Adaptive Equipment Technology For Supporting Handicapped Persons In The Library Environment

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There are 8½ million disabled people in this country and most will be users of local authority services and will of course pay Council Tax; but many of those services aren’t accessible for disabled people either because of the design of the environment….or because of the way the service is delivered or the lack of particular equipment or facilities. This is an issue for everyone involved in local authorities, from Council members to front line staff and isn’t just something for social services or the building division [1].

Part III of the UK Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 has broad implications for public sector service providers. [2] Local authorities will have carried out access audits to ensure that buildings comply with the legislation, but services also have to comply. Universal access to ICT and web-based services, including e-government, is a fundamental tenet of current government policy, and this includes removing barriers which prevent disabled people from participating fully in every aspect of society.

The People’s Network has equipped every public library in the UK with computers offering Internet access, email facilities, and a wealth of e-services and online resources. The People’s Network forms part of the Government’s overall strategy for social inclusion, which aims to ensure that no-one is excluded from accessing ICT facilities due to personal or social circumstances. Public sector service providers are taking steps to ensure they comply with disability legislation, but it is worth thinking in terms of helping the wider community – many of whom have special needs when using standard IT equipment. For example, older people may find a standard keyboard and mouse difficult to use, and may have impaired hearing and/or vision; learners of all ages may have reading difficulties, or a specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia. When introducing adaptive technologies the ultimate aim is to establish a level playing field for all users and to establish the right mix of technologies which will support local communities. Simple, inexpensive options are available, and they can make a difference. This paper seeks to explore the range of technologies available. and provide examples of what is currently in use in public libraries.

2. Examples of adaptive technologies

Adaptive, accessible, enabling, assistive (technologies) are interchangeable terms, all of which describe the equipment and software packages that enable people with a range of disabilities, or special needs, to use a computer and gain access to the Internet. [3] A wide range of equipment is available, for example:

  • magnification software: enlarges the image on screen (up to 32 times). For people with impaired vision and learning difficulties.
  • screen reading software: for visually impaired people who rely entirely on speech or braille output to use a computer.
  • text-to-speech software: enables text to be read back using synthesised speech output.
  • voice recognition systems: reads back dictated text in synthetic speech. Can be used in conjunction with a scanner and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software: for people with dyslexia.
  • text highlighting, spell checkers, word prediction, thesauri and text to speech software: for people with dyslexia.
  • keyboards with big keys and/or coloured keys; ‘Gloves’ (which fit over a standard keyboard and make it easier to strike the required key); keyboard stickers: for visually impaired people, age-related conditions and motor impairment.
  • mouse alternatives e.g. trackballs, touch-pads and joysticks. For anyone who has difficulty using a standard mouse.
  • JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for Windows: for blind and visually impaired people. Used with web browsers, email programs, databases and standard Microsoft applications, plus more sophisticated development tools and advanced software.
  • Kurzweil 3000: a computer-based scanning system for people who are blind, or who have a reading disability or learning difficulties e.g. dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

These options are dealt with further below. A comprehensive and authoritative database of accessible technologies can be found on the Techdis website [4], which is targeted at the higher education community. AbilityNet [5] provide a wealth of information, including free and cheap solutions for specific disabilities which are particularly useful and relevant to the public sector.

3. Preliminary issues prior to ordering equipment

Before purchasing adaptive equipment it is necessary to undertake some preliminary ground work, for example:

  • consulting local organisations e.g. Local Access groups, social services, schools, charities and voluntary bodies to gather information about disabled and special needs groups within the community.
  • considering the needs of diverse users, not just the visually impaired. Older people, children, and those with learning difficulties/dyslexia also have special needs.
  • utilising free or low-cost options before acquiring expensive equipment e.g. accessibility features on standard Windows applications.
  • ensuring front-line and supervisory staff receive appropriate training. Disability awareness is desirable for all staff, and support staff require training on specialist software. Staff must be well prepared and confident when supporting people with special needs, and demonstrating new equipment/ software.
  • choose devices which connect via the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port – they are easy to plug into, and are widely available. Ports located on the front of PCs make plugging in quick and easy.
  • look at the range of adaptive equipment provided by other library authorities, and discuss your requirements with organisations such as AbilityNet.

4. Consulting relevant organisations within the community

Within your region you will find organisations that work closely with local disabled people who understand their needs and are able to offer advice and information. Local Access Groups are a good example as they actively campaign on behalf of local disabled people and have specific expertise. In addition, field workers within social services departments and schools have knowledge and experience of potential client groups; they may be able to suggest how libraries are best able to cater for the needs of these groups and encourage them to use library facilities.

In the London Borough of Bexley a member of the library service regularly attends meetings of the Bexley Access Group. Another example is the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames library service, where local disability groups were consulted prior to ordering adaptive technologies for the 13 borough libraries [7]. Richmond Advice and Information on Disability Centre, and the Sensory Impairment Action on Disability (a council-run service)are both involved in campaigning for local disabled people, and they also helped to promote the People’s Network by raising awareness among members. Richmond also work in partnership with the local adult and community college to provide short courses on specific disabilities, and IT ‘taster sessions’ are timed to coincide with key events like ‘Adult Learners Week’.

5. Inexpensive and free solutions to enabling access

Public libraries should aim to make the best use of standard ICT equipment before deciding to purchase expensive adaptive equipment. A good starting point is to encourage staff to become familiar with the standard accessibility options available on the operating system in use (e.g. Windows, Unix, Linux (Open Source) or Mac OS).



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