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Report from Focus Group Held in Halifax, Nova Scotia
2 October 2008

Prepared by the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC)

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The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) was asked to conduct a focus group and prepare a report for the Initiative for Equitable Library Access (IELA) to explore the needs of individuals with learning disabilities (LD) when it comes to accessing public library services. The objective is to provide input towards IELA mandate, which is to "create the conditions for sustainable and equitable library access for Canadians with print disabilities."

This report is intended to help inform their nation-wide strategy for implementing partnerships, activities and services to meet the long-term library and information access needs of Canadians with print disabilities.

LDAC was asked to provide information through our focus group consultation on the following topics:

  1. What format do you prefer for your reading material?
  2. Do you currently use a public library? If not, why not? If yes what for?
  3. Where do you obtain your reading material?
  4. What assistive technology do you use for reading?
  5. What assistive technology would be useful in a public library?

LDAC was also asked to provide:

  1. A list of those present, including affiliations and contact information
  2. A record of the comments made (not attributed)
  3. A list of recommendations resulting from the consultation

LDAC conducted the focus group during the Learning Disabilities Association of Nova Scotia (LDANS) Provincial Conference. It was held over the lunch hour on the first day of the conference. Participants were recruited ahead of time via an email blast to all delegates. We specifically requested participants:

  • With learning disabilities
  • Who worked directly with students with learning disabilities
  • Had family members with learning disabilities

A total of 12 participants attended. The focus group lasted about an hour and 20 minutes with many participants staying afterwards to offer additional comments. Following the consultation and email was sent to thank all participants for their involvement and to offer the opportunity to provide any additional comments that had come to mind after the consultation.

List of Participants

Arlene Robinson

Meredith Hutchings
Department of Education

Sherla MacNeill
Preschool Autism Specialist
LD: Reading and Writing

Laurie MacAulay
Parent of child with LD
Library Assistant with Halifax Public Library

Maya Warnock
Runs after school program for children with ADHD that uses the library

Nancy L. Cox
Registered Psychologist, Child and Youth Team, Shelburne Mental Health Centre

Michele Moffat

Vicki MacKinnon

Megan Adams
LD Counselor at SMU Atlantic Centre

Jenna Leigh Wilson
Students with Disabilities Representative, Saint Mart's University

Nicholas Earle

Karen Cloghesy
Literary Instruction

Focus Group Questions

What format do you prefer for your reading material?

Four distinct types were offered in response to this question with the preferred overall being PDF and MS WORD. These formats allowed for the most flexibility in terms of using assistive technology. Below are the responses in order:

  1. PDF or MS WORD Format
    • As they can be easily put into Kurzweil.
    • E-books
    • Offer benefit of seeing the text and hearing it as well
  3. AUDIO/ Downloadable Audio
    • For recreational reading
  4. Abridged Versions
    • Coles Notes and books with synopses


"I struggle to get the text I need electronically so I purchase the book, convert to PDF and use Kurzweil. PDF and WORD are best for me."

"Audio is very distracting without the visual aspect."

"Audio is easier to use with technology at home, office. Very valuable."

"Kurzweil needs a lot of training."

Do you currently use a public library?

Responses were mixed to this question. Many had used the library in the past but most not frequently. Individuals with LD in attendance did not use the library on a regular basis.

If no, why not?

  • Intimidation due to literacy issues
  • Call numbers for books being very difficult to use
  • Not comfortable doing work there
  • Very noisy
  • Children section is separate and very 'childish' but this type of book is needed for the new adult reader
  • Disoriented when entering the library as the layout can be confusing
  • Due to organizational issues, difficulty remembering to bring books back on time so this results in fines
  • The tables and chairs are not comfortable


"There are spelling issues for the LD user, therefore using the catalogue index cards or even the computer to access the books is difficult. Search engines are very touchy about how you spell a name."

"I just find them very intimidating."

"I shouldn't have to disclose I have LD to obtain services, that's wrong."

If yes what for?

  • To get regular books
  • To have the opportunity to use assistive technology


"Everyone in the population should have access to assistive technology. It should be universally accessible."

Where do you obtain your reading material?

All participants either purchased their books at a bookstore or through online services, such as Chapters. One participated in a book club.


"I buy both audio and text books but audio files are a challenge to convert and they are not compatible with IPods."

"I buy my books then scan them."

What assistive technology do you use for reading?

Only a few participants had difficulty with reading. For those that did their preference was for Kurzweil. Additional points and formats are captured below:

  • E-books
  • All digital books
  • Kurzweil
  • Premier Assistive


"Kurzweil is not good for graphics and tables but I like that it provides the option to take notes."

"Premier Assistive is buggy and hard to use."

What assistive technology would be useful in a public library?

The group had numerous points to offer on this question. Many had to do with simply using the card catalogue system to find a book. There was a general agreement that the catalogue system caused intimidation right at the beginning of their visit to the library. Specific recommendations are below:

  • Electronic index using voice or word recognition
  • Ability to enlarge font and add background color on index
  • Speak Q
  • Read +
  • Kurzweil
  • Word Q
  • Inspiration
  • Scanner
  • Headphones
  • Training sessions of assistive technology
  • Server base for access to all computers


"Good training on the software is needed to use the technology. These could be done in partnership with schools and community groups, to get leaders in the community to do the training."

"You should integrate AT with other PC's – make it mainstream – and don't have the AT PC in the basement. AT should be server based, not on dedicated PC's."

Recommendations resulting from the consultations

A number of recommendations were offered by the group to improve library services for the LD population as well as for the physical structure to make it more comfortable and less intimidating. The recommendations were offered under what fell into four categories. For ease of readability, we have divided the recommendations accordingly.


  • Individual should be able to deal with one person so their LD need not be re-explained
  • Staff should be trained on the various assistive technologies
  • Staff need to know about LD
  • Staff need to be willing to help the individual


  • Information sessions about the library should be offered to the whole community, not just for the individual with LD which causes them to be singled out
  • Send email reminders for returning books a few days before they are due
  • Library information sessions should be held at regular times with special orientation sessions and sessions for families
  • Extra time is needed for borrowing and returning books – some leniency is requested
  • Flyers about services at the library should be online in a PDF format


  • Lobby needs to be less intimidating and the physical setting needs to be more welcoming
  • More signs are needed with pictures, prompts and cues using universal design
  • Libraries should use the universal Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) symbols
  • Need more ergonomic furniture
  • Need more study rooms
  • Need more separate work rooms for reading
  • Assistive technology needs to be close to the entrance


  • Assistive technology should be integrated with other PC's
  • Assistive technology should be server based
  • Have word anticipation or "did you mean..." functionality on catalogue search to help with spelling problems
  • Printed flyers and brochures are not helpful – put information on the website so they can use assistive technology to read it
  • Need to develop a system to help individuals with LD locate call numbers


"With my organizational issues I would really appreciate special permission to extend the sign out time to three or four weeks."

"Locating call numbers are a problem. I had books sent to a different location just so that I could pick them up under my name and not have to ask for help locating the books on the shelf."

"Many staff really don't understand what LD is and it can make you feel like you are bothering them."

In closing

All the focus groups participants expressed appreciation at being invited and consulted on this subject. They enjoyed the process and many lingered afterwards to continue the dialogue. The input was very valuable and the format worked well. The casual lunchtime timeframe made it easy to attend, convenient and far less intimidating than having to show up at an unknown location. The round tables worked well and the added perk of a nice lunch showed appreciation for the participant taking the time to attend.

Final Comment:

"I am very happy to see that you are asking these questions and having these expectations. The programming for all young people in my area is virtually non-existent and I have had several meetings with them this summer to ask for change. I was pleased to be involved!"