Dorothy Macnaughton's fight for library patrons with print disabilities feted

Last November, Dorothy Macnaughton received an e-mail message that left her walking on air.
It was from the Ontario Library Association Board, announcing that she was the OLA’s choice to receive the 2016 Les Fowlie Intellectual Freedom Award.

"It was quite touching and overwhelming," recalled the Sault Ste. Marie resident and long-time volunteer with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, who also head the Friends of the Prince Township Library.  "I was very emotional."

The award is named in memory of the former chief librarian of the Toronto Public Library, who famously opposed pressure groups seeking to remove materials they deemed offensive from library shelves.

The OLA presents the award annually to an individual or organization that has shown courage in defending the right of library patrons to access to information.

Macnaughton was honoured for her years of advocacy on behalf of patrons with print disabilities, who she says have access to only a fraction of what other patrons can read.

"I think one of the fundamental things that the award is all about is that library services should be for everyone," she said on her return from last month’s awards ceremony in Toronto.

At 66, Macnaughton has keenly felt the frustration of being cut off from the printed word.

Diagnosed in infancy with retinopathy stemming from a premature birth, she needed glasses by early childhood. During her 30s, she suffered rapid vision loss, which ended her career as an elementary school teacher.

"That was very hard," she recalled. "That and losing my driver’s licence were the hardest things I had to deal with."

The once avid reader could still manage large print books, but found that the city library’s large print collection offered little beyond old-fashioned whodunits and westerns.

Macnaughton turned to the CNIB for help. In the late 1990s, she began serving on the CNIB Library Board and now chairs the CNIB’s Regional Leadership Council – North.

And seeking to help public libraries enhance their resources, she joined the Friends of the Library in Sault Ste. Marie, serving several years as its president before bringing her fundraising expertise to the Friends group in Prince.

"I just believe in giving back to organizations that are important to me and that have helped me," she said.  "The combination of vision loss, working with the CNIB and libraries all kind of came together, and I’ll still keep advocating as long as it’s needed."

Macnaughton admitted she was uneasy, at first, about discussing library accessibility with "important people," such as MPs, MPPs, and ministers of finance. 

But with practice, she became unstoppable.

"I thought, you know, if you believe enough in what you’re trying to tell someone who can make a difference ...and you don’t give up even though you’re discouraged, those people, on the whole, will listen," she said.

Now a confident public speaker, Macnaughton tells audiences that, even today, individuals with print disabilities have access in alternative formats to just 7% of the materials the general public can read.

"That means that 93% of what everyone (else) can read easily in a public library or book store is not available to people with print disabilities," Macnaughton said.

She’s hopeful, however, that the 7% figure will climb, thanks to the arrival of the Centre for Equitable Library Access, or CELA, in many of Canada’s public libraries.

CELA’s story began with the CNIB, Macnaughton recalled. Two decades ago, the CNIB foresaw  that the demand for its DAISY Readers, DAISY audio discs, and items in Braille would swell as the population aged and more individuals suffered from vision loss.

(DAISY or Digital Accessible Information System Readers have advanced features that let users adjust the speaking speed of an audio book and search its contents using keywords. Today’s models are Wi-Fi enabled.)

Macnaughton added that the CNIB also wanted its library materials made available to individuals with print disabilities other than vision loss -- severe dyslexia, for example, or the physical inability to hold a book.

But as a charity dependent on donor dollars, the CNIB lacked the funding to meet the additional needs.

"In order to broaden the availability of its materials, they knew they had to be forming partnerships with public libraries, (so) the CNIB did a lot of advocacy with volunteers and various people across the country to try and convince governments that this was a high priority," Macnaughton said.

She was among those volunteers who "kept plugging away," sending letters or speaking to federal and provincial government representatives.

The Canadian Library Association aided the cause by appointing a working group to create a framework for the partnership between the CNIB and public libraries, today known as CELA.

"It finally became a reality in April of 2014," Macnaughton said. "I was so thrilled when it actually happened."

The Ontario government funds CELA, she said, in order to comply with its own Integrated Accessibility Standards under Ontario Regulation 191/11. Those standards require public libraries to provide, or arrange to provide, materials in accessible formats, where they exist.

As a result, all Ontario’s public libraries have DAISY Readers and collections of DAISY audio discs, which patrons with print disabilities may borrow. The libraries also have access to CELA’s online catalogue, which enables them to offer materials from what was formerly the CNIB Library.

These materials are exempt from copyright legislation, Macnaughton noted.

Items in Braille, described videos, and audio discs still arrive by mail, but increasingly the audio materials are downloadable in digital formats to computers, tablets, and smartphones.

CELA also provides free access to Bookshare, an American-based non-profit organization, which offers 250,000 titles in digital formats to library patrons with print disabilities.

"If somebody needs a book, CELA and the CNIB  will bend over backwards to get it in an accessible format," said Macnaughton, who today alternates between reading large print books and using a DAISY Reader.

But the advocacy must continue, she said, because the Centre for Equitable Library Access needs to be better marketed in provinces that fund it, and initiated in provinces that (so far) do not.

And she’d like to see the federal government provide sustainable funding to CELA to spur greater production of library materials in alternative formats.

"In most other developed countries, like the United States, the national governments support materials for people with print disabilities," Macnaughton said. "That never happened in Canada."

The federal government has allotted funding to CELA for up to two years,   she noted, but she hopes to see it continue year after year.

Asked to picture what her ideal library would look like, Macnaughton answered that it would have large print signage throughout, textured floor areas for patrons who use white canes, and wide spaces to accommodate wheelchairs.

It would also have shelves full of large print books and plenty of DAISY audio discs.

Staff would be trained really well in how to help and interact with people with disabilities, and patrons would also be trained how to help themselves.

"This is a big one for me," Macnaughton said. "There would be training offered for people with disabilities in how to use technology ...., whether it’s how to use Voice Over on an iPad or how to use a computer at the library with voice capability from software, or how to use large print on a computer, which can be tricky, especially if you’re older."

"It’s looking at how can we make our libraries the most accessible they can be in the broadest sense." Macnaughton said. "That’s what I would like to see."