Over three million Canadians have print disabilities [PDF]. These include blindness, dyslexia, and physical conditions such as Parkinson’s which impede one’s ability to use traditional printed books. It is estimated that currently, only 10% of printed materials are available in alternative formats, and of these, many are not accessible to all people with print disabilities—as, for example, large print or books on CD.
The Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) and the National Network for Equitable Library Services (NNELS) are two not-for-profit organizations that work in cooperation with publishers, libraries, and each other to produce and distribute accessible publications to Canadians with print disabilities. As the vast majority of published materials are not “born accessible,” the operating budget of these two organizations is spent in large part on fulfilling requests to convert publications into formats such as braille and DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System, a type of accessible digital book), as well as purchasing content, and distribution.
In 2016 the federal government joined the Marrakesh Treaty, committing Canada to sharing our collection of accessible published works with other countries. CELA and NNELS facilitate Canada’s participation in this international exchange of accessible materials.
The 2020 Fall Economic Statement from the federal government states that it is a plan to “invest in a recovery that is inclusive, sustainable, and creates good jobs for Canadians,” so it came as a shock that CELA and NNELS were to have their federal funding cut off completely.
Deep within this 237-page document is a single line projecting the annual budget, in millions, for Alternative Format Materials, described as “Funding for the Centre for Equitable Library Access and the National Network for Equitable Library Service to support the transition towards industry-based production and distribution of accessible reading materials to Canadians with print disabilities.” The allocation of $4 million for Fiscal Year 2020-2021 drops by a million each year, down to zero by 2024.
These organizations were not warned of the proposed cuts, and in early March, 2021, they launched an advocacy campaign to raise support for the issue. Within two weeks, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, who herself is visually impaired, responded that funding would be restored for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. This means that although there will be an immediate reprieve, the budget will still be reduced by 50% next year.
In the wake of the government’s commitment to the Marrakesh Treaty and the Accessible Canada Act’s promise of a barrier-free Canada by 2040, this news left me with more questions than answers.
I contacted Minister Qualtrough’s office to ask how the government plans to keep these commitments under the proposed budget changes. The Minister did not make herself available to answer my questions. Instead, her office directed me to a previously published news release in which the minister stated that, “Everyone should be able to access information and reading material. This is why our government has developed and been implementing a comprehensive long-term strategy for the production of alternate format materials that includes support to the publishing sector, advancements in technology, and non-profits. In recognizing that the pandemic has affected the timeline in the realization of this transition, and the ongoing need for alternate format materials, we will be funding CELA and NNELS with an additional $1 million for this coming year. This will keep us on the path to accessible publishing, and ensure that persons with print disabilities continue to have access, particularly during this unprecedented time.” This response left me with still more questions.
In the news release, the government maintains that they have added an additional $1 million this year in addition to the $10 million already allotted. This is referring to the Fall Economic Statement’s cumulative $10 million over four years, with no funding for non-profits thereafter, so it is not clear what was meant when she said that their strategy includes the participation of non-profits.
The government has instead stated [PDF] that its goal is to transition the production of accessible materials to the publishing industry. To this end, the 2019 Federal budget allocated $22.8 million to the Canada Book Fund “to support the sustainable production and distribution of accessible digital books by Canadian independent publishers.” The funding for most projects will be capped at $100,000, and is also set to expire in 2024.
I spoke with Kevin Millsip, Executive Director of the BC Libraries Cooperative and NNELS, about the impact of these changes, and what incentive there would be for publishers to continue this work when the funding is exhausted. He explained that while all parties involved believe in producing books that are born accessible, the publishing industry was not consulted on whether this would be possible under the proposed timeline. Furthermore, a privatized model means that the materials produced are dependent on profitability. Some formats such as print braille are expensive to produce, and many independent publishers would not have the capacity to provide this because they simply wouldn’t be able to recoup the costs.
Many people living with disabilities already face financial hardship, and may not be able to afford to purchase accessible publications themselves. Removing equitable public library access for people with disabilities is not only contrary to the mandate of the Accessible Canada Act, it is discrimination.
The position of CELA and NNELS is that while the goal is for all books to be born accessible, their work is still an important piece of ensuring equitable access. Fulfilling international commitments, supporting public libraries, and filling requests for formats such as braille and items from the vast catalogue of already published work, will keep them busy long after publishers take on the work of offering accessible formatting for new publications. Federal funding provides the capacity to keep up with the demand for these services across the country. It should continue to do so, under mandate of the laws that this government has enacted.
CELA and NNELS continue to pursue federal funding and urge all Canadians to thank the government for this year’s reprieve from funding cuts and to reiterate the need for a commitment to long-term federal support. You can show the government that accessibility matters, and that loss of equitable library services won’t go unnoticed, by contacting your MP.