What is a print disability?

In Canada, the definition of a print disability is derived from the Copyright Act (Section 32) in which it is referred to as a “perceptual disability.” A perceptual (or print) disability, can be due to a:

Physical disability: The inability to hold or manipulate a book
Visual disability: Severe or total impairment of sight or the inability to focus or move one’s eyes
Learning disability: An impairment relating to comprehension
(Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA), 2015)

In comparison to visual and physical disabilities, learning-based print disabilities are not visible. They must be identified by qualified professionals (e.g., teachers, resource teachers, speech language pathologists) who have expertise in understanding and assessing reading development, and can provide appropriate interventions and remediation.


If a student has a learning-based print disability, he or she may demonstrate the following challenges:

  • Difficulty with decoding words
  • Slow, effortful reading
  • Poor comprehension because so much effort goes into decoding text
  • Difficulty in accessing content
  • Lack of independence, self-esteem, confidence, and choice
  • Lack of exposure to text which negatively impacts growth of vocabulary and language

Evidence of a learning-based print disability is seen in relation to reading challenges, and is not defined by a particular diagnosis, or code. The National Centre on Accessible Educational Materials (please note this is a US-based organization) specifies that a print disability is related to “function rather than to a specific disability category” (Acquiring Accessible Print Materials in K-12, 2016, aim.cast.org).

The challenges can have different roots, such as dyslexia, visual tracking issues, phonemic awareness, or others. They may be related to a language disorder or, may be more specifically rooted in reading itself. No matter the cause(s), the problems become worse over time when students are not provided with appropriate interventions.

“Many of these students enter into a vicious cycle of withdrawal from text. Frustrated, they often stop reading, losing the text exposure necessary for reading development and, ultimately, for the acquisition of knowledge and understanding in all subjects.”
(Parr, 2013)

Students need to be assessed one-on-one to determine if an alternate format with assistive technology (such as e-text with text-to-speech) will help to bypass the problem. For more information on the benefits of text-to-speech for students with learning-based print disabilities, please refer to our section above on Reading with text-to-speech.

Contributor: Sandra Amyot, SLP, LBPSB