Access to Academic Materials for Post-Secondary Students with Print Disabilities

Executive Summary

The project Access to Academic Materials for Print Disabled Post-Secondary Students: A Partnership of Users and Service Providers was a sixteen-month project which started in December, 2003. The initiative was funded with support from the Government of Canada’s Social Development Partnerships Program. The project was guided by a steering committee of stakeholders including: students with print disabilities, post-secondary disability service providers, librarians and affected non-governmental organizations.

This report is the outcome of a number of phases of the project work: consultations with our steering committee members, research into the “current state” of the provision of academic materials in alternate formats across Canada, and the soliciting of submissions from non-governmental organizations. A consultation with members of NEADS took place during a workshop at our national conference “Right On!” in November 2004. A full report of the conference session is available on the NEADS website at An important component of the project was survey research involving two groups of respondents in post-secondary institutions: students with print disabilities, and disability service providers. One hundred and ninety-seven individuals completed our questionnaires: 130 students with disabilities and 67 post-secondary service providers. We report on the findings of this original research throughout this report, which also includes submissions from eight organizations and a chapter of “organizational profiles” describing the current system of delivery and production of academic texts in alternate formats on Canadian campuses.

Based on the empirical research, consultations undertaken during the project, and submissions from other organizations, we make a number of recommendations to support students with print disabilities in their pursuit of an accessible post-secondary education:

  • Post-secondary students with all types of print disabilities should have access to academic materials for their studies in a format or formats of their choice.
  • Materials provided must be made available in a timely manner to ensure that students who cannot use standard print can pursue college and university education on a level playing field, with equal access to all the tools of learning.
  • Publishers should make their books readily available in accessible, useable, complete electronic formats, at a reasonable price.
  • Initiatives such as the National Network for Equitable Public Library Service for Canadians with Print Disabilities, which includes the development of a Clearinghouse for making publishers electronic files available to alternate format producers, be supported in order to improve access to information for Canadians.
  • In this regard, changes to Canada’s copyright legislation are required so that the needs of those who cannot read regular print are acknowledged and accommodated.
  • Students with disabilities are entitled to a complete version of the book, and all information that is available in the printed version including text as well as graphs, charts, tables, etc.
  • While there is a need to establish professional standards of quality production of alternate format texts and other learning materials in Canada, this should not create an impediment to timely delivery. For that reason, disability service centres and libraries on college and university campuses should have sufficient resources, staff, and technology to continue to produce materials in a variety of formats and of different types – as required by individual students – in-house.
  • In fact, there is a need for greater resources that allow academic materials to be professionally produced by those organizations that have the capacity and the expertise.
  • Professionally produced books and other learning materials in all formats should be made more widely available for sharing between schools, libraries, provinces and jurisdictions.
  • Professors, teachers and instructors must be willing to support the learning needs of all of their students, including those with print disabilities. Reading lists and academic requirements for each course of study must be established with sufficient lead-time to allow materials to be rendered accessible to students in formats of choice at the beginning of each semester.
  • Accessibility does not end with required readings. Students with print disabilities must be able to participate in all aspect of campus life and must have access to other types of materials, including course calendars, handbooks and campus newspapers.
  • Professors and instructors must become more understanding of and familiar with the requirements of students with print disabilities in their classrooms. Depending upon the school, this may necessitate the delivery of faculty training/workshop sessions involving students and disability service centre staff.
  • The Internet is being used by post-secondary institutions and faculties for course work. University and college websites must be fully accessible, in particular for those who use screen-reading software.
  • Technology can level the playing field and allow students with disabilities to compete and succeed in a post-secondary environment. Students who require alternate format materials must have access to the best, most appropriate technology – both hardware and software – at an affordable price. The equipment must be made available to students in their homes and also in campus disability service centres, libraries and all computer labs.
  • To make full use of technologies, students with print disabilities must be provided with professional training in the use of their equipment.
  • Students are often put in a position where they have to produce course materials in alternate formats themselves. This can be time-consuming and exhausting and can take away from much-needed study time. Students with disabilities must have their academic materials provided in a format of their choice from a reliable source.
  • Often the biggest barrier to access to post-secondary education for students with disabilities is adequate funding to attend school considering disability related costs. The Canada Student Loans Program and provincial student financial assistance programs must continue to support students with disabilities through the Canada Study Grants and similar provincial bursary programs in terms of funding for equipment and services costs relating to access to academic materials in formats of choice.

Introduction to the NEADS Project

A proper post-secondary learning experience is largely dependent on the student’s ability to possess, and to gather information from, academic materials—textbooks, lecture notes, exam papers and the like. For students living with a print disability, this means being able to secure the same materials made available to classmates, in an alternate format suited to their own learning needs. But just three percent of the world’s literature is available in alternate formats. This creates roadblocks for print-disabled students. Time-consuming delays can occur in situations where the materials are not available in alternate format but must be produced by an educational institution, a service provider, or a provincial library. In some situations cost, technology, copyright legislation or societal ignorance stand in the way of such materials even being produced.

The last major NEADS study that addressed the issue, among others, of access to academic materials for post-secondary students with disabilities was the 1999 NEADS study: Working Towards A Co-ordinated National Approach to Services, Accommodations and Policies for Post-Secondary students with Disabilities: Ensuring Access to Higher Education and Career Training. Since 1999, things have improved. There has been a steady increase in digital format texts in libraries such as that of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), and better access to funding for students to acquire adaptive equipment and services through government financial assistance programs including the Canada Study Grant. At the same time, a collaborative approach to the sharing of resources and academic materials for post-secondary students has developed through programs like the Canadian Association of Educational Resource Centres for Alternate Formats (CAER). CAER is a consortium of provincial educational service centres in British Columbia, Ontario and Manitoba that provides alternate formats and technology to Canadian students with print disabilities, primarily in grades K to 12 but also in the post-secondary sector, through a mandate from the respective provincial ministries of education/advanced education. In addition, CAER has two members that are university library services, which also serve members of the consortium through interlibrary loan services.

Another significant development is the increase in the catalogue of professionally produced alternate format materials available through the National Library of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada) and its AMICUS online database. AMICUS lists all reported alternate formats held in libraries and organizations across Canada and makes them available through inter-library loan. More disability service centres on college and university campuses are producing texts for students with print disabilities in-house in a variety of formats. Also, professional organizations of disability service providers, including the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education (CADSPPE) nationally, are addressing issues related to the production and delivery of quality alternate format materials.

But as the comments, survey results, and organizational submissions presented in the following pages show, there are still deficiencies in Canada’s post-secondary alternate format provision system. On many campuses, the awareness of print disabilities and the related needs of print-disabled students is lacking; on campuses where the awareness of these challenges is higher, often funding and lack of cohesive service delivery limit the ability of service providers to offer alternate formats to students.

A variety of services do exist to provide academic materials in alternate formats to students. Some of these services are campus-based, with individual post-secondary institutions producing materials for eligible students and/or providing the equipment needed for students to produce such materials on their own. In other instances, alternate format provision is aided by services that are provincial or regional in scope (in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, for instance). Additionally, disability organizations such as the CNIB offer alternate format materials to members.

But the lack of a cohesive, centralized source for alternate format production and provision in Canada can result in inconsistent quality, delayed provision of needed materials to students, and confusion on the part of the student as to exactly where to turn for the resources they require.

The NEADS project, Access to Academic Materials for Print-Disabled Post-Secondary Students: A Partnership of Users and Service Providers was undertaken with these issues in mind. The project was begun in December 2003, and has been completed with assistance of partnering organizations the Council on Access to Information for Print Disabled Canadians, the Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education (CADSPPE), and the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. Funding was made available through the Government of Canada’s Social Development Partnerships Program (SDPP).

Phase one of the project involved conducting research into the current state of alternate format service provision in Canada. NEADS Project Consultant, Neil Faba, undertook this process, the results of which were presented in a written report that served to inform and guide subsequent stages of the project. Alternate format materials production and distribution by campus-based and other organizations was examined in this phase, as was Canada’s relevant copyright legislation. Position paper submissions were also collected from stakeholder organizations across the country. Elements from this phase of research are presented in the final report, and we have printed all submissions received in an appendix at the back of the report. Key recommendations from organizational submissions are included in the body of the report.

Phase two involved designing and delivering two surveys regarding access to alternate format academic materials. One survey was directed at students with print disabilities at post-secondary schools across Canada; the other surveyed college and university disability service providers, who work to ensure that students have the academic materials they require. NEADS Project Consultant Dr. Liam Kilmurray led this research phase. Surveys were delivered in the fall of 2004. The results from each survey have been reviewed and analyzed, and the findings are presented throughout this report.

The project has been guided each step of the way by a steering committee of representatives from key stakeholder groups in government, service provision and the post-secondary community. Committee members were:

  • Leo Bissonnette, Member, Ad Hoc Alternate Format Committee, Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education/ Co-ordinator, Office for Disability Issues, Concordia University
  • Serge Brassard and Paulo Monteagudo, Association québécoises des étudiants ayants des incapacités au postsecondaire (AQEIPS)
  • Robin Drodge, former Newfoundland and Labrador representative, NEADS Board of Directors
  • Mary Anne Epp, Director, Library Contract Services, Langara College
  • Catherine Fichten, Co-Director, Adaptech (Dawson College)
  • Gladys Loewen, President, Canadian Association of Disability Service Providers in Post-Secondary Education
  • Trisha Lucy, Librarian, Library and Archives Canada
  • Pauline Mantha, Executive Director, Learning Disabilities Association of Canada
  • Rachael Ross, President and British Columbia Representative, NEADS Board of Directors
  • Jutta Treviranus, Director, Resource Centre for Adaptive Technology, University of Toronto
  • Elizabeth Walcot-Gayda, Council on Access to Information for Print-Disabled Canadians

The NEADS project team consulted with steering committee members over the course of two face to face meetings in Ottawa, by conference call and through an electronic discussion forum. Speaker presentations and student delegate feedback given at a workshop on Access to Academic Materials at the 2004 NEADS national conference was also helpful in guiding our research. The report of proceedings from this conference is available for viewing online, at

Advances in technology are gradually making it easier to convert traditional texts to alternate formats, and for users to navigate and use such alternate formats. Audiobooks, for instance, are now being recorded to MP3 and Mini Disc formats, allowing users to skip ahead or go back easily, by chapter or page. The prevalence of computers on campuses and in homes is also increasing, affording people with print disabilities further technological possibilities in a learning environment. But improvements in technology are not necessarily improving ease of access to materials for print disabled students in Canada.

As mentioned earlier, this project has included several research components: the development of a report on the current state of alternate format academic materials delivery; a review of relevant literature on the topic; a request to service providers and organizations for submissions on the topic of access to academic materials in alternate formats; and the development and distribution of surveys to both students with print disabilities and post-secondary service providers. This final document is the culmination of 16 months of research by NEADS, and utilizes all components of our research to illustrate where gaps exist in current Canadian service models used to distribute alternate format materials to post-secondary students, and to recommend strategies that might be used to improve the system for all students.

Overview of the report

The next section of this report addresses the current state of access to academic materials in alternate formats in Canada. It describes the system of production and delivery of post-secondary texts across the country on the campuses, through different organizations and libraries. Following this report, the findings from the survey research are presented, with the student survey first and then the service provider survey. After this, we examine some of the crossover questions, and complete the analysis. A summary of organizational submissions and the submissions will be next, and finally we offer some recommendations and conclusions. An appendix with the two surveys and an annotated bibliography are the last two sections in this report.

The presentation of the survey research details the responses to every question in both surveys, and examines and reports on these responses, plus the comments provided by both students and service providers. An attempt is made to discern some of the more pressing problems and issues confronting the provision, and use, of alternate formats and adaptive technology in Canadian post-secondary institutions. Certain patterns emerge, and these are highlighted. An attempt is also made to link the student responses to those of the service providers, to contrast and compare data on identical, and different, questions. An analytical paragraph will follow each graph and table, where merited, and final analysis is presented in the section entitled “Findings and Conclusions” and “Recommendations.”

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