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Adam Pottle on connection through isolation: How COVID-19 is challenging Canadian literary accessibility

Adam Pottle

On the website of my hometown library in Saskatoon, an entire page is devoted to answering questions about COVID-19. All branches are closed. Holds have been cancelled. Fee collections have been cancelled. Anyone who has borrowed books must hold onto them. All digital resources – including books, movies, and TV shows – are accessible regardless of whether one owes fees. All questions must be submitted by email.

The pandemic has challenged Canada’s literary industry’s ability to adapt. Guided by creativity and compassion, publishers, festivals, and individual authors are finding different ways of reaching readers.

For many Canadians, access has been a challenge since before the pandemic. Deaf, disabled, and chronically ill readers especially have fought for accessibility for decades, trying to ensure that reading venues are fully accessible and that books are available in different mediums and that readers experiencing poverty can attend events.

The industry operates according to a delicate balance predicated on a capitalistic business model. Literary festivals rely on ticket sales and sponsorships to afford hotels and honorariums for authors. Reading series often operate on small budgets that limit their ability to include accessibility measures. Affordability is in large part a foundation of literary community.

But community, as many of us are now discovering, means different things. While many events have unfortunately been postponed or cancelled, publishers, organizers, and authors are working to achieve community through alternative means, demonstrating that the literary world can be made accessible while also helping authors. As an example, some publishers are offering their authors’ books at reduced prices. Book*hug is currently selling brand-new ebooks for five dollars a piece, with 100 per cent of the royalties going directly to the authors. The audiobook platform Audible has also released hundreds of titles for free.

Individual authors are giving online readings, allowing everyone to experience their works. David A. Robertson has been reading a chapter a day of his upcoming book The Barren Grounds, while Catherine Hernandez has been reading children’s books, including Sunshine Tenasco’s Nibi’s Water Song and Hernandez’s own I Promise. Such readings, unfortunately, are not always captioned and do not always feature Sign Language interpretation, but they are welcome resources.

Across Canada, many bookstores are delivering books directly to readers’ homes. While Toronto’s Book City is closed to the public, it continues to deliver locally books ordered online and by phone. Other stores with similar policies include Downtown Comics in St. John’s, Bookmark in Halifax, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg and Saskatoon, Audreys in Edmonton, Pages on Kensington in Calgary, and The Paper Hound in Vancouver.

Perhaps one of the best examples of how the Canadian literary industry has become more accessible during the pandemic is the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), which on March 18th announced that it is going virtual and putting its slate of events online. According to the FOLD’s press release, “All virtual events will be closed-captioned and provided free of charge, making this iteration of FOLD our most accessible festival yet.” The authors – including Billy-Ray Belcourt, Gwen Benaway, Perdita Felicien, Samra Habib, Amanda Leduc, and Casey Plett – will deliver webinars and remote events. All the participants will receive their honorariums.

The pandemic has exposed certain flaws and strengths in our society – our over-reliance on capitalistic models being first and foremost – and it is no different for the Canadian literary industry. COVID-19 has forced the general population into the same isolation that many Deaf, disabled, and chronically ill people have long experienced. Advocates for accessibility are gritting their teeth, for they know that we have always had the capacity for positive change. We have always had the ability to make the world more accessible; it just took a pandemic to get us to realize it. It proves an old disability adage: no change happens until able people feel the same pain.

The more crucial question is whether this kind of change will last once the pandemic is over. Many of us want the world to return to normal. We want our lives to go back to the way things were before. But the problem is that “normal” is harmful. It excludes others. Instead of returning to normal, we must take the lessons in empathy that the pandemic has provided us and use them to establish new, more dynamic foundations of literary engagement. There will be no excuse for making events inaccessible. There never was before, but now that the entire world has experienced the same isolation as Deaf, disabled, and chronically ill people, we cannot forget.