Library Issues
Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Ann P. Dougherty
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 20, No. 5 May 2000


Information Access for Users With Disabilities

by William Miller and Edward Erazo

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has brought changes not only in how libraries deliver their services, but also in how we view them. It is not enough simply to say “we’ve never received a request from a blind person, so why should we spend all of this money?” People with disabilities know what is available to them and may not wish to complain although they may be aggravated enough to file a formal legal complaint, but if the resources are available to them, they will respond.

Thus, institutions of higher education must be proactive in making their physical facilities available to students and faculty with disabilities. Not only is it the right thing to do, but considerable legal penalties await those institutions which are not responsive. Underscoring this obligation is the February 25, 2000 settlement of a disability rights complaint brought by the U.S. Justice Department against Duke University, on behalf of a wheel-chair bound 1997 graduate who felt that she had been denied good accessibility to campus buildings. Duke agreed to pay $25,000 in civil penalties, as well as $7,500 to the student herself, and more importantly agreed, in “18 of its 25 dormitories, to enlarge the doorways of at least half of the rooms on floors where students with disabilities can live.”1

Most of us are not as aware, however, that the same agencies that oversee ADA compliance in physical facilities—the Justice Department, and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights—also have jurisdiction over equity of access to information.2 Briefly put, federal regulations prohibit institutions which receive federal assistance from discriminating on the basis of disability; this includes an obligation to be sure that persons with disabilities are enabled to communicate as effectively as others. The Office for Civil Rights interprets “communication” to include access both to printed texts and to electronic information as well as access to computer labs and to the campus network.

When is “Sufficient Access” Sufficient?
How much of an obligation do institutions have to make information resources accessible to the disabled? Generally speaking, when institutions invest in a technology such as internet access which will have wide accessibility, it is presumed that they have an obligation to provide access for all. For lesser-used technologies or materials, such as an unusual micro-format, or rarely used foreign newspapers, there is little expectation of universal accessibility; the general principle here would be reasonable accommodation.

If you are making information available within the library, you need to make it available to all, and preferably make it available electronically, outside of the library as well. The use of proxy servers greatly facilitates this, although there is one problem: certain vendors, notably Westlaw, will not allow their database to be accessed remotely (through fear that access will be given away to non-authorized people). Therefore, in such situations, a library has to restrict access to the building. But, since that access is restricted for all users, not just handicapped users, it’s not a legal problem.

Post-1990 requirements. Another consideration involves the matter of when certain materials or systems were acquired. From the date of the passage of the ADA in 1990, the presumption is that institutions should have been aware of the Act, and had an obligation, from that time forward, to plan for access. Where such access does not exist, institutions would generally be liable for the full cost of retrofitting. So, theoretically, if you built a library after 1990 and the stacks are too narrow to allow wheelchair access, you could be required to reconfigure your stacks, or to provide staff on a permanent basis who would be available to wheelchair-bound users to pick things off the shelf for them. That, however, would be problematic because the users still would be denied the right that other users have to browse. Similarly, if you build an addition and the front doors are not configured correctly, you could and almost certainly would be required to rebuild the entrance properly. Or, if there is no elevator access to a public area you could be required to install one, which could easily cost $250,000.

Pre-1990 materials. For construction or materials acquired before 1990, the expectations would be more modest, and the requirements much less stringent, but libraries still need to make reasonable accommodations so that our users with disabilities have access. For instance, in an ancient stack area where the shelves are too close together, and which may have no elevator access, a library probably would not be required to make such areas physically accessible to people with disabilities. Certainly, however, the materials in those areas should be bibliographically accessible (i.e., through the online catalog or other finding aid) and there should be physical assistance available to secure the items. Institutions would be responsible for prioritizing which kinds of resources would have the highest use and therefore require the greatest expenditure to assure access.

Finding out about Assistive Technology
As one might expect, the Web is an excellent place to find out about many aspects of dealing with disabilities, including assistive technology. Among the myriad of sites which could be mentioned, three stand out as good general starting places.

There are also many online discussion groups. One of these is ADAPT-L, an ongoing discussion of which kinds of hardware and software work or do not work well under certain conditions (subscribe at
The web sites of the major vendors, such as Arkenstone ( are also extremely informative.3

What Kinds of Support are Necessary?
In years past, a Kurzweil machine, which could “read” a printed book page or other written material, and speak it aloud, was an expensive machine but was perceived as being pretty much all that any library needed to assist its disabled users. Things have now changed considerably and become more complex. Software that works well with Windows95 or DOS may not work at all with Windows NT or the Web. The same sorts of hardware problems that one encounters with any kind of equipment also happens with adaptive technology equipment. ADAPT-L is a good place to ask questions when one’s configuration does not seem to be functioning properly, but every library needs to have a staff person who is adept at systems configurations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and solutions change as the hardware and software change.

In general, however, libraries must think about providing the following kinds of adaptive assistance:

In addition to the equipment and the bare physical accessibility to both equipment and collections, a number of additional support efforts should be in place. For the benefit of those who are not able to write down catalog search results, printing of such results should be easily available (preferably without charge) at specified public catalog terminals. The library should provide physical retrieval of materials for those people who need such assistance; this retrieval may be made available at scheduled intervals if the library cannot provide it on demand. A list of the services which the library provides to those with disabilities should be available both on the web site and at public service desks, and all public service staff should be familiar with these services.

What a Sample Equipment Configuration would look like
Every library’s needs and resources will differ, and opinions will obviously differ about competing products; each has its devoted following. We cannot, therefore, cite a definitive assemblage that will satisfy everyone under every circumstance. A typical, reasonably priced configuration of hardware and software, however, might look something like this:

Magnifying America computer workstation(s).
This adaptive technology workstation is made to work with ADA-compliant software, and scans any printed text—right side up or upside down—from magazines, books, or photocopies (including text with multiple columns) and then both displays the scanned image and reads it out loud. Users may attach earphones for privacy and to avoid disturbing others. Certain keys come programmed to perform functions such as to stop reading, spell words out, and resume reading. The machine reads everything which comes up on the monitor screen, including the drop-down menus. Some of the customized settings offer a choice of voices and reading speeds.

Adaptive technology which might be installed on this machine includes:

Arkenstone Open Book: Ruby Edition. This software converts scanned text to speech through the use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR).

Magic 6.1 for Windows NT 4.0. This software allows individuals with low vision to view the computer screen by use of electronic magnification and color sensory imaging.

Jaws for Windows NT. This program is capable of “speaking” (reading) the computer screen with its own speech synthesis named “Eloquence,” allowing an individual with visual impairment–even blindness–to have equal access to library computerized resources.

All of the above equipment and software should be available for less than $20,000. In addition to the workstation and accompanying software, a library may wish to acquire the following:

Magnifying America Patriot XLC CCTV Video Magnifier. This is a magnifying overhead with a lamp, that has been attached to a special monitor; it may assist low-vision students to read by creating large to very large images of text on the computer screen.

Aladdin Ambassador Reading Appliance. This scanner/reader (which has no monitor) reads and vocalizes anything that is put on the glass-top scanner through built-in microphones. The system is set up to operate by pushing only one button, “play,” to both start and stop.

Minolta MicroDAX MS 300 [Plus Minolta SP 3100P laser printer.] This machine converts microforms into digital information which can be printed, downloaded, or e-mailed. Or you can retrofit an existing reader-printer with a device such as DigiPrinter or ScreenScan, which allows the user to scan the screen and output results to a laser printer.

Juliet Braille Printer [Braille embosser]. This printer may be connected to a single Web PC station or networked and kept in a remote location since the printing can be quite noisy. The printer can also be networked outside the library to receive copy jobs from a variety of campus locations.

Braille Keyboard. Tiny raised dots on the keys help people who read Braille navigate easily across the keys. However, not everyone who is visually impaired reads Braille, and even those that do, may be so familiar with a standard keyboard that they do not need a Braille keyboard.4


The success of establishing a library assistive technology workstation rests not just on the choice of equipment but also on training. Staff should be familiar with the services provided, and they should be trained on how to use the equipment and software.

To begin, it is a good idea to have someone from the campus office of students with disabilities offer tips and strategies to staff about working with users with disabilities and to provide sensitivity training. For instance, staff need to consider eliminating the barrier of the reference desk by stepping around it to talk with a person in a wheel chair, or sitting down next to someone at a work station at eye level rather than standing above the person.

A designated librarian should take the lead on learning the equipment and software and then become a resource person for colleagues (the train-the-trainer idea). The vendor can provide the initial overview to the entire staff once the workstation is set up, but the one-on-one or small-group training could be conducted by the designated librarian. Problem areas may include use of special function keys, changing the settings for reading voice or speed, and saving scanned text to disk. Passwords, if implemented, should be readily available, even to weekend and evening staff.

Finally, a brief tip sheet for staff should be prepared listing the various function keys and navigational commands. This equipment and software may not be used that often so it is easy to forget how it all works.

People who have used similar equipment and software at other institutions will in most cases be more familiar with it than the staff, but those who are new to it will rely on the staff member to provide enough of an orientation so they can operate the equipment and software on their own. Anticipating questions from both users and staff and having prepared answers will help ensure that the workstation is used often and efficiently. As with all library services, the library can create a successful service and user population for it by making sure that the users want to come back for that service.

Concluding Remarks
One of the more remarkable changes in Western society over the last 25 years is an increasing sensitivity to the needs of minority groups of all kinds. Just as our use of language has become more thoughtful, so also have our expectations changed about what constitutes fair and just treatment of those whose physical limitations put them at a disadvantage in using library resources. We have already gone through the stage of recognizing the necessity to provide physical access to the disabled, and it is only natural that we now take the next step: provision of equality of access to information for those who need special assistance. We should not wait for complaints in order to provide such access, or provide it merely because it is a legal requirement to do so; we should provide it because it is the right thing to do. There is every reason to be responsive to the current and potential needs of all library users and facilitate their research by providing them with full access to our resources.

—William Miller is Director of Libraries, and Edward Erazo is Head of Reference Services, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida.

The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance of Mr. Gayle Fox, Coordinator, Equal Opportunity Programs, Florida Atlantic University.

1Hebel, Barbara. “Duke Reaches Settlement With Justice Dept. on Access for People With Disabilities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education XLVI, no. 26 (March 3, 2000): A34.

2This jurisdiction falls under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its implementing Regulation at 34 C.F.R. Part 104, as well as Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the implementing Regulation at 28 C.F.R. Part 35.

3For more extensive information on web sites, an excellent source is “Electronic Resources on Disabilities” by Jennifer Church, Sharon Drouin, and Katherine Rankin, C&RL News 61, no. 2 (Feb. 2000): 115-120.

4For more extensive information on specific products see Barbara T. Mates, Adaptive Technology for the Internet: Making Electronic Resources Accessible to All, (Chicago: ALA, 2000).

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last modified: Sept 2000

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