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


Assistive Technology BC

By Garth Findahl, Gladys Loewen and Vince Tomassetti (July 2004)


As assistive technology consultants and trainers, staff at Assistive Technology-BC has extensive knowledge in the use and limitations of assistive technology within learning and working environments in British Columbia. We provide technology support services to adults with any disability, including persons with print disabilities. Services include technical aids assessment, consultation, loan or grant of assistive technology, training on the adaptive equipment, trouble shooting and repair support.

We provide these services through contracts with the Ministry of Human Resources and the Ministry of Advanced Education in order to ensure that adults with disabilities are able to do the following:

  • Communicate more effectively;
  • Write independently;
  • Read independently;
  • Conduct research and transmit information more efficiently;
  • Perform job duties effectively;
  • Make transitions between public school, post-secondary, and employment; and
  • Change jobs smoothly.

We currently provide services to approximately 1000 adults annually between the various contracts.

Access to Academic Materials

As the field of technology expands, so does the demand for adaptive technology, services, support and resources, as adaptive technology alone is never a seamless substitute for the abilities of the non-disabled population. There are usually accommodations and adjustments to be considered when integrating adults with a disability into a traditionally competitive environment. Strategies to accommodate students who use adaptive technology are constantly evolving as awareness and knowledge increases and technology becomes more commonplace yet more complex.

With the recent innovations in technology, the options for accessing print information have changed dramatically. The switch from analogue to digital technology provides various choices to print disabled students for reading materials. As well, the development of software programs targeted for specific disability groups or tasks opens up new methods of reading and writing. Some of these innovative developments include refreshable Braille technology, screen review and text to speech programs that read electronic text (E-text), digital hardware and software programs for reading E-text, talking dictionaries and thesaurus programs, and portable systems for example, Alpha Smart Dana, BrailleNote, CD and MP3 players, and CCTV (closed circuit television).

Companies are now designing optical character recognition (OCR) software programs that produce greater accuracy in translating the digital scanned image into text. These programs are now tailored for the specific needs of users who are low vision or blind, or have learning difficulties; both groups approach reading in different ways, so the software programs reflect that distinction.


BC is fortunate to have a provincial production service for colleges and institutes as well as a production unit at one of the universities. Institutions report that the provincial program has some difficulties preparing materials in a timely manner due to the bottleneck of requests for the fall semester, requests not being submitted with sufficient lead time, the time it takes to produce materials based on library standards, and review of the text to determine the appropriate production format for the textbook.

Despite this provincial resource, we have made the following observations that exist as pressure points in the post-secondary system:

  • Some schools are now choosing to scan textbooks for students in order to get the materials to the student in a timelier manner or because they want to standardize on one basic format. The informally produced E-text is generally not edited nor complete in that there is no description of the charts, graphs, sidebars, etc.
  • Institutional production staff may not be trained in techniques for proofing, editing, transcribing, and operating the hardware/software. As a result students may receive substandard textbooks from which to study in courses that depend on accuracy of information.
  • Some institutions are encouraging their print disabled students to scan and produce their own E-text. This means that students are using valuable study time to try to produce materials so that they can read the textbook. Students may not have the time or ability to edit or describe the graphic materials in the text, so they end up with an incomplete textbook that is substandard with possible inaccuracies.
  • Those using the provincial resource may end up with texts in more than one format, requiring several assistive technology products for example, portable CD or MP3 player, reading software for the computer, and 4-track tape player.
  • The informal productions (institutional or student produced) cannot be registered for a library service in that they are not produced in a professional format, following standard copyright procedures.
  • Post-secondary level textbooks have a relatively short shelf life with new editions being produced within a few years. Sometimes by the time a book is produced to library standards, the new edition is nearly ready for release, making the alternate format book obsolete.

So the dilemma becomes one of timeliness, quality of production, and type of production format. There is a trade-off between timeliness and quality of production, which has a significant impact on students and their academic success.


  1. At present universal guidelines and standards have not been implemented to govern the way in which electronic text materials are prepared. Examples of textual information that would benefit from such standards are italicized text, graphs, tables, charts, diagrams, and pictures. Currently each production facility administers their own rules for depicting these items.
  2. It is important that clear and concise copyright legislation is enacted, widely practiced and understood by every production facility. It is equally important for the copyright legislation to remove barriers that could prevent timely dissemination of electronic materials. Schools and post-secondary institutions constantly encounter copyright obstacles that often result in untimely delivery or prevent the electronic material from being produced.
  3. In order to ensure all documents in print are universally accessible in electronic text format, it is necessary to acknowledge and provide multiple means of technology hardware and software. Alternate format material is only useful when the recipient has the proper tools and skills to digest the information. If a student does not have the appropriate computer assistive technology or the skills to interpret the electronic material, sufficient access to print materials may not be achieved. For example, when materials such as mathematics, science, computer science, languages, and music are produced in alternate format in the form of electronic text, the reader may require more than one assistive output mode to gain full access. In these subject areas, the non-traditional display of text cannot be adequately interpreted by the aid of a computer equipped with a speech synthesizer and screen reader.
  4. As lending libraries become more proficient in the production of E-text, it is assumed that adults who are Braille readers will demand access to Brailled academic materials in order to make maximum use of their preferred reading style. Production services will need to consider access to Braille materials essential for some students, no matter what the cost.
  5. Access to refreshable Braille technology is critical for reading electronic information that contains numbers, equations, language, music notation, and scientific vocabulary. Since Braille technology is expensive, access to the equipment is very limited. Funding for appropriate access to a range of assistive technology is paramount.


To realize the maximum utility of alternate format materials, universal access is paramount. Universal access for persons with print disabilities includes:

  • Broad scale availability of materials in a timely manner;
  • Access to material in the preferred format or production style;
  • Access to several types of adaptive technology for example, computer, speech synthesizer, screen readers, large-print software, Braille displays, talking dictionaries including a thesaurus;
  • Proper training on the technology; and
  • Guaranteed access to accessible publishers file for the institution for all textbooks sold in the bookstore.

It is imperative to ensure that students with print disabilities have the ability to access materials that are so easily accessed by their non-print-disabled counterparts. All educational institutions have a duty to accommodate to ensure that all students have access to course materials. In order to facilitate this institutional responsibility and duty, legislation must be written with the broadest access possible to support post-secondary institutions and production agencies in making printed academic material available to students with print disabilities in preferred formats in a timely manner.

Respectfully Submitted on behalf of Assistive Technology-BC,

Garth Findahl, Learning Disability Technology Consultant
Gladys Loewen, Manager
Vince Tomassetti, Vision Technology Consultant

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