It seemed like an obvious choice last weekend for the Liberal government, but Ottawa’s confirmation that it would help fund the production of accessible books through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) is prompting some unexpected blowback.
The Canadian Federation of the Blind (CFB), which helps support blind Canadians but is not affiliated with the CNIB, contacted Global News this week to flag what they call the CNIB’s “lobbying juggernaut.”
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While well-meaning, the critics say, Ottawa’s apparent reversal of a move to pull $2.5 million in funding may actually end up hurting Canadians who rely on accessible materials in the long run.
“The minister (Kirsty Duncan) is new, she didn’t have much background. The outrage was palpable, so she said ‘let’s stop the public relations bleeding quickly,'” said Mary Ellen Gabias, president of the CFB.
“She thought well maybe the bureaucrats just weren’t thinking clearly, and let’s fix this so that blind people won’t suffer … and I understand it.”
But Duncan may have “short-circuited” the work of her government’s own special advisory committee, which has been tasked with improving how the feds fund, and help distribute, alternate-format books and materials, Gabias explained.
How it works now
Right now, only about 5 to 7 per cent of the materials published in Canada are available in an accessible format for people with print disabilities, a figure that hasn’t changed much in over a century.
Currently, the CNIB is among a number of groups that helps produce materials for the visually impaired. The organization shares them with the Centre for Equitable Library Access – a separate entity established by the CNIB – and the Centre, in turn, leases them to libraries for a fee.
That fee has steadily increased, so libraries are paying more for books the federal government has already helped pay to produce, Gabias said.
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“What if, for example, a policy decision was made that any book that the government paid to create would be available through the public library system, to all people with print disabilities, without exception?” Gabias said.
“Suddenly CNIB’s ability to monetize would be compromised.”
Technology is making this more and more realistic, she noted. With the advent of digital publishing, books can be “born accessible,” and made available in large print, Braille, or with synthesized speech at the same time the book is published in its regular format.
The CNIB says libraries subscribing to its collection have “indefinite access” and that any fees collected help fund broader subscription services, plus “the digital and physical infrastructure required to house and access the collection, a wide range of technology and user support services for individual library patrons, and support for member libraries to increase their capacity and knowledge.”
Ottawa’s special advisory committee (also called a working group) includes the CNIB, and is examining the best way to move forward. It is close to completing its task.
“It might be that the working group will decide that yes, we want money to go to the CNIB and that’s the horse we want to back,” said Gabias, who is herself a member of the committee.
“But the process and the consultation and direct involvement of people with rights in this situation never got to play out, because CNIB used its clout and its fear that the blind were being mistreated.”
Duncan’s office maintains that it never planned to axe the funding for the CNIB, and that making it available for this year will have no effect on the committee’s work.
But Ben Hyman, senior advisor to the British Columbia Libraries Cooperative, agreed with Gabias that the funding decision last weekend represents a potential setback.
Hyman said that the CNIB’s approach just doesn’t make content as universally accessible as it should be to people with print disabilities.
“This working group was struck ostensibly to reset the narrative and come to terms at a policy level,” he said.
“So it does look like some slippage in that context. Now, I have seen some reassuring discussion that’s it’s not the intent, that there is still a willingness (to innovate).”
An ‘elegant’ solution?
Hyman was also the founding director of the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), a group that’s trying to “move the needle” on the number of accessible works available to Canadians.
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NNELS says it aims to leverage local community resources, relationships with publishers and provincial funding to convert works into accessible formats. It’s getting a $1 million grant from the federal government this year, the first time it’s ever received federal support.
“It’s about how can a community work with publishers to raise awareness and grow capacity?” Hyman explained. “Taking nearly published material and then, at the final clicks through to actually release something into an ebook, actually make it accessible.”
The most “elegant approach,” he added, would be to have all materials published in Canada follow this workflow, so the CNIB and NNELS wouldn’t even need to be involved.
The CNIB it believes strongly in a long-term strategy that will allow for “sustainable production and funding” of accessible books. It maintains “an open mind” on its own future role in that strategy.
“We have strongly advocated that the federal government continue to support accessible book production at current levels until a long-term strategy has been developed and implemented,” the CNIB added in a statement sent to Global News. “A lack of funding would mean a loss of access to books for many Canadians with print disabilities, and it was for this reason we spoke out.”