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Dorothy Macnaughton’s Fight for More Accessible Reading Materials

By Mark Leiren Young

Traditionally when people discuss freedom to read, they talk about censorship: book burning, book banning and access to information that’s being intentionally kept from the public. But Dorothy Macnaughton has spent the last 20 years leading a different freedom-to-read fight: improving the availability of accessible reading material for more than three million Canadians who have a visual, physical or learning disability.

People with a print disability need accessible formats such as Braille, electronic text, large print or audio recordings, and these are often difficult to find. It’s estimated that only 5% to 7% of published works worldwide are available in accessible formats.

Macnaughton is trying to change that. The 68-year-old activist spoke to me on the phone from “paradise”—a cottage in Ontario’s Haliburton Highlands that has been in her husband’s family for more than 70 years. We also exchanged email in very big fonts. And it was clear from our conversations that she is still a force to be reckoned with.

Macnaughton’s crusade was sparked by her passion for the written word and her strong belief in literacy for everyone. Born prematurely in Sioux Lookout, Ont., in 1949, she was given high levels of oxygen to help her breathe—a common practice for preemies in the ’40s that was later discovered to increase the risk of blindness. The oxygen caused a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, which damaged Macnaughton’s eyesight. She needed glasses at an early age. In her early 30s, during a leave from her teaching job to care for her two young children, her vision deteriorated further. She was unable to return to her job as an elementary schoolteacher.

When she needed access to large-print books, Macnaughton discovered how few options were available. “There would be books from the 1950s from England or westerns or authors I wouldn’t want to read,” she says. “There weren’t a heck of a lot of newer titles in large print. They’re much more expensive than regular print books, and many libraries just didn’t feel it was important to have them there.”

Macnaughton decided to change that. Already a volunteer with CNIB, a national organization that provides services and support to Canadians who are blind or partially sighted, Macnaughton joined its Library Board. She served on it for 11 years. Currently she is chair of CNIB’s Northern Regional Board and Ontario Board. She is also president of the Friends of the Prince Township Library and the Sault Ste. Marie chapter of the Canadian Council of the Blind (CCB). Macnaughton was also involved with the Friends of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library for more than 15 years and was a long-time member of the Friends of Canadian Libraries Board.

In all these roles, Macnaughton lobbied public libraries throughout Ontario and various levels of government to improve the availability of accessible materials. She also fought for the development of the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA), a national not-for-profit organization that distributes accessible materials produced by CNIB and others to people with print disabilities through public libraries. CELA receives funding from the Ontario government and other provincial and territorial governments, but Macnaughton continues to campaign for sustainable funding.

From 2007 to 2016, Macnaughton also ran an accessibility consulting firm which trained people in offering accessible customer service and respecting the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. In 2016, the Ontario Library Association Board recognized her fight for readers with print disabilities with the Les Fowlie Intellectual Freedom Award. In 2017, CNIB honoured her with its Arthur Napier Magill Distinguished Service Award.

Macnaughton recalls an early presentation that led to her transformation from advocate to activist. She was volunteering with the Sault Ste. Marie group in 2001, lobbying for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and was appointed as their designated speaker for an event in Sudbury. Several members of provincial parliament were present, including Rick Bartolucci, then Sudbury’s MPP. “I had never done anything like that in my life. I was so petrified,” says Macnaughton.

The presentation went well, and Bartolucci approached her afterward. “He said, ‘You know, when you talked about a person with vision loss not being able to read what’s on the prescription bottle at the drugstore and not knowing how to take their medication, that’s my mother.’ That really fired me up and I haven’t stopped since.”

One challenge for accessibility advocates is explaining that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for print-challenged readers, says Macnaughton. For some people Braille is ideal, but for others the answer is talking books. Macnaughton prefers large-print and digital audiobooks. “I don’t read Braille. I have some vision. Becoming aware of people with greater vision loss than my own gave me a whole different awareness of the challenges around reading. I have a lot of friends who read Braille, and they struggle even more with the lack of available content.”

As a teacher, Macnaughton also saw the challenges faced by children who had learning disabilities. “Many students and adults with learning disabilities were reluctant to visit public libraries when there were not many materials available for them,” she says. “I was determined to help advocate for equitable library services for all people with print disabilities in their local communities.”

Technology is helping to make print information more accessible. Apple has recently improved its operating system’s text-to-speech features, for example. Macnaughton says that many people with vision disabilities now use devices such as iPads to download apps, e-books and audiobooks rather than pricier computers and adaptive software.

Macnaughton’s response to being named this year’s freedom to read champion by the Book and Periodical Council? “I’m really very honoured to receive this award and to be called a champion,” she says. “But I am a champion because it’s needed.”

And she’s still battling. She and the Sault Ste. Marie CCB group recently responded to a government discussion paper about federal accessibility legislation. In its submission, the group emphasized the need for government support for equitable library service for people with print disabilities across Canada.

Macnaughton has also made presentations to Charles Sousa, Ontario’s minister of finance. “I was telling them we needed to put funding into public libraries for people with print disabilities, and I said, ‘You know, anyone else can go into the library and get these materials, can’t they? Why can’t someone with a print disability?’ It’s a fundamental human right.”

Macnaughton notes that this right has been recognized by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “We’re in the 21st century. We have a very large, aging population. People are living longer; lots of people have vision loss. We should increase the availability of materials, and not just for seniors. I often think of working-age individuals who have vision loss and the amount of material they’d have to get in alternative formats to do their jobs. There are huge challenges.”

To Macnaughton, books and libraries are sacred and worth fighting for. “I love going to my public library. I never used to see anybody else who was blind or had poor vision in the public library. Now I do see people with vision and learning disabilities, and it does my heart good.”

Mark Leiren-Young (leirenyoung.com) is the author of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World and a long-time member of the Book and Periodical Council’s Freedom of Expression Committee.

A World of Reading

Worldwide, more than 300 million people have visual disabilities, and 90% of them live in developing countries. Yet only 5% to 7% of published works are made available in accessible formats such as electronic text, large print, audiobooks, Braille and described movies.

In 2006, a survey conducted by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)—a specialized agency of the United Nations that serves as a global forum for intellectual property policy, services, information and cooperation—found that fewer than 60 countries had clauses in their copyright laws that made provisions for people with visual disabilities.

To remove barriers and make sharing between countries easier, WIPO created the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled. It was adopted in 2013 in Marrakesh, Morocco. Participants must amend their copyright laws to allow the reproduction and distribution of published works in accessible formats.

In June 2016, Canada became the 20th country to ratify the treaty and brought it into force. The federal government has amended the Copyright Act to expand access to copyrighted materials for the three million Canadians who can’t use conventional print.

The government anticipates that greater availability of accessible materials will improve the educational and employment prospects for people with print disabilities, enhance the quality of life for seniors with vision loss and increase the cultural and language diversity of accessible works. CNIB and other producers of accessible materials can exchange titles with colleagues in other countries and reduce the duplication of work.

Organizations that urged the government to sign the treaty include CNIB, the Canadian Council of the Blind, the Canadian Library Association and others.

To find more information, visit wipo.int and search for “Marrakesh Treaty.”

—Jaclyn Law

Reprinted from Freedom to Read 2018.