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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

Supporting Blind People in Education and Employment

Rosemary Kavanagh
Executive Director
CNIB Library for the Blind


The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) which is a private, charitably funded organization celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1993. For seventy five years the CNIB provided rehabilitation services to all Canadians for whom loss of vision is a central problem in personal and social adjustment. The CNIB also acts as a consultant and resource agency to service providers, government de partments and private industry. Its registered users have steadily increased and are now at an all time high of more than 78,000 in 1994. Only about 10% of these clients are totally blind; the remainder have some sight, ranging from light perception to the ability to read print with a visual aid. More than 50% of the clients are 65 years of age or older. One of the most important services prov ided by the CNIB is its library and transcription services under the auspices of one of its ten divisions, the CNIB Library for the Blind.

The CNIB Library's commitment to educating blind Canadians predates the CNIB with the establishment of the Canadian Free Library for the Blind in 1906. Both services were merged in 1918. The CNIB Library which receives no funding from governments in Canada provides a national, mail order library service for the more than 16,000 directly registered users of its library services. It is also a major producer of books and documents in alternate format for over 450 agencies including governments, libraries, business and education making this combination of publisher and library unusual.

The Library owns over 50,000 titles in French and English audio and braille including music scores. In 1993 it circulated more than 900,000 items to its registered users, added 1,300 new titles, transcribed over 1,000,000 pages of braille. It makes copies of material in its collections available for sale to other service providers such as public libraries and through its National Transcription S ervice it transcribes text books and other material for education and business. A variety of other agencies and libraries also support the broad educational and employment information needs of blind and visually impaired Canadians. The production of text books for students is primarily the responsibility of provincial governments across Canada and their educational resource centers, sometimes provide the text for all levels, elementary, secondary, and post secondary. In a few cases this responsibility is handled by separate agencies at the secondary or post secondary level but this is rapidly changing and the trend is towards a single agency which is responsible for both. Supplementary reading materials are produced by some provincial agencies but in other cases the primary responsib ility is text book production only.

Job support is provided by a mixture of private, public and charitable agencies. Some government grants are available for equipment purchases to support the blind worker, and a few progressive companies such as IBM provide the mechanisms to support their employees requirements for work related manuals. In other companies this may not be the case and reliance is placed on charitable support such as the CNIB to produce the manuals in alternate format. However, education for employment is narrowly focused on manuals or instructions required to get the job done.

In most cases these educational agencies and businesses contract with external transcription services such as the CNIB Library for the Blind to produce the alternate format materials that are needed for texts or manuals although some also transcribe their own. Public libraries and other libraries including the CNIB attempt to meet more general needs for formal or informal learning. The educational and employment requirements of blind students and workers are partially supported through charitable donations or volunteer contributions. This dependence on charity for supporting these needs is higher for blind people than for the sighted population. It raises questions among blind and visually impaired Canadians, who are also taxpayers, regarding the equity of the system in e nsuring their training and education.

Preparing for Change

For the CNIB Library its role in supporting the education and job employment needs of Canadians involves it in one of the most complex missions for providing for formal and informal learning at a time when technological changes and recessionary pressures present new challenges. Change has been the operative word since 1991 when Crossroads the Library Board of Management's five year strategic plan and response to the future was written. The major thrust of this document was its emphasis on partnerships and the need for change. The following section is an excerpt from Crossroads: "Since the beginning of time, the quest for knowledge has driven humans to pursue information beyond their communities, to seek the company of scholars, to collect the works of others.

The organization and distribution of the shared experiences, wisdom, and knowledge of humankind are deemed so essential to the public good that free access to libraries is a public right. Today, information services occur in partnerships with other libraries and electronic networks replace the journey of ancient scholars, bringing the subject expertise and resources of all types of libraries to everyone.

Tomorrow's library users will have access to many more sources of information from the home or office and increasingly in their location and format of choice: personal telephones and multimedia workstations: information systems which package both sight and sound and permit the user to access a favorite composer, hear screen displays, listen to a concerto, edit and store impressions; access data b ases and library collections locally or on other continents. Everywhere and in every type of library, information services and consumer needs are changing. The CNIB Library must be at the forefront of these changes to anticipate their implications, to partner them and to prepare for the future in the interests of its community."

Since then the "Information highway", the concept of multimedia information conveyed over huge networks capable of handling greater volumes of data in all kinds of format and supporting the knowledge based information infrastructure of the western world and of North America has become very much a "buzz" word. The merging of computer and telecommunications technology it is expected will result in new gadgets such as the telecomputer which will allow us to be both interactive with information as well as to receive it for entertainment and education purposes in the format of choice. The question is what new opportunities for supporting the education and employment of blind people do these changes bring? What information do blind Canadians need to educate themselves? How do they obtain i t and why do they need library services? How well positioned is the CNIB library and indeed the information infrastructure within Canada to respond to these challenges now and in the future? In short how sturdy is the on ramp to the information highway for blind Canadians?

Building the Information Infrastructure of the Future

The essential ingredients for supporting education and employment in the future must rest on a totally redesigned information infrastructure within Canada. In anticipation that technology will impact this infrastructure considerably, the CNIB Library for the Blind has begun to reposition itself. Technology, and partnerships with other service providers which entail a realignment or clearer defin ition of roles and responsibilities are the corner stones on which the future thrust must be based. It involves some fundamental shifts in assumptions about needs and how to prepare for these needs.

The Learning Opportunities

Blind and visually impaired Canadians need the same learning opportunities as the general population because they live, learn, work and compete within the same environment. Making the transition to a different future means understanding the perceived or real differences in learning opportunities which exist now and which need to be changed.

Canada has one of the best library and information services in the world, a publishing industry and a distribution network of book and video stores and mail order services. Canadians can either purchase information or material in multi media formats for education or entertainment or they can borrow it from their libraries. There are approximately 1,448 public and regional library systems, 685 c ollege and university libraries, 2,910 special libraries and 805 government libraries. With so much publicly funded access to information and alternatives to obtaining information sighted Canadians are well placed to benefit from the information age, to support the knowledge based society of the future and provide economic advantage in the global market place with a well educated labor force. Blind and visually impaired Canadians do not have the same learning opportunities. Publishing in alternate format is not prolific and alternate format materials are neither easily available in book stores nor affordable. Library services are not commonly available nor easily accessible in every community. Nevertheless, the importance of accurate and up to-date information, books that are curren t for quality learning, library services that are accessible and integrated are the very requirements for a comparable information infrastructure for blind Canadians to ensure they can compete on a level playing field regardless of disability.

At present, library services to the blind tend to be described in terms of leisure and education, one presumably being more valuable and purposeful than the other; leisure the domain of the retired, elderly, blind and narrowly viewed as entertainment. Education or formal learning tended to be focused mainly on the production of text books as though this is the only requirement for supporting cou rse work. This segmentation tended to be applied more rigidly within the information infrastructure for blind and print handicapped Canadians than is library and information service for the general population which is generally more comprehensive and better networked. A survey of CNIB clients sampled both non users and users of library services to determine their information needs. Whether a user or non user of the CNIB Library, blind and visually impaired persons need and want information on a wide variety of topics.

However, the dependence on library services as an important source for the information needed varied between library users and non users. Non users were younger (average age 52 with less vision loss) and used a wider variety of sources. This group has a greater familiarity with newer and different sources of information. A majority of registered library users (average age 65) placed library s ervices next to the Radio as their most important source of information. They needed library service for leisure, formal and informal learning and work related information. The old assumptions about library services which tend to define leisure as the only purpose to reading and braille and talking books as the only sources, no longer fit the paradigm in the age of electronic texts, information highways, multimedia, and the greatest era of networking ever known to man.

Entertainment and education are at times inseparable. A novel can be part of a student's course work or that student's leisure. A treatise on the economy can be relevant to on the job development. It is difficult to always say where leisure ends and learning begins for anyone regardless of disability. Reading in Canada 1991, a survey of the reading habits of Canadians, indicates that by choice Canadians read for both leisure and information. The need for library services which provide blind persons with the same opportunities for learning and empower them to be proactive citizens are no different than for the sighted population. However, the CNIB studies showed that the greater the vision loss, the greater the dependence on library service to support the education and other needs of blind Canadians.

In determining the new configuration or strategy that would provide comparable learning opportunities for blind Canadians the CNIB Library addressed responsibility and advocacy issues and moral and social responsibilities of government and business to provide equally for blind people. In doing this, the CNIB Library contended with two fundamental issues. The Library could not provide services a lone, therefore partnerships were essential to bringing more information resources to the blind community and technology had to be more proactively enlisted in the search for technical solutions to providing access.


Partnership envisions a future which enlists the resources of other types of libraries, integrates the CNIB Library's services within the existing information infrastructure used by the general population and applies technology to bridge these relationships. It is certain that no single institution acting on its own can provide all the information resources necessary to sustain education, employ ability and life long learning.

Networking, Resource Sharing and Gateway Access

There is a very fine line between partnerships, cooperation and responsibility. In 1993 the Library's Board of Management approved the new Access and Lending Policy which continued the Library's policy of recovering costs for services to other agencies and service providers. The policy declared that the CNIB Library would no longer provide material free of charge for classroom use. At first glan ce this appears to be a blow against cooperation and partnerships but it was in reality an acknowledgement of the responsibility of other agencies.

Prior to 1991 libraries, business, education and other agencies used the CNIB Library's lending and locating service for alternate format material free of charge. Several thousand items would not only be located but borrowed, repackaged and shipped to individuals and agencies annually. A fee was also paid to Recording for the Blind to allow Canadian students access to these resources simply by dialing the RFB's 800 line. In addition the Library subsidized the cost of alternate format material produced for educational resource centers. Often if a company refused to pay for materials for on the job training, the CNIB produced it free of cost. The object was to facilitate education, employment and opportunity no matter the cost. The recession combined with spiralling costs were only two of the concerns that forced the issues of responsibility and roles to the forefront. The fundamental question remained why should a private, charitably funded organization subsidize services to which blind Canadians are entitled?

The new Access and Lending Policy clearly identifies the responsibilities for service between the CNIB Library and other service providers in Canada. It makes students the primary responsibility of their provincial departments of education and employees the primary responsibility of their employers. It states that services to these agencies shall be on a full cost recovery basis and although this is yet to be achieved given the recessionary pressures, the debate about entitlement and dignity was engaged.

At the same time the Library's policy communicated that it expected other agencies to bear their full share of responsibility for their clients, the CNIB Library also opened its services and collections to all of these agencies in any configuration for service that both deemed possible. In 1994 the CNIB Library began negotiations with Geac Canada for a new automated system for its library without walls. The system will provide a fully integrated library service and production tracking system. It will be available nationally and those libraries or agencies contracting partnership arrangements with the CNIB Library have access to the libraries' public access catalogue to search collections online, purchase or borrow alternate format materials or request transcription services.

The partnership configuration envisages for example an academic or public library providing the reader advisory services now provided by the CNIB Library to its disabled clientele. In this scenario the academic or public librarian establishes the information needs of the blind or print handicapped user and search their local holdings first to determine what items in their collection might resolv e the problem. If material is unavailable in alternate format, the online catalogue of the CNIB Library can next be accessed by subject, keyword, author or title. If a hit is found, the library can request that the material be sent to the individual's location of choice: home, office or local library.

Positioning blind and visually impaired users to be served through public or academic libr aries ensures they are supported by the same information infrastructure as their sighted colleagues and that they will benefit from the vast print, electronic and media resources as well as from the subject expertise in these libraries. It is also expected to encourage libraries to make other information resources accessible in alternate format. For example, libraries develop clippings files in response to topics targeted by the school curriculum. It is possible with scanners and kurzweill reading machines to make these materials available on tape or disks to blind students as well. At present most blind students are not encouraged to think of public and academic libraries as sources for this type of supplementary material.

Gateway Access to Services

In addition to online access through computers, the system will also provide access through voice mail and voice recognition systems to the complete services of the library. Registered users of the library will have choices which range from using their computers to access collections and download portions of the library's catalogue or receiving disk copies of the library's holdings to using the voice system over a telephone to access all services. The student or user will have greater independence in selecting their own titles and placing holds on those which are available and will be able to select services such as the Information Resource Centre.

The Information Resource Centre

The Information Resource Centre at the CNIB Library is a modern concept in service for blind and visually impaired users. The student or individual seeking information and research data to support course work, on the job development, hobbies or other interests will be able to access the resources of the Centre and to receive the citations or information in alternate format. The Centre was develo ped last year to demonstrate the latest technologies in information services and adaptive technologies for users and to expand the resources available to blind and visually impaired persons. Links with public libraries and with university libraries will supplement the Centre's resources with more subject specialization and further electronic information transfers. Citations and research informa tion will be converted at the Centre into alternate format and delivered either through the Interned or by mail on disk, audio or hard copy braille as directed by the user.

A very successful partnership with the Federal Government of Canada, the Globe and Mail (another national newspaper) and the CNIB Library has resulted in the development of an electronic newspaper project using the vertical blanking intervals (VBIs) through the cable television services. The Globe and Mail is delivered daily to the Information Resource Centre. It arrives ahead of the newspaper o n most news stands across the country and with the application of search software, the newspaper can be conveniently scanned by topic. Versions of the newspaper are offered on disk to other CNIB offices in Canada. For the first time blind staff at any CNIB office can have access to current news and information. The research to discover economic ways of making this available on a subscription ba sis to other users is ongoing. Already the project has opened doors to other newspapers across the country for a similar kind of access.

Arriving at the Centre by satellite is a service called Job Sat. Job Sat provides a listing of employment opportunities across Canada which can be searched by blind and visually impaired persons for employment opportunity. The search can be defined nationally, by province, community or postal code. The potential for tailoring a service unique to blind and visually impaired Canadians is being exp lored with other employment services. The use of the Interned for linking or providing access to the information highway is also being investigated. The Library already uses the Interned to transmit files and expects to use it to make links to a variety of freeness, to provide access to its catalogues and to access other libraries and agencies. The process of identifying which of these services are appropriate is underway and should be concluded by the end of the year. In addition, the Centre houses a comprehensive research collection on blindness and rehabilitation services as well as cdrom data bases which are accessible through the Library's network.

Transcription Services

Currently text books are produced on demand in either braille or audio with supporting tactile drawings as appropriate and as required. These contractual obligations are made between the National Transcription Service (NTS) of the CNIB Library and provincial education resource centres across the country. The National Transcription Service exists to promote the necessity for more alternate forma t material for communicating government and business information and supporting the education and training of blind and visually impaired persons.

In its first year of operation NTS made presentations to most provincial governments urging the production of government information in alternate format and more are doing so in 1992. The Royal Bank of Canada in consultation with the Library became one of the first banks to produce its statements in braille. Other banks are following providing independence and dignity while recognizing blind con sumers.

Production of alternate format material for education and on the job training occur under rigorous internationally recognized standards of production which pay strict attention to accuracy and quality and in the case of braille to international standards. For example, audio materials are monitored from beginning to end to ensure accurate transcription. Over 500 volunteers contribute an estimated 1.6 million Canadian dollars of their time and labor to facilitate the production of material on tape and in braille. Many more of these volunteers now use computers and translation software to transcribe material from print to braille. As these volunteers also work within the home it is becoming increasingly convenient to download their transcribed fil es to the library for the final stages of producing embossed volumes of braille.

Modernization is also occurring in audio production. This year the library introduced capability for digital mastering and digital archiving. It acquired a Macintosh based, industry standard system, Sonic Solutions, which will allow the library to output material in a variety of digital formats to meet the needs of its students or clients. A new education support program, the CNIB Library's ESP is in progress. The increasing production of material in electronic formats has made it possible to now offer a disk lending service to education departments and resource centers. This program will offer disk copies of text books produced in braille at the CNIB Library with loan periods adjustable to the school or academic year. Further developments with Canadian publishers of text books are expected to alter production of transcribed materials in the CNIB Library. Initial negotiations with Canadian publishers of text books expect to result in the CNIB Library developing the capacity to produce electronic texts by mid 1995.

A significant problem for students and those seeking on the job training is timely receipt of material in the most current edition. Developments in the electronic production of texts, and the digital mastering should shorten production time from months to weeks and days. Nevertheless, a major challenge for blind persons is the issue of quality and accuracy. It is commonly assumed that blind p ersons, students, or employers will accept substandard material rather than no information. Consequently, standards among producers may range from the detailed to no standards at all. However, of what value is timely production if the information is inaccurate or unreliable? Consumers need to place equal value on quality, accuracy and timeliness and to be intolerant of services that do not deliv er all three.

Information from a Variety of Sources

Compared to the sighted population the information infrastructure presents blind or visually impaired Canadians with little choice. As noted, there is no vibrant publishing industry for alternate format materials supported by book stores or mail order services. Consequently, blind Canadians are dependent on library services. Libraries are the underpinning of their information structure for it is the only place in which enough resources are either produced or gathered to provide some degree of choice and opportunity for formal and informal learning.. Blindness organizations must take a broader view of increasing the information resources for blind and visually impaired Canadians. The trend has been to legitimize information in terms of two formats only braille and audio as noted.

Although a relative newcomer to the information place descriptive video services brings new information on a variety of topics for education, entertainment and cultural experience. Some subjects, documentaries and dramas only appear in this format. They expand the information horizons for blind and visually impaired users. Audio books and other types of information are making their appearance on cd roms and disks. The marketplace will begin to present blind and visually impaired users with more choices. In response the CNIB Library has begun to experiment with some of these and to offer them to their users who have the equipment to use them. In 1993, it introduced a descriptive video service pilot project. All service providers and blindness organizations need to accept that source s for information are expanding and changing and encourage a comprehensive approach to information provision for blind Canadians.

Supporting the education and employability of blind persons involves more than just text books or leisure reading. This community is made up of all ages. Approximately 64% are over sixty one years of age and the remainder are professionals, students, children and others engaged in a variety of activities. The need to continue to be educated never really ends. However, the methods of doing so a nd the means for accessing information will continue to change. The information infrastructure must include the blind community so it can influence its responsiveness to the community's needs. In strategizing for the future the CNIB Library envisages itself as operating within this larger information network to avoid the duplication of resources and to ensure that the blind community obtains t he same learning opportunities for education and employability, from the same sources and within the same timeframes as Canadian taxpayers. It envisages library service as comprehensive and integrated supporting the resource based education for the professional or personal aspirations for formal and informal learning of all ages. The Library without walls is not limited by category or format, by age, occupation or handicap and it permits the imagination of its users to soar.