Can blind people file freedom of information requests?

An interesting question was recently posed to me during a workshop I was presenting on how to file Freedom of Information requests: “My daughter is blind, can she file freedom of information requests?” asked a woman in the crowd.

I didn’t know the answer. All of the records that I have ever received from my requests are in formats that would prevent a blind person from reading them. But would the law oblige the government to make records available in a usable format to people who can’t see?

As I began exploring the question, I realized that there are interesting implications that flow from it. For those us filing requests, the format we receive them in is largely at the whim of the government institution that is providing them to us. And if people who are blind are entitled to information in a more useful format, which I believe they are, they may in fact have more rights under freedom-of-information legislation than those who can see.

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Every jurisdiction will be slightly different, but I am going to focus this post on Canada’s federal Access to Information Act, the freedom of Information legislation I am most familiar with. This Act does oblige the government to provide records in an “alternative format” to people with “sensory disabilities”.

Section 12(3)(a) of the Access to Information Act reads:

“Where access to a record or a part thereof is to be given under this Act and the person to whom access is to be given has a sensory disability and requests that access be given in an alternative format, a copy of the record or part thereof shall be given to the person in an alternative format forthwith, if the record or part thereof already exists under the control of a government institution in an alternative format that is acceptable to that person.”

(12(3)(b) of the Act entitles people to records in an alternative format when they don’t already exist, however the institution can apply the cost for the conversion to an alternative format, and the institutions may make these costs prohibitive.)

The ability for those with sensory disabilities to receive records in a more useful format certainly exists in theory, but does it exist in practice? Those rights only exist if they are being exercised. Will government institutions actually follow through and provide information in these usable formats? So far in my research I have not come across any account of blind people filing requests. (If your our there I would love to hear about your experiences.)

Part of why I am writing this post is that I would like to spread the word that I am willing to provide assistance and support to blind people who are interested in filing requests, and putting the rights that are referred to in the legislation into practice, but more about that later.

When government institution deliver records as a result of a freedom of information request, they can come in different formats, some records are delivered as paper copies, others on CDs, and in a few cases I have even received them attached to an email. But even when records are delivered as electronic files (usually PDFs), they are not text-readable files. They are more like photos of all the words on the page. That means you can’t highlight the words, you can’t copy the text and paste it somewhere else, you can’t use Cmnd-F or Crtl-F to find text, and you can’t use a text-to-speech reader to listen to their contents.

A text-to-speech reader is the most common method for blind people to read a document. It is a device that allows you to navigate a computer, the Internet, and electronic documents by converting the text on a page into spoken words. The first time I sat down with someone using one of these devices I found it incredible how much they could do and read on a computer – But there are limitations, for example a text-to-speech reader can’t interpret photos, even if they are photos with words on them.

When I explain the problems that come from documents being released in a non-text-readable format, some people have a suggested a simple solution, to use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. This software looks at the words on a page and converts them into a text-readable version. However, (in the federal system), files are processed in a way where the original files are converted to the low resolution image files, which are then reconverted into a PDF before being released. For the departments processing the files this is beneficial because it mean they are dealing with the smallest possible files. But one of the implications of this is that it means files do not work well with OCR. In my experience the words often end up all jumbled and the conversion is far from accurate.

Although the Act entitles all people, regardless of if they can see, to records “in the format requested” under section 4.(2.1), another sections of the law allows for limitation in the format provided. And in practice records are rarely delivered in the requested format. This becomes quite clear when requesting data, rather than providing information in a spreadsheet format, most institutions convert the records into a print out and then release them as a PDF, without text that is recognized by a computer. If you want the information in a spreadsheet or databases, then you have a lot of data entry in store for you.

The fact that documents are released in a non-text readable format is not written into policy or law, but it is nonetheless a de facto mandate. This is due to the fact that that almost all federal departments use the same software to manage, redact, and release records. Although I am unfamiliar with the exact working of the program, I am told that in order to export files from the program for release to requestors, they are converted into the smallest possible image files, and then resaved as a PDF.

One of the explanations I have heard from those who work in government departments to explain why records are released as non-text-readable PDFs, is that they are concerned that computer hackers could find ways to peer behind the redactions to see exactly what had been blacked out.

By converting documents into image files that problem is certainly removed, but that doesn’t mean it is the only way to securely redact documents. Government was consulted on the creation of the software used to process requests, and I tend to believe that if they had requested the ability to securely redact documents while keeping them text-readable, that is what would have been created.

In order to allow those with sensory disabilities to file request, it is necessary for government institutions to acquired or developed a means to securely release records in a text-readable format. And one would think that if records could be released in this method for some requestors it could then they could be applied to all requestors.

In law those with sensory disabilities are entitled to records in a format that is “acceptable” to them, an entitlement that doesn’t exist for everyone else.

So does this mean that it may be advisable to hire a blind researcher over a seeing one? It remains to be determined. The law should entitle all requestors to records in a format of their choice. But in practice this doesn’t take place. So will requestors with sensory disabilities in fact be entitled to records “in an alternative format that is acceptable to that person?”

The government institution releasing the records is supposed to apply two tests. First, is releasing the records in an alternative format necessary?  This test may involve showing proof that the requestor is blind, and Second, is the request for an alternative format reasonable? Which may involve examining if a request is overly broad and voluminous.

One of my goals in writing this post is to determine if there are people out there who have made use of section 12(3)(a) or (b) of the Act.  I would love to hear from you.

I am also writing this post is to spread the word to that I am willing and interested in providing support and advice to blind people who want assistance in filing requests. I remember being quite nerve racked by the first half a dozen requests I ever filed, and the support and advice I got from others was invaluable. I would like to offer that same support to people who want to exercise this part of the law.  Giving advice, reading over draft letters, and answering the questions that come up along the way.  If your interested please email me at timgrovesreports [at] gmail [dot] com.

I am most familiar with the federal Access to Information Act, and I am hoping to support people in filing under this Act. If you are interested in filing under another set of legislation feel free to get in touch and I will see what sort of advice I can give.

Although, I am a seeing person, I am also in the process of trying to use 12(3)(a) of the Act in a handful of my own requests, adding the following wording in those request.

Although I would submit that all records should be released in the most accessible format possible, I will note that the Act entitles me to records in an accessible format. This is because as a journalist working in the public interest I often make selected records available to the general public to read and examine. To this extent when I request records I do so not only for myself but on behalf of the public at large, including members of the public with sensory disabilities.

Therefore, I ask that under Section 12(3)(a) of the Act that any records I have requested that already exists under the control of your institution in a text readable format, that will allow people who are blind to read them using a text-to-speech device, be release to me in that format. I trust you will uphold your duty to assist and will deliver these records to me in such a format, forthwith.

I am quite uncertain how this will be responded to this, and I am not holding my breath that I will receive the records in a text-readable format.  But I wanted to try this sort of request and see what response I get.  I am genuinely interested in making sure that people who are blind can read the records I publish online. I am also interested in the broader questions surrounding the format that records are delivered in, which concerns all requestors.

I hope that the questions that are raised by this blog post will put pressure on government to rethink the way things are done.



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