a community of practice—a new literacy skill.”


This webinar (along with others offered during Open Education Week) is archived on the BCcampus site.

Access to information: The role of editors (EAC-BC meeting)

At the November EAC-BC meeting, Shana Johnstone, principal of Uncover Editorial + Design, moderated a panel discussion that offered rich and diverse perspectives on accessibility. (She deftly kept the conversation flowing with thematic questions, so although her words don’t show up much in my summary here, she was critical to the evening’s success.)


Panel members included:

The Crane Library, Nygard explained, is named after Charles Crane, who in 1931 became the first deafblind student to attend university in Canada. Over his life he accumulated ten thousand volumes of works in Braille, and when he died, his family donated the collection to the Vancouver Public Library, which then donated it to UBC. Paul Thiele, a visually impaired doctoral student, and his wife, Judith, who was the first blind library student (and later the first blind librarian) in Canada, helped set up the space for the Crane Library, including a Braille card catalogue and Braille spine labels so that students could find materials on their own. Today the Crane Library is part of Access and Diversity at UBC and offers exam accommodations, narration services (it has an eight-booth recording studio to record readings of print materials), and materials in a variety of formats, including PDF, e-text, and Braille.

Gray, who has a background in recreational therapy, used to work with people who had brain injuries, and for her, it was “a trial-and-error process to communicate with them just to do my job,” she said. Through that work she developed communication strategies that take into account not only the language but also formats that will most likely appeal to her audience. To reach a community, Gray said, it’s important to understand its language and conventions. “It’s about getting off on the right foot with people. If you turn people off with a phrase that is outside their community, they stop reading.” It’s also important to know who in a community is doing the reading. In the Down syndrome community, she said, “people are still writing as if the caregivers are the ones reading” even though more people with developmental disability are now reading for themselves.

Booth works with forty-five groups (such as the Writers’ Exchange) that provide literacy support in the Downtown Eastside, which he emphasized is “a neighbourhood, not a pejorative.” He defined literacy as the “knowledge, skills, and confidence to participate fully in life,” and he told us that “There is more stigma around illiteracy than there is around addiction.”

Busting misconceptions

Within the Downtown Eastside, said Booth, there are “multiple populations with multiple challenges and multiple experiences—sometimes bad—with learning.” Residents may be reluctant to get involved with structured educational opportunities, and so they rely on community organizations to reach out to them. The media does the Downtown Eastside a disservice by portraying it as the “poorest postal code in Canada,” Booth says. To him, all of his clients, regardless of their background, bring skills and experience to the table.

Gray agreed, adding that it’s easy to make judgments based on appearance. She knows that her three-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, is taking in more than he’s putting back out. The same holds for people who have had strokes or people with cerebral palsy. Some people may not speak well, but they may read and understand well. She acknowledges that we all bring preconceptions to every interaction, but it’s important to set them aside and ask questions to get to know your audience.

“What do we think of, when we think of a person with a disability?” said Nygard. “Not all disabilities are visible.” People assume that text-to-speech services are just for the visually impaired, but often they are for students with learning disabilities who prefer human voice narration. The students who use the Crane Library’s services are simply university students who need a little more support to be able to do certain academic activities. They are people with access to resources and technology that will help them get a university education.

People also assume that technology has solved the accessibility problem. Although a lot of accessibility features are now built into our technology, like VoiceOver for Macs and Ease of Access on Windows, computers aren’t the answer for everyone. For some people, technology hasn’t obviated Braille.

Their work—The specifics

Gray said that although she works primarily with print materials, she’s started writing as though the text would destined for the web. “I’m no longer assuming that people are reading entire chunks of material. I’m not assuming they’re following along from beginning to end or reading the whole thing. I’m using a lot more headings to break up the material and am continually giving people context. I’m not assuming people remember the topic, so I’m constantly reintroducing it.” People with Down syndrome have poor short-term memory, she said, so she never assumes that a reader will refer to earlier text where a concept was first introduced. “Don’t dumb it down,” she said, “but use plain language. Keep it simple and to the point.” Some writers enjoy adding variety to their writing to spice things up, she said. “Take the spice out. Keep to the facts.”

That said, editors also have to keep in mind that when people read, they’re not just absorbing facts; they’re approaching the material with a host of emotions. For people who have children with Down syndrome, she said, “everything they’re reading is judging them as a parent.”

“We don’t know where people are at and where their heads are when they’re taking the materials in,” Gray said.

To connect with the audience, said Booth, listening is a vital skill to develop. “Storytelling is a really important art form. Everybody has a story, and everybody will tell you their story if you give them the opportunity.”

Nygard compares her work to directing traffic—making sure resources flow to to people who need them. She explained the process of creating alternate formats: students have to buy a new textbook and give Nygard the receipt, at which point she can request a PDF from the publisher. But is it fair, she asked, to make these students buy the book at full price when their classmates can get a used copy for a discount? Another inequity is in the license agreement; often they allow students to use the PDF for the duration for the course only, when other students can keep their books for future reference. Image-only or locked PDFs are problematic because text-to-speech software like JAWS can’t read it.

For books that exist only in print, the conversion process involves cutting out the pages and manually scanning them to PDF, then running them through an OCR program to create a rough Word document. These documents then get sent to student assistants who clean them up for text-to-speech software. Otherwise, columns, running heads, footnotes, and other design features can lead to confusing results. We get a lot of context from the way text is laid out and organized on the page, said Nygard, but that context is lost when the text is read aloud.

Editors as advocates

Gray said she’d never considered herself an advocate per se. “I do think it’s part of my role to advise clients about the level of content and the way it’s presented. We need to make sure we can reach the audience.”

When we make decisions, said Nygard, we have to look out for people in the margins that we might not be addressing.

Booth said, “We’re all very privileged in this room. We have a responsibility to be advocates. Our tool is language.” As he spoke he passed out copies of Decoda Literacy Manifesto to each member of the audience.

Resources on accessibility

Nygard suggested we check out the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Ontario has been a leader in this arena. She also mentioned the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), which allows collection sharing between various libraries. Many public libraries don’t find out about the Crane Library’s services, because it’s at an academic institution, but its collection is available to the general public. The NNELS site also has a section of tutorials for creating alternate-format materials. SNOW, the Inclusive Design Centre at OCAD, also has some excellent resources.

Compared with Ontario, said Nygard, BC lags behind in its commitment to accessibility. The BC government released Accessibility 2024, a ten-year plan to make the province the most progressive within Canada. But both Nygard and Booth call it “embarrassing.” “How they’ve set their priorities is a horror show,” said Nygard. One of the benchmarks for success in this accessibility plan, for example, is to have government websites be accessible by 2016, without addressing the concerns of whether people with disabilities have the skills, literacy, or access to technology to use that information. Meanwhile, disability rates haven’t gone up since 2007.

Booth agreed. The province has cut funding for high-school equivalency programs (GED), ESL, literacy, and adult basic education, choosing instead to focus on “job creation in extractive industries and training people to do specific jobs. What’s going to happen in a decade from now for people who don’t have education?”

In response to a question from the audience, Nygard acknowledged that  Project Gutenberg and Project Gutenberg Canada are great for accessible text of works in the public domain. She also mentioned that LibriVox has public domain audiobooks.