Beyond the Pencil Part 2

Glossy covers, the smell of printed pages, and the various stories captured in the pages are just some of the reasons I adore books. Yet along with the excitement of reading comes a pang of disappointment each time I pick up a book and flip through its pages but am unable to read the words penned by authors. In elementary school, we had a buddy reading program where older students partnered with us, and rather than be given braille books, the solution was to have my buddy read to me. Although I thoroughly enjoyed this as a child, the arrangement didn’t allow for me to work on my reading skills, or have an accessible variety of books to choose from. Thus, when I got older, it was no surprise that my literacy skills and spelling were highly underdeveloped. I constantly struggled through various days of silent reading and spelling tests.

Although I was provided accessible books in school, the library was a different matter. Once a week during elementary school, students went to the library to borrow books. I would sift through shelves of books I couldn’t read and chose hardcovers to take home for fun, and naturally, the book would be returned the following week without being read. High School didn’t require students to take out library books and I was extremely purposeful about avoiding our library. Naturally, my love of reading continued to fade. It wasn’t until later I was introduced to two equitable library services dedicated to producing accessible reading materials for those with print disabilities.

At the start of University, I chose to take the risk of registering for two creative writing courses. As an assignment for these classes, students were required to attend The Fraser Valley Literary Festival hosted by the University of the Fraser Valley. According to the festival’s Artistic Director, Andrea MacPherson, the festival aims to bring together the Fraser Valley creative community with the “thriving BC writing community.” So with support from some classmates I participated and enjoyed every second of it.

There were writers from various backgrounds including the South Asian and LGBT communities whom I was able to relate to. The festival usually has books on display and I remember picking up random ones to pretend that I was flipping through them like everyone else, but it wasn’t until later I began Googling and discovered both CELA (Center for Equitable Library Access) and NNELS (National Network for Equitable Library Service). I was surprised no one ever thought to mention these resources to me before University. Sadly though, I was unable to find any of the books present at the festival, because only books considered mainstream are produced in an accessible format. I did, however, come across Macpherson’s novel “What We Once Believe” which was featured on the CELA homepage. However, authors such as Macpherson are not even aware that their books may already be available in alternate formats.

After this I began to wonder if there were any disabled writers out there. Regardless of what society had gotten me to believe and my own anxieties, I was delighted to see that the line-up for this year’s festival included authors who identified as having disabilities. MacPherson confirmed that she works closely with other members of Savitaar Productions, as well as with other consultants to ensure that the festival is diverse and accurately represents the community, and thus are careful to balance gender identities, race, age, disability, and other representations.

One of these writers happened to be Amanda Leduc, who appeared in the 39th episode of our Limitless podcast. After hearing Leduc’s keynote on the accurate portrayal of disabled characters within literature and her remarks at the event, I was able to resonate with what was being said. I can’t explain the thrill of seeing someone similar to yourself in a position that so many able-bodied people attempt to steer me away from. Although I have other writers I look up to such as MacPherson herself, it is different witnessing someone in a similar boat who is able to achieve success. So, when I saw the news that Leduc’s latest novel “The Centaur’s Wife” was to be produced in accessible formats with the assistance of both CELA and NNELS, I was beyond thrilled! Usually, the library services will have their own collection of books that have already been produced in an accessible format or produce copies a few years after a book has been released to the public. In this case, the process was truly equitable for all as the accessible copies of Leduc’s work was set to be released at the same time as the print copy, which is extremely rare for those of us who require accessible versions of books.

I am proud to say that my expectations for my progression as a writer have been strengthened with this recent accessible production which was not simply an afterthought a few years later, but rather was directed by the author and publisher themselves. This demonstrates that authors and publishers can most certainly make this possible. I am grateful to know that there are professional writers who value accessibility as much as I do and will also advocate for its integration into everyday life. I sincerely encourage authors and publishers to consider reaching out to resources such as CELA and NNELS to not only make their books accessible, but that they may also reach a larger audience who should be relishing in the beautiful words they have painstakingly crafted for readers.

For more information on the Center for Equitable Library Access visit https://celalibrary.ca
For more information on the National Network for Equitable Library Service visit https://nnels.ca

by Harjinder Saran (Jinnie)