Recent Funding Cuts to Accessible Books for Canadians With Print Disabilities Will Be Devastating

Casey Stepaniuk

Staff Writer

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature and an MLIS. Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ+ Canadian books. She also writes a monthly column on Autostraddle recommending queer books called Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian, Litsy: CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian, Goodreads: CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian, and Facebook: Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

Outside of Canada, it feels like current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and, by extension, his government, have a reputation for being cool and progressive. Trudeau’s Liberal government often talk the talk about equity and inclusion. Sadly and frustratingly, they keep making decisions that are far from walking the walk, like a recent funding cut announced that will have dire consequences for Canadians with print disabilities and their equitable access to books and other reading materials such as magazines. These funding cuts to accessible books for Canadians with print disabilities will be devastating.

In early March, Canada’s national news network CBC reported that the current Liberal federal government, headed by Prime Minister Trudeau, included in their government’s 2020 Fall Economic Statement that funding for two non-profit organizations, the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) and the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), would be phased out. Currently, the funding is only $4 million across both services ($3 million to CELA, $1 million for NNELS). Funding for both services is set to be eliminated completely by the 2024–25 fiscal year, with a 25% decrease every year leading up to then. This decision, according to NNELS and CELA, was made without any consultation or even warning.

I can’t describe how angry and disappointed I was to hear this news. I’m a librarian at a public library, where one of the many varied tasks I and my colleagues do is help Canadians with print disabilities sign up for the free services of CELA and NNELS. When I say Canadians with print disabilities, that includes folks of all ages (including young people) with various disabilities, including those who have low vision or who are blind; those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia; and those with physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, which make reading and/or holding a physical book difficult or impossible.

For those registered with CELA and NNELS across Canada, the organizations produce and provide — free of charge — books in accessible formats such as physical braille books and audiobooks. According to CELA, less than one in ten books published in Canada are published in formats accessible for people with print disabilities. This means that without the work done by CELA and NNELS to create alternate versions, many books would remain forever out of reach for some readers. If you’ve ever fruitlessly looked for an audiobook, large print, or even ebook version of a book — particularly ones by Canadian authors or about Canadian topics, for which the market is much smaller than American counterparts — you probably aren’t surprised to learn how few books published in Canada are accessible.

At my library, as with all public libraries, we make an effort to purchase many books in all sorts of accessible formats, such as audiobooks on CD, digital audiobooks, large print books, MP3 audiobooks, and more. But libraries can’t buy and lend what doesn’t exist. All books (and other reading materials such as newspapers and magazines) do not exist in accessible formats. This is simply because they are not produced and made available by the publishers, likely with the reasoning that it’s not profitable. CELA and NNELS fill this gap, “translating” books to accessible formats so that people with print disabilities have equitable access to them, like the rest of the general public does through their local library.

CELA, for example, currently provides access to 800,000 book titles, with a focus on Canadian books and authors. They also provide almost 50 newspapers and 150 magazines in DAISY format (an audio substitute for print material) — the same day the newspapers and magazines are published! The wonderful work that CELA does would not be possible for one library system to take on; instead, by centralizing the work, they are able to efficiently and cost-effectively serve people across Canada. For more information about CELA and their awesome work, see the about page on CELA’s website. In short: both CELA and NNELS guarantee that Canadians with print disabilities receive the same access to books and reading materials that everyone else in their communities does.

In addition to producing and providing books and other reading materials in accessible formats, CELA and/or NNELS also provide meaningful employment for people with print disabilities; create and share digital tutorials for users on how to use digital hardware and software for reading accessible books; provide resources for elementary, high school, and post-secondary educators for use with students who have print disabilities; and provide training for library workers on connecting people with their services and troubleshooting technology used to access their collections.

The huge gap created by the gradual complete loss of federal government funding for accessible books for Canadians with print disabilities is difficult to overstate. It will have economic, social, intellectual, health, and educational repercussions. CELA estimates that one in ten Canadians (10% of the population) has a print disability. This translates to 3 million Canadians. I know from my experiences and those of colleagues at my library that the need for and interest in accessible book formats is only growing larger, especially given our aging population and the isolation and difficulties that come along with the current pandemic.

The American Library Association’s interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights states that “All resources … should be readily and equitably accessible to all library users.” All members of the public deserve access to books for all sorts of equally valid reasons: education, entertainment, business, social well-being, self-improvement, health, and more. The funding cuts to accessible books for Canadians with print disabilities is a direct violation of the Library Bill of Rights. Without fully funded CELA and NNELS working on a national level, how will libraries across Canada provide equitable access to all library users?

We know having equitable access to books is crucial for many reasons. We also know people with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and that generally, people with disabilities are already underserved by public services steeped in ableism. They face barriers to education, employment, and more.

The American Library Association has assessed that “[t]he correlation between literacy and income inequality, health outcomes, and rates of incarceration, among other issues of social and economic justice, underscores how literacy intersects with equity, access, and inclusion.” For Canadians with print disabilities, eliminating funding for accessible books, and the literacy that goes along with them, is further excluding those who already face too many barriers to income equality, health, social inclusion, and more. It’s a disgrace, particularly when $4 million is a drop in the bucket in terms of the total federal government budget (generally in the range of $350 billion).

I hope this article about the funding cuts to accessible books for Canadians with print disabilities has got you as fired up and mad as I am. What can you do? Participate in the advocacy both CELA and NNELS have set up and share information. On their advocacy page, CELA has created great images that come with facts that you can post on social media (along with alt text you can copy and paste so that your images are accessible!).

Canadians, get in touch with your federal MP and express your support for the full reinstatement of funds. On the advocacy page for CELA, there is a form letter you can use to email your MP; or if you’re keen, give them a call. [Update as of March 16: Minster of Employment, Workforce Development, and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough has guaranteed that the funding will not be cut for the 2021–2022 budget year. This means our advocacy is working — keep it up!] Let’s stand together for equitable access to books!

Want to read about more accessible books on Book Riot? Also check out bookish content on the topic of disability.