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


Canadian Association of Educational Resource Centres for Alternate Formats

By Mary Anne Epp (February 2005)


This paper describes the current services and issues provided by members of the Canadian Association of Educational Resource Centres for Alternate Formats (CAER). The main strength of CAER is its collaborative and collective approach to the issues of serving students with print disabilities in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

Ninety-seven percent of print materials are not transcribed in alternate formats. The members of CAER have therefore developed collaborative and collective strategies for bridging the gap for students with print disabilities. These include:

  • Direct services and interlibrary loan services
  • Production of alternate formats
  • Reference and information services
  • Partnerships
  • Research and development
  • Advocacy and public policy development
  • Training and literacy

This report also outlines a list of issues to access that require ongoing attention. These include:

  • Efficient access to publishers’ files
  • Extension of copyright exceptions
  • Production standards
  • International agreements for resource-sharing
  • Accessibility of on-line courses
  • Accessibility of media resources
  • Lack of funding for Braille production
  • Isolated university disability services
  • Inadequate adaptive technology access and training
  • Lack of cataloguing of alternate formats
  • Inadequate lead times for production
  • Inconsistent communications with disability providers


CAER is a consortium of provincial educational service centres that provide alternate formats and technology to Canadian students with print disabilities through a mandate from the respective provincial ministries of education/advanced education. In addition, CAER has two members that are university library services that also serve members of the consortium through interlibrary loan services.

Three of the members provide province-wide services to the post-secondary community in their province. The British Columbia College and Institute Library Services provides a co-ordinated library service to the colleges, institutes and agencies in BC, and through contract, one university for production services. Special Materials Centre, Department of Education in Manitoba, provides production and loan services to post-secondary students in Manitoba. W. Ross Macdonald School is responsible for provincial production services for Ontario’s post-secondary community.

Since only three percent of all print materials in English is ever transcribed into alternate formats for people with disabilities, CAER members needed to find a way to maximize access through a variety of methods while being as efficient and cost-effective as possible with limited financial resources.

Print impairments include all types of perceptual disabilities related to the use of print: blindness, visual disabilities, learning disabilities, multiple disabilities, some forms of physical, neurological, and chronic disabilities and illnesses that require the accommodation of material in alternate formats.

The main strength of CAER is its collaborative and collective approach to the issues of serving students with print disabilities in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

The Mandate for CAER is to:

  • promote the sharing of resources;
  • encourage the use of new technology, particularly in relation to alternate format production;
  • extend and share this knowledge with all CAER members;
  • provide the opportunity to discuss and study points of common interest, in particular provincial, regional, Canadian and international issues;
  • significant developments in members’ centres;
  • information on policy, procedures, statistical data etc.;
  • discuss and adopt common procedures and practices in such areas as production quality standards and interlibrary lending;
  • advise and provide input to educational ministries on evolving issues and trends;
  • establish and maintain linkages and to speak as a unified voice to such association organizations as the Canadian Braille Authority, the Canadian Braille Literacy Foundation, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the National Library of Canada and the Library of Congress;
  • communicate with publishers, vendors, suppliers and individuals to develop positive relationships and to publicize members’ services; and
  • to provide the opportunity for participation in learning activities or professional development.

The Need

People with print disabilities may require learning materials in a variety of alternate formats: audiobooks, large print books, Braille, CD-ROMs, tactile graphics, electronic texts, digital audio, tactile graphics, captioned video, or descriptive video. Many of the digital resources are used with adaptive technology such as screen readers, which provide a synthesized voice that narrates the material on a computer screen.

Students with print disabilities need resources equivalent to their peers in the same courses. They need access to:

  • textbooks for their basic course work;
  • learning resources for essays, research reports, oral presentations and skill development information literacy skills, technology and training to access library catalogues, online databases and other sources of information, such as CD-ROM encyclopaedias and multi-media reference tools; and
  • Web resources that are accessible through screen readers.

They need to be able to:

  • identify and locate research materials that are available at their own institutions, online or through interlibrary loan; and
  • participate actively, effectively and fully in online courses.

Increasingly, students need to gain skills to help themselves through training in the new formats, awareness of services and information literacy skills.

The subject matter of courses ranges across the spectrum of all post-secondary vocational, undergraduate, graduate and professional courses.

Learning materials include (but are not limited to):

  • Textbooks
  • Workbooks
  • Assignments and exams
  • Orientation guides
  • Online courses
  • Online reference and periodical databases
  • Electronic resources
  • Library catalogues
  • Print periodical indexes
  • Journal articles
  • Reference books
  • Vocational materials
  • Web resources
  • Coursepacks
  • Audio-visual resources (audiotapes, slides, videos, films, multimedia, etc.)

In order for the resources to be made accessible, they need to be transcribed into an alternate format or produced in a form that is compatible with adaptive or assistive technology, such as screen readers, television monitors that enlarge print, software to enlarge screen print or captioned materials.

Mission and Goals

The CAER mission is to provide the widest range of access to information resources for post-secondary students in alternate formats in the most responsive, effective, efficient and economical manner.

The goals of CAER are:

  • provide the services in a timely manner;
  • identify the needs and formats in a responsive way;
  • match the information with the appropriate format;
  • investigate and implement new adaptive technology; and
  • develop standards and processes to achieve efficiencies.


To fill the gap in access to resources for post-secondary students, the members of CAER have developed collaborative and collective strategies to provide as many resources and options for post-secondary students to assist them to access alternate formats. CAER has developed strategies in several areas:

  1. Direct services and interlibrary loan services
  2. Production of alternate formats
  3. Reference and information services
  4. Partnerships
  5. Research and development
  6. Advocacy and public policy development

Direct Services and Interlibrary Loan Services

CAER has developed protocols for borrowing and lending resources within the consortium. This practice has ensured the optimization of existing resources and the efficient sharing of resources.

Access to online databases and other central repositories was a necessity for determining the location of existing resources. Therefore, the searching of existing agency collections is always a first step in the sourcing process. The National Library of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada) AMICUS online database has been a key resource for decades. It lists all reported alternate formats in Canada. Most CAER members report their holdings to the AMICUS database and to CANWIP, Canadian Works in Progress.

Production of Alternate Formats

The members share knowledge and expertise in the development of alternate format technology. Collectively the members produce alternate formats in the following formats:

  • Electronic 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 (image files) for students that can use PDF documents to enlarge the print or manipulate the image;
  • Large print (print and digital);
    • Electronic text (PDF format) for students with low vision who can enlarge their own print products or read them off the computer screen
    • Large print: print enlargement on paper
    • Large print: electronic format;
  • Digital audio, CD MP3 format, with human voice, no navigational features;
  • Digital audio, CD MP3 format, with human voice and navigational features;
  • Digital audio, CD MP3 format, with synthesized voice, transcribed from electronic text, with file names;
  • Digital audio, CD MP3 format, with human voice, with navigational features (DAISY format, DAISY stands for Digital Audio Information Systems). This format includes ability to find specific pages, chapters, sections and, in some cases, index entries. DAISY formats vary from simple to complex mark-up features.
  • Tactile graphics
  • Braille

Reference and Information Services

Here are some examples of the range of reference and information services offered by the members. Not all members offer all the services.

  1. Answering questions on accessible resources:
    • providing subject searches for alternate formats;
    • identifying and locating resources in accessible formats;
    • providing advice on accessibility for online learning.
  2. Explaining services to clients and prospective clients:
    • defining the service mandate and services;
    • introducing new alternate format products;
    • explaining resource sharing arrangements.
  3. Training:
    • raising awareness through workshops, listservs and other communication vehicles;
    • training students and employees in the use of adaptive technology;
    • providing demonstrations of alternate formats at workshops and on the members’ Website;
    • presenting workshops on alternate formats, accessible library resources and information literacy.
  4. Online Resources:
    • providing accessible online Web catalogue of holdings;
    • updating links to accessible resources at other agencies and sources;
    • listing standards of production and service provision;
    • advising on adaptive technology specifications and purchases;
    • producing guidelines on how to make online courses accessible;
    • citing information on copyright issues related to people with perceptual disabilities.
  5. Needs Assessment:
    • maintaining listservs to determine needs and provide information;
    • undertaking research on emerging needs.
  6. Information Literacy:
    • assessing needs for information literacy;
    • developing tools and resources for information literacy.


Partnerships with institutional service providers and other agencies facilitate cost savings in production. The importance of the partnerships between CAER members and their institutional service providers cannot be over-emphasized. For the services to be successful, every component of the service chain needs to work in harmony: instructors, curriculum, identified resources, disability co-ordinators, librarians, interlibrary loan technicians, media technicians, couriers, bookstores, print shops, producers, equipment loan agencies, publishers, and of course, the primary client, students.

Membership in the CAER consortium continues to have benefits for lending and borrowing of existing resources, sharing of ideas on production, copyright, national public policy on accessibility issues, advocacy on copyright reform, development of standards for production and cataloguing of alternate formats.

A key component to resource sharing is the role of Library and Archives Canada, the federal service that has provided database support for resource sharing of alternate format materials for many decades. The reporting of alternate format resources to the national database of alternate formats is a core pillar of effective reciprocal borrowing and lending system. Most CAER members report their holdings to the national database.

In the past several years, CAER has provided leadership in the development of cataloguing standards for alternate formats. A working standard for tactile graphics cataloguing has been adopted for implementation across Canada.

CAER has participated in a number of national projects and studies such as the current initiatives of the National Education Association of Disabled Students, Library and Archives Canada and those undertaken by the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.

Members have contributed to the Council on Access to Information for Print Disabled Canadians and the Canadian Library Association/Library and Archives Canada Working Group to Define the National Network for Equitable Library Service.

Several members were invited to join a national pilot project on a clearinghouse for publishers’ files. The project is led by the Library and Archives Canada in co-operation with Access Copyright. If successful, the pilot will pave the way for a streamlined process for requesting and receiving publishers’ electronic files for production, thereby reducing time and cost of alternate format production for Canadian books.

CAER, in partnership with other Canadian groups, made considerable effort to encourage the sharing of digital resources, particularly DAISY books (digital audio), by the major supplier Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic in New Jersey. For decades, CAER members have borrowed analogue taped books and electronic texts from RFB&D on a fee basis. However, the new DAISY books are not available for loan by Canadians, restricting access to a valuable resource. This needs to change.

Members of CAER have joined the Canadian DAISY Consortium, developing expertise and capacity for production of DAISY books. Members of CAER have also contributed expertise and representation to the Canadian Braille Authority, a non-profit association responsible for the promotion, development of standards and access to Braille.

Research and Development

New technology evaluation is an ongoing need to achieve production efficiencies, offer better products to students, and continue the evaluation of accessible products. Members continue to develop new technology and share their expertise with each other. Studies on student use and best practices have benefited all the members. Current studies are underway to determine the efficacy of the Unified English Braille Code.

Advocacy and Public Policy Development

CAER has presented briefs on copyright issues, exemptions from the tariff on blank recording media and other national issues.

CAER members made presentations information on accessibility issues in writing and at hearings of the National Library Council on Access to Information for Print Disabled Canadians.

CAER members continue to advocate for easier access to publishers’ files and digital audio products that are internationally accessible, specifically DAISY books.

Training and Education

CAER members continue to share their expertise at conferences and workshops and develop training programs for practitioners and students to access adaptive technology and alternate formats. These programs and resulting training tools are shared with the members.


While many strategies have been implemented to expand access to information, CAER members continue to work on the removal of obstacles to increase access for post-secondary students and to improve efficiencies in the services to clients. Some of these areas for further development are summarized below.

  1. Improving efficient access to publishers files

    While a pilot project for a Canadian publishers’ clearinghouse has been initiated, there has been no implementation to date. Several CAER members are participating in the pilot project. This is a good step forward in improving efficiencies. However, it needs to be recognized that the vast majority of books used by post-secondary students are non-Canadian. International agreements are required to extend the expediting of publishers files from the U.S.

  2. Advocating for extension of copyright exceptions

    While Canada’s copyright law permits a number of exceptions for people with perceptual disabilities, two areas remain as obstacles. These are large print and sign language for motion pictures. CAER has contributed briefs on these topics to associations, federal agencies and government. We need a generic statement in the copyright legislation to exempt all formats useable by people with perceptual disabilities.

  3. Advocating for production standards

    While CAER members follow national and international standards for production, there are many producers who do not. CAER members have assisted in developing minimum standards with national associations and groups such as CADSPPE. This process needs to be encouraged to ensure wider access to useable alternate formats.

  4. Advocating for international agreements for resource sharing

    For many years, CAER members have borrowed analogue audiotapes and electronic texts from RFB&D in New Jersey, a major supplier of post-secondary textbooks. To date, RFB&D does not lend its DAISY books to Canadian clients. The reciprocal borrowing and resource sharing is essential to the efficiency and cost savings of both countries. Copyright laws in both countries permit interlibrary loan of resources. CAER, Library and Archives Canada, the DAISY consortium and other groups have been advocating and trying to negotiate with RFB&D to open up the resource sharing to both countries.

  5. Recommending consistent copyright information for publications produced by colleges

    Publications created by institutions themselves are often not clearly identified for copyright. These are often problematic, in that the copyright status is either unclear or incorrect. The lack of standards creates delays in production. Institutions need to be encouraged to produce and identify their own publications appropriately.

  6. Advocating and providing leadership to make online courses accessible

    The problem is the lack of knowledge of online course developers about the need for producing online courses in an accessible format and connecting to library resources that are accessible. Some CAER members have developed guidelines for creation of accessible Websites and online courses. “Forethought” is always better than “afterthought”. This is an important beginning for supporting online learning initiatives.

  7. Offering advice on the accessibility of media resources

    While some progress has been made to bridge the gap in print resources, the access to media resources (both digital, analogue and pictorial) requires considerably more attention. CAER members are monitoring the research and development of GBMH and other production groups to identify the issues and recommend implementation of these standards.

  8. Advocating for Braille production

    Braille-using students are not strong self-advocates for this medium. However, they often experience academic and financial difficulties because this medium is not available to them. The K-12 system encourages Braille literacy as an essential component to literacy. Studies show that there is a high correlation between employment and Braille users. While technology has provided some relief (when students can afford it) to produce their own Braille printouts of literary works, subject areas in the technical and scientific areas require manual transcription. Post-secondary services need to be funded adequately to provide the services more equitably.

  9. Advocating services for private post-secondary institutions

    An entire sector of post-secondary education is not providing equitable access to alternate formats for post-secondary students with print disabilities. These include the private post-secondary institutions across Canada. A strategy needs to be developed to address this potential gap in services. The provinces need to encourage high quality programs and services and ensure services are applied on a consistent, system-wide basis so that learners’ interests are safeguarded.

  10. Encouraging standards and networking of university services

    Most universities do not have access to the full range of services provided by CAER members. The University of British Columbia and St. Mary’s University have reciprocal arrangements for borrowing and lending under the CAER partnership. Most other universities do not borrow and lend in a similar manner. CAER has produced a statement on guidelines for standardization for CADSPPE members (institutions that produce alternate formats).

    The lack of a centralized service for universities means that the individual institutions need to develop their own production facilities and procedures. This is wasteful in many ways:

    • there is not a uniform standard for production. The lack of standards often makes the alternate formats unsuitable for sharing or listing;
    • there is no economy of scale for an effective production unit;
    • there is no uniformity of service across the system that the students can rely on. The resources created at the local university level are not shareable or shared; they are usually not listed in a national database;
    • there are few standard interlibrary loan protocols or arrangements between institutions for sharing the resources;
    • the over-burdened and under-trained university staff does not have the up-to-date information on new digital formats or the expertise on how to produce them or access them.
  11. Assistance with access to technology and training

    Many students could use more accessible resources on their own if they were able to obtain equipment and get the training they need to use the equipment effectively. Some agencies provide adaptive technology to students. Some CAER members provide training in the technology and provide advice to institutions on specifications for hardware and software. This initiative needs to be developed further to create awareness and “buy-in” from local library personnel in providing information access services through adaptive technology.

  12. Leadership in training

    Extensive training is available to students in the K-12 system. This initiative is also needed at the post-secondary level. Some CAER members provide training for disability service providers. These programs need to be extended throughout the province.

  13. Encouragement of cataloguing of alternate formats

    Many producers do not catalogue or report their productions of alternate formats to AMICUS, the national database. This addition needs to be promoted. However, for the cataloguing to be useful, all products need to follow at least minimum standards of production and cataloguing. Further, the cataloguing and national reporting of tactile graphics will greatly enhance the access to an important medium for blind students and will greatly reduce the need for expensive duplication of effort.

  14. Advocacy for improving lead times for productions

    The practice of late registration and identification of required readings late in the process of registration causes considerable delay in providing alternate formats to students in a timely manner. Students are often required to make do with less useable materials or formats. Part of the responsibility rests with the student for early identification and part of it rests with the system.

  15. Encouragement of effective communications by disability service providers and students

    CAER members make every effort to maintain timely communications with students and disability service providers to confirm appropriate resources, validate student equipment access and negotiate the best format within the time frame. Often students do not return the telephone calls or the service providers are not available during a crucial period, especially during the summer vacation period.

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