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

Student Survey Details

Section C: Accessibility to Academic Materials

This section in the student survey asked 16 questions, primarily concerning the availability of required, preferred, and provided alternate formats. There are questions regarding barriers and the delivery of academic materials in alternate formats , also on training, external programs, and knowledge of copyright. The terminology used to describe alternate formats can be confusing to non-users, and even to some users. For that reason, a brief description of some of these now follows, with definitions provided by British Columbia College and Institute Library Services (CILS).


Electronic Text (E-text): (word processing files) used by students (visually impaired, learning disabled) with screen voice readers, such as JAWS, to read print materials using a computer. Electronic text can be further manipulated with software such as screen readers (JAWS), and text-to-speech readers (such as Text Aloud, ReadPlease).

Large Print:

  • Electronic text (PDF) format for students with low vision who can enlarge their own print products or read them off the computer screen. Produced by Adobe Systems, Portable Document Format (PDF) allows documents to appear on the computer just as they would in print.
  • Large print: print enlargement on paper
  • Large print: electronic format (E-text)

Analogue Audio: Cassette tapes in analogue formats.

Digital Audio: CD MP3 format, with human voice, no navigational features. These files can be read on any MP3 enabled device (hardware and/or software).

Digital Audio: CD MP3 format, with synthesized voice, transcribed from electronic text, with file names, no navigational features. These files can be read on any MP3 enabled device (hardware and/or software).

Digital Audio: CD MP3 format, with human voice, with navigational features and structure (DAISY standard) (Digital Accessible Information Systems). This format includes ability to find specific pages, chapters, sections, and in some cases, index or topical entries. This format is used in special cases (sciences for example), where human voice is required or where navigational features are essential for using the book (such as reference material). This format can be read on any MP3 enabled device (without navigational features), on DAISY specific portable equipment (some navigational features), or, most effectively, using a computer with DAISY software (highest level of navigational features).

Tactile Graphics: Raised or sculptured drawings.

Braille: A tactile system of cells of dots.

15. In which alternative format(s) do you require academic material?

Chart 15
Chart 15: Required alternate formats

Checking all categories that applied, the respondents required E-text the most (49), with audio-analogue (41), and audio-digital (41) formats a close second. Students required PDF text the next most (39), then large print (32), MP3 (20), DAISY books (20), other (20), PDF image (18) On the lower end of the response scale came the categories none (10) descriptive video (8) Braille (6), and lastly, tactile graphics (6).

The distinction between PDF Image and PDF text may not be universally known, and many students may use an older version of PDF, which is often not accessible to users of screen readers such as JAWS. Those that chose both types of PDF account for 18.38%. Again, it should be noted that audio digital formats do include MP3 and DAISY, but we provided a very specific list of items to students to ensure that they would recognize choices provided as formats they use. It is important, considering this, when looking at these responses to point out that DAISY is a very much used format by students as is audio analogue or tapes of books. DAISY is an emerging format that will be used increasingly. The best use of a DAISY book is through software on a standard PC computer.

There is no stated explanation as to why ten students responded none to this question. It might be that the specific course, program, or year did not necessitate any text-based material at all, such as an oral-based credit. Alternatively, the required alternate format text may already be in the student’s possession. The numbers of Braille users is low, with only six respondents of thirty-six who are blind or visually impaired. But our respondent group includes twice as many students who have a learning disability than who are blind or visually impaired. This explains, in part, the small number of students selecting Braille. As well, low vision readers generally do not use Braille, so the use of Braille is limited to a small group within the blind and low vision respondents

In the ‘other specified’ portion of this question, Kurzweil was mentioned by ten respondents. Other software mentioned included Text Help and Dragon Dictate, both indicated twice, and EyeTech Digital Systems, which was indicated once. Four students mentioned books on tape as a required format, while one mentioned textbooks on CD, and another wrote “CD to analogue print in a PC.”

Other answers provided were note-takers and a cassette recorder, online courses, email and online chat. Several open-ended comments were also written, the majority discussing concerns with various formats. The following are those comments as presented:

  • Don’t own a DAISY recorder.
  • I’m thinking of videotaping my classes.
  • I mostly get E-text by scanning printed material into the computer, and have also got some E-text files from the Internet.
  • I prefer Braille for math material (tactile diagrams are also helpful).
  • I have not used audio very much.
  • In my first year of study, one of my textbooks was available on cassette.
  • I can use PDF files as long as the text is accessible to my screen reader, or I can use my scanning program to generate E-text by doing OCR on the files (provided there are not print restrictions, as it uses a special printer driver).
  • In PDF and PowerPoint documents, diagrams and special symbols are usually not accessible either through my screen reader or OCR software.
  • I have not had much experience with digital audio. I am thinking of accessing a book for one of my classes this year that CNIB has available in Online Digital Audio through its Digital Library.

16. What academic materials does your institution currently provide to you in alternate format(s)?

Chart 16
Chart 16: Alternate format materials currently provided

Chart 16 shows that E-text is the format most often provided to students with audio-analogue or books on tape the second choice. Several comments were provided discussing students’ experiences with obtaining their course materials in alternate formats.

One student noted that the length of time it takes to obtain their books on tape (six weeks) “makes me quite mad.” Another student noted that they receive alternate format materials only after fighting for it “to the point I almost started legal proceedings.” One respondent, while not noting the format in which they receive academic materials, noted they “would prefer digital material,” while another wrote that, “DAISY books would be nice.”

Some students spoke quite positively about their experiences in this area and felt their needs were being met. While one noted that all reading materials are scanned for them into Kurzweil, another wrote, “I receive educational cassettes to help me read my books.” One respondent suggested that their institution “is excellent in its provision of materials in all formats,” and one college student indicated their school “takes the extra step” in ensuring suitable adaptive technology is found for their use.

17. What are your preferred alternate formats, in order of importance?

First Preference

Chart 17
Chart 17: First preferred alternate formats

Breakdown of statistics (N = 109)

This was a critical question and elicited the following responses: other = 28.44%, E-text = 19.26%, none = 11%, audio analogue = 8.25%, audio digital = 8.25%, large print = 8.25%, DAISY books = 5.5%, PDF text = 3.66%, Braille = 2.75%, MP3 = 2.75%, PDF image = 1.83%.

Among students who chose “other” as their answer to question 17 and provided insight into what “other” was, Kurzweil proved the most popular first choice, with nine indicating such. Books on tape/audio books followed, with six students offering it as their first choice. It is important to point out that Kurzweil is an assistive technology product, typically used for scanning and reading documents, and not an alternate format.

While some formats are more used and/or preferred than others “one size does not fit all.” Clearly students with print disabilities must have a range of formats available to them based on personal preference and accessibility. And the choices of formats preferred may be determined for many students by what is available to them at their schools.

Other first choices given were:

  • Text-to-speech software
  • JAWS
  • Adaptive technology
  • Online books
  • Digital/computer
  • Tutor
  • Dialogue from CD-ROMs
  • Notes either photocopied or emailed to me
  • Quiet space
  • Digital camera
  • Cassette
  • Speech recognition
  • Zoomtext
  • DVD

Second Preference

Chart 18
Chart 18: Second preferred alternate formats

Breakdown of statistics (N = 85)

Other = 29.41%, Large Print = 10.58%, Audio Digital = 9.41%, DAISY Books = 7.05%, PDF Text = 5.88%, PDF Image = 4.7%, Braille = 2.35%, Descriptive Video = 2.35%, MP3 = 2.35%

Of the “other” second choices provided in the comments section, Kurzweil software was again the most popular choice, having been identified by four students. Books-on-tape was again second, being indicated by two respondents. The remaining answers, each provided once, were:

  • EyeTech Digital Systems
  • Large computer monitor
  • Online books
  • Dragon Dictate
  • Visual images
  • Access to a computer with WordSpell
  • Scanned text in any format
  • Extended testing time
  • Computer
  • Digital recordings
  • Tests on tape
  • Proctored exams with reader, not tape

Third Preference

Chart 19
Chart 19: Third preferred alternate formats

Breakdown of statistics (N = 52)

Other = 36.53%, MP3 = 13.46%, Braille = 11.53%, audio analogue = 9.61%, DAISY books, = 7.69%, large print = 7.69%, E-text = 3.84%, PDF image = 3.84%, PDF text = 3.84%, audio digital = 1.92%. Just two third choices for “other” were identified; these were TextHelp and Zoomtext software programs.

Other specified: Books-on-tape or CD showed up most often under ‘other specified’, listed four times. Kurzweil was mentioned under this category as well by three respondents. Video and ‘wireless communication video’ were each mentioned once, as were tutor and editor, reader, text-speech, software, and extra exam time.

18. Which materials do you require in alternate formats?

Chart 20
Chart 20: Required alternate formats

When asked this question students offered a range of responses. Textbooks was most often cited, with exams the second choice and supplementary reading third. Under “other”, course notes, PowerPoint, tests, texts on computer, and organization/outlines of texts were each mentioned once.

In addition, the following open-ended comments were provided:

  • I have to record all my lectures
  • It would be helpful if exams were done in audio formats as well
  • I don’t know, how am I supposed to know?
  • Devices to listen to the material digitally

Twenty-two students answered ‘none’ to this question. Again, an inference may be that no texts were required. The low numbers for online databases, library catalogues and Web resources may be indicative of the need for information literacy training and library support. Also, this points to the need for improvements in internal communications between libraries and disability centres, to increase awareness of what’s available in accessible formats and where this information can be accessed. It could also be that students still do a lot of their research using traditional print materials in libraries.

19. Does your institution provide you with a complete alternate version of the book (or other material), including charts, graphs, sidebars etc.?

Chart 21
Chart 21: Provision of complete alternate format versions

While in question 33, 40% of student respondents stated that the quality of alternate format academic materials is good, and around 25% said it is excellent, 46% of respondents to question 19 said that they do not receive the entire book in alternate format. This may be because there is not a requirement in every case for the entire book to be produced in a format of choice. We would posit that if students with print disabilities are not provided with the same information in alternate formats as those who use regular print this can affect academic performance and success.

19b) If not, please explain whether you experience a problem in reading the materials that are not equal to the print copy.

Many respondents included comments with this question, the majority alluding to poor or inconsistent quality of materials.

Several of the comments have been included below:

  • Sometimes editions are a little different.
  • Missing charts and graphs.
  • Missing pages reduce my academic learning.
  • Kurzweil not always accurate.
  • Lack of figures and table is constricting.
  • The software I use cannot read charts.
  • Trouble understanding what the materials are.
  • The alternate versions are poor quality and effect my education negatively.
  • They offered to scan the book on Kurzweil but I can’t afford the program.
  • Maps are a big problem, described verbally is insufficient.
  • Depends on who is doing the scan and how it was scanned. I have had to ask for things to be scanned twice to get all the pictures, charts graphs etc. Also I do not always get the version of the book my class is using, instead I am sent to a site to download what is available.
  • Only sometimes.
  • I just need more time to read the documents.
  • Trouble with tapes.
  • Supplementary materials are not provided.
  • I find that the tapes are useless, inaudible half the time.
  • Trouble reading/seeing materials.

These comments are revealing. Many of the issues described are related to the lack of professional readers, qualified people who understand the terminology in academic materials they are reading, lack of standards, lack of knowledge of standards, lack of audio technical support, poor production facilities, and in some cases, the use of volunteers to provide support.

20.a) Are your required class/assignment materials provided in alternate formats?

Chart 22
Chart 22: Required materials in alternate formats

Of the 126 students who responded to this question, only 24 (19.05%) indicated that they receive required class/assignment materials in alternate formats. Exactly half the respondents receive ‘some’ in alternate formats, but almost one-third receive none of their required class/assignment materials in alternate format.

Table 18 compares required and recommended materials available in alternate format.

 Required readings in AF?PercentTotal
 Recommended readings in AF?PercentTotal

Table 18. Required & recommended materials in alternate format

20.b) Are your recommended class/assignment materials accessible in alternate formats?

Chart 23
Chart 23: Accessibility of recommended materials

The responses to this question are almost identical to those of the previous one. It was reported (Question 18) that 82 students required supplementary readings in alternate format. This reinforces the fact that there is an urgent need to redress the problem and provide all readings and assignments in alternate formats.

21. Do you receive the academic materials and services in alternate formats that you require in a timely manner?

Chart 24
Chart 24: Timely receipt of alternate format readings

Receiving material on time is an essential part of any student’s education. Specifically, when it comes to half-credit courses (which are increasing in Canadian educational institutions); it is important that materials necessary for course work be received in a timely manner. Students responded that 38.84% of the time they receive their academic materials and services on time. Half of the respondents, however, do not, and 10% never receive their materials on time.

One student provided this comment: “Because alternate formats like E-text aren't always available, we often have to scan the text books page by page, which is very time consuming".

22. If not, what are the barriers preventing the timely delivery of alternate format academic materials? Check all that apply.

Chart 25
Chart 25: Barriers to timely delivery of materials

The percentages in this chart represent the number of students indicating each response. A variety of responses were again offered for this question, suggesting everything from the amount of time needed before government funding is provided, to course instructors who are unwilling or unable to help students locate academic materials in alternate formats, to issues with equipment.

The following comments were provided:

  • I suspect that before long all libraries will be accessible in audio format. I am waiting for that day. I know that scanning all my articles on to my computer so they can be read (print to text) to me is so time consuming! Sometimes the publishers are the barriers, want to know everything and too much paperwork.
  • Since they are students, volunteers are slower.
  • Electronic text supplied upon request, not always when needed, (on course start date). I have to request for each course in program, nothing pre-planned by college. Materials had to be requested by book publishers and not all of them supplied or else charged extra money for a format, so I had to do without.
  • Funding for equipment is attached to financial aid, which is too lengthy a process.
  • Many professors are not able to provide material in alternate formats
  • Teachers unhelpful
  • 1 scanner, 1 staff
  • Lack of time for info processing, limited equipment
  • Transfer of material between campuses is long and overly complicated
  • Lack of professors’ understanding and knowledge.
  • Too much reading material to be scanned
  • The mail can take one or two weeks
  • Materials do not arrive on time
  • Need to have tapes shipped from campus to campus
  • If a book is held by a library, it should be in all formats

23. Do your instructors respond to your alternate format accommodations needs in a timely manner?

Chart 26
Chart 26: Instructors response time

In Question 22, 22% of students reported that the instructor was one of the barriers to receiving materials on time. In this more direct question, just under 40% always receive a timely response from their instructor. 43% say that this occurs only sometimes, and just over 7% say they never receive response requests within a reasonable timeframe.

Of the six comments provided, four suggested that this depends entirely on the instructor, with some offering a degree of assistance, and others either seemingly unaware of certain disability types and accommodation requirements, or unable to offer proper help because of limitations on their own course preparation time.

Here are the comments provided:

  • Depends on the different instructors
  • I do the scanning myself. Readings are accessible because I make them accessible.
  • Teachers more accommodating this year than in the past
  • Disability services look after this. Professors never have the time to read my dossiers.
  • Some professors are unaware of the limitations of ADD.
  • Not the instructors’ responsibility. The Disability Resource Facilitator does this.
  • I have to spend too much time tracking down the instructors.

24. From where do you receive your academic materials in alternate formats?

Chart 27
Chart 27: Where are alternate format materials received from

The students would most likely report on the office or service that provides academic materials directly to them, whether produced on-campus or off-campus. Ninety-eight students remarked that their academic materials were received from the Disability Service Centre. It may well be possible that in many cases these materials came through an external agency (such as CNIB, RFB&D and provincial resource centres) first, and then to the student through the on-campus centre. The students would most likely report on the office or service that provides academic materials directly to them, produced on campus or off campus. But this is very important to note, as clearly the Disability Service Centre is the central resource for students requiring document in alternate formats, with the library a second choice.

A variety of responses were provided under “other”. Three people indicated they receive alternate format materials from their instructors, while two students suggested other on-campus organizations are responsible for distributing such materials – the career centre in one case, the assistive technology department in another. Two other respondents suggested their alternate format materials come from their provincial governments’ department of education.

Here are the other answers given:

  • Direct from publisher
  • Technology to convert myself
  • Generally if a professor doesn’t print my materials in a larger font or e-mail them to me so I can do it myself, I don’t receive materials.
  • W. Ross MacDonald
  • DAISY producers
  • Service du CEGEP du Ste. Fois.

Several open-ended comments were also provided for this question. They are presented here:

  • Generate them myself with an OCR program.
  • College and book publishers.
  • Publishers, online.
  • Professor provides enlarged exam to student services where I write the exam.
  • Very good people at the DSC. Without disability services I could not attend. University.
  • From professors/teachers.
  • The disability service centre is in the library at York.
  • Online journals, PDF format.
  • University-owned coursepack printing company.
  • CILS.
  • Campus library gets all my books on tape from CNIB and RFB&D.

25. What programs and services, if any, do you use outside of your post-secondary institution to access academic materials in alternate formats?

Chart 28
Chart 28: Aids & services used outside of PSEI

Clearly, “family support” is critical for students with disabilities. This category was selected most often by respondents. “Own production” is a clear second, suggesting many students have to scan and produce books and articles themselves, perhaps assisted by the disabilities service office.

Of the responses provided for “other”, friends were the most common source of alternate formats, with five students indicating they borrow a friend’s alternate format materials.

Other answers provided were:

  • Online E-books
  • Websites
  • Kurzweil
  • I call the publisher for alternative material.
  • W. Ross MacDonald Institute

Open-ended comments provided indicated the following:

  • Generate them myself with an OCR program
  • Post-secondary students made to use CNIB or SMS

26. Do you receive any training or information in the use of alternate format materials and technologies to access them?

Chart 29
Chart 29: Training received in use of alternate formats

Over half of the students indicated that they receive training of some sort. Of the comments provided, four suggested training was either inadequate or not offered at all. But the majority of comments offered did indicate that a satisfactory level of training is available to students who require it.

Five students wrote that they received training on a specific program or programs, with three indicating Kurzweil training, and Zoomtext and TextHelp both being mentioned once. One student said they received “training on using computer programs.”

Four students indicated they receive training on anything they don’t know how to use, or any new technologies they receive. Finally, one student mentioned they “already had the training.”

Table 19 shows the student responses to training received by province.

 Receive training/info for AF and tech.? 
 Responses Yes%No%Not Req%
Total126 6450.83124.63124.6

Table 19. Training received

27. What technologies do you use to access academic materials that are in alternate formats?

Chart 30
Chart 30: Technology used to access alternate formats

The largest number of responses, 66, was indicated for optical character recognition (OCR) software; 55 chose two-track and four-track tape recorder, while 53 students used text-to-speech software (WYNN, ReadPlease, TextHelp, TextAloud). For Digital audio player (DAISY, CD/MP3 Player) the number of respondents is 39, 21 for screen magnification software (Zoomtext, Magic), and 20 for the category other. 16 use screen-reading software (Jaws, WindowEyes), nine Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV), eight Braille software, and use eight Braille equipment (OpenBook, Kurzweil) to access academic materials that are in alternate formats.

Dragon Naturally Speaking was the most commonly provided response under the category “other”, being offered by four students. In addition, Dragon Dictate was indicated once.

The following answers were each provided once under the “other” category:

  • Via Voice
  • EyeTech Digital Systems
  • Word Q for PDF files
  • Voice recognition
  • Digital record player
  • Reader
  • Franklin Speaking Dictionary
  • Internet
  • Inspiration
  • Audiotape player
  • Kurzweil
  • Some of these were recommended by CNIB but I can’t afford them.

28. Are your alternate format needs different for non-classroom/laboratory activities (such as registration, exams etc.)?

Chart 31
Chart 31: Alternate format needs and non-class environment

Beyond the textbook, the issue of access to other types of academic materials is important. In this question, we asked if students also needed alternate formats for timetables, exams and registration. Fifty-five students indicated that their needs were different for non-class or laboratory needs. Six of the eight open-ended comments provided with this question suggested that students’ needs are different for exams and tests. One student indicated they always type their exams, and extra time, a separate room and a test proctor were all mentioned as necessary accommodations.

In addition, one student wrote that “I use Windows to modify my desktop,” and another wrote, “Need to have someone to assist.”

29. Is the following information available to you in alternate formats that you can use at your institution?

Chart 32
Chart 32: Availability of information in alternate formats

This question builds upon the responses from the previous question, in which 44% of students report their needs for alternate formats extend beyond the textbook into areas such as timetables, exams etc. In this question we offered a list of materials that are not directly related to classroom work but are important to the participation of students in campus life and academics. The students responded by checking all that applied. The results, as shown above, indicate that there is a remarkably similar division between all the different categories. This indicates that students need full access to everything that is published on campus, whether it is timetables, campus guides, registration forms, course outlines, or any other form of printed material.

Under “other”, one respondent wrote that health and wellness information is available in a workable alternate format on campus. Several open-ended comments were also provided. A large number (7 out of 16 of respondents) indicated students were unsure if such materials were available in alternate formats, and/or that they hadn’t looked into it. In addition, three students provided comments suggesting that such materials are not available to them.

In addition, the following points were raised by students:

  • If requested.
  • Not needed.
  • The student affairs website is available in alternate formats.
  • I can read and understand registration packs and outlines; it is the textbooks I have trouble with.
  • College should provide CD-ROM of services to listen or see using assistive technology.

30. Are you aware of your rights to accessing alternate formats relating to the exceptions for persons with perceptual disabilities under the Canadian Copyright Act?

Chart 33
Chart 33: Copyright knowledge and accessing alternate formats

The following two questions deal with knowledge of copyright issues pertaining to formats other than print. This issue featured heavily in many of the comments. There are several similar questions regarding copyright that have been asked in the service provider survey also. Analysis of this area will be undertaken in a crosstabulation section after both surveys. Of note, here, is that some 36% of students state that they are aware of their copyright rights, but the remainder, almost two-thirds, are not. Just three comments were provided for this question, suggesting unfamiliarity with rights under the Canadian Copyright Act:

  • After trying to answer the questions in this survey, I realize I don’t know my rights.
  • No, but would love to know more.
  • Never heard of this act.

31. Are you aware of your responsibilities when using copyrighted material in alternate formats (such as honouring the copyright of the work, not copying the work for others, and purchasing a copy of the print book)?

Chart 34
Chart 34: Copyright knowledge and responsibilities

Interestingly while only 37% said they know their rights under the Canadian Copyright Act, in the previous question, 84% said they know their responsibilities.

The following comments were provided:

  • I sign a paper when I copy a textbook.
  • Yes, but could be explained more.
  • I was not aware of purchasing a copy of the print book. That makes no sense to me and is nothing more than clutter, as I will never use them.
  • Vraiement!!

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