Access to information: The role of editors (EAC-BC meeting)

At the November EAC-BC meeting, Shana Johnstone, principal of Uncover Editorial + Design, moderated a panel discussion that offered rich and diverse perspectives on accessibility. (She deftly kept the conversation flowing with thematic questions, so although her words don’t show up much in my summary here, she was critical to the evening’s success.)


Panel members included:

The Crane Library, Nygard explained, is named after Charles Crane, who in 1931 became the first deafblind student to attend university in Canada. Over his life he accumulated ten thousand volumes of works in Braille, and when he died, his family donated the collection to the Vancouver Public Library, which then donated it to UBC. Paul Thiele, a visually impaired doctoral student, and his wife, Judith, who was the first blind library student (and later the first blind librarian) in Canada, helped set up the space for the Crane Library, including a Braille card catalogue and Braille spine labels so that students could find materials on their own. Today the Crane Library is part of Access and Diversity at UBC and offers exam accommodations, narration services (it has an eight-booth recording studio to record readings of print materials), and materials in a variety of formats, including PDF, e-text, and Braille.

Gray, who has a background in recreational therapy, used to work with people who had brain injuries, and for her, it was “a trial-and-error process to communicate with them just to do my job,” she said. Through that work she developed communication strategies that take into account not only the language but also formats that will most likely appeal to her audience. To reach a community, Gray said, it’s important to understand its language and conventions. “It’s about getting off on the right foot with people. If you turn people off with a phrase that is outside their community, they stop reading.” It’s also important to know who in a community is doing the reading. In the Down syndrome community, she said, “people are still writing as if the caregivers are the ones reading” even though more people with developmental disability are now reading for themselves.

Booth works with forty-five groups (such as the Writers’ Exchange) that provide literacy support in the Downtown Eastside, which he emphasized is “a neighbourhood, not a pejorative.” He defined literacy as the “knowledge, skills, and confidence to participate fully in life,” and he told us that “There is more stigma around illiteracy than there is around addiction.”

Busting misconceptions

Within the Downtown Eastside, said Booth, there are “multiple populations with multiple challenges and multiple experiences—sometimes bad—with learning.” Residents may be reluctant to get involved with structured educational opportunities, and so they rely on community organizations to reach out to them. The media does the Downtown Eastside a disservice by portraying it as the “poorest postal code in Canada,” Booth says. To him, all of his clients, regardless of their background, bring skills and experience to the table.

Gray agreed, adding that it’s easy to make judgments based on appearance. She knows that her three-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, is taking in more than he’s putting back out. The same holds for people who have had strokes or people with cerebral palsy. Some people may not speak well, but they may read and understand well. She acknowledges that we all bring preconceptions to every interaction, but it’s important to set them aside and ask questions to get to know your audience.

“What do we think of, when we think of a person with a disability?” said Nygard. “Not all disabilities are visible.” People assume that text-to-speech services are just for the visually impaired, but often they are for students with learning disabilities who prefer human voice narration. The students who use the Crane Library’s services are simply university students who need a little more support to be able to do certain academic activities. They are people with access to resources and technology that will help them get a university education.

People also assume that technology has solved the accessibility problem. Although a lot of accessibility features are now built into our technology, like VoiceOver for Macs and Ease of Access on Windows, computers aren’t the answer for everyone. For some people, technology hasn’t obviated Braille.

Their work—The specifics

Gray said that although she works primarily with print materials, she’s started writing as though the text would destined for the web. “I’m no longer assuming that people are reading entire chunks of material. I’m not assuming they’re following along from beginning to end or reading the whole thing. I’m using a lot more headings to break up the material and am continually giving people context. I’m not assuming people remember the topic, so I’m constantly reintroducing it.” People with Down syndrome have poor short-term memory, she said, so she never assumes that a reader will refer to earlier text where a concept was first introduced. “Don’t dumb it down,” she said, “but use plain language. Keep it simple and to the point.” Some writers enjoy adding variety to their writing to spice things up, she said. “Take the spice out. Keep to the facts.”

That said, editors also have to keep in mind that when people read, they’re not just absorbing facts; they’re approaching the material with a host of emotions. For people who have children with Down syndrome, she said, “everything they’re reading is judging them as a parent.”

“We don’t know where people are at and where their heads are when they’re taking the materials in,” Gray said.

To connect with the audience, said Booth, listening is a vital skill to develop. “Storytelling is a really important art form. Everybody has a story, and everybody will tell you their story if you give them the opportunity.”

Nygard compares her work to directing traffic—making sure resources flow to to people who need them. She explained the process of creating alternate formats: students have to buy a new textbook and give Nygard the receipt, at which point she can request a PDF from the publisher. But is it fair, she asked, to make these students buy the book at full price when their classmates can get a used copy for a discount? Another inequity is in the license agreement; often they allow students to use the PDF for the duration for the course only, when other students can keep their books for future reference. Image-only or locked PDFs are problematic because text-to-speech software like JAWS can’t read it.

For books that exist only in print, the conversion process involves cutting out the pages and manually scanning them to PDF, then running them through an OCR program to create a rough Word document. These documents then get sent to student assistants who clean them up for text-to-speech software. Otherwise, columns, running heads, footnotes, and other design features can lead to confusing results. We get a lot of context from the way text is laid out and organized on the page, said Nygard, but that context is lost when the text is read aloud.

Editors as advocates

Gray said she’d never considered herself an advocate per se. “I do think it’s part of my role to advise clients about the level of content and the way it’s presented. We need to make sure we can reach the audience.”

When we make decisions, said Nygard, we have to look out for people in the margins that we might not be addressing.

Booth said, “We’re all very privileged in this room. We have a responsibility to be advocates. Our tool is language.” As he spoke he passed out copies of Decoda Literacy Manifesto to each member of the audience.

Resources on accessibility

Nygard suggested we check out the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Ontario has been a leader in this arena. She also mentioned the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), which allows collection sharing between various libraries. Many public libraries don’t find out about the Crane Library’s services, because it’s at an academic institution, but its collection is available to the general public. The NNELS site also has a section of tutorials for creating alternate-format materials. SNOW, the Inclusive Design Centre at OCAD, also has some excellent resources.

Compared with Ontario, said Nygard, BC lags behind in its commitment to accessibility. The BC government released Accessibility 2024, a ten-year plan to make the province the most progressive within Canada. But both Nygard and Booth call it “embarrassing.” “How they’ve set their priorities is a horror show,” said Nygard. One of the benchmarks for success in this accessibility plan, for example, is to have government websites be accessible by 2016, without addressing the concerns of whether people with disabilities have the skills, literacy, or access to technology to use that information. Meanwhile, disability rates haven’t gone up since 2007.

Booth agreed. The province has cut funding for high-school equivalency programs (GED), ESL, literacy, and adult basic education, choosing instead to focus on “job creation in extractive industries and training people to do specific jobs. What’s going to happen in a decade from now for people who don’t have education?”

In response to a question from the audience, Nygard acknowledged that  Project Gutenberg and Project Gutenberg Canada are great for accessible text of works in the public domain. She also mentioned that LibriVox has public domain audiobooks.

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