Computer technology is improving the access to information for the disabled but the real problem is not necessarily the limitations of technology but it's costs. This column points you toward sets of Internet resources informing you on how you can make your library better prepared for the disabled. It also tries to enforce the understanding that technologies for the disabled assist not only the disabled, but everybody else as well. Libraries of the future will understand this fact and embrace this change not as a hinderance but as an enhancement of service for everybody.
A personal experience
A few months ago I got an email message from a man looking for a specific book for his niece. Apparently, after looking in my Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts and not finding it, he decided to ask where else the book might be found in digital format. It seems his niece is visually impaired and needed the book for her college course work. I located the book in printed form, but replied to the man saying it was much too new to be out of copyright and available digitally.
Almost two weeks later I got a message from the niece's father asking me for more leads, but my suggestions were weak including: 1) calling the publisher, 2) scanning, 3) paying a transcriber, or 4) contacting netlibrary, a new company providing digital access to copyrighted works. The tone of the father's message oozed with frustration. What was he to do? How could he provide for his daughter's education? This is the plight of more than 43 million people in the United States, and while adaptive technologies can assist people who need these services, access to these technologies is financially difficult, if not an out and out impossibility.
Disabilities and libraries
In 1990 the American Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. It purpose is "to establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability." In other words, disability, just like race, religion, or age, is not considered a valid criterion for making a distinction between individuals. The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person:
- with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits their major life activities,
- with a record of such impairment, and/or
- who is regarded as having such an impairment.
Because of the ADA we have handicapped parking, wheelchair ramps, and those nice sidewalk curbs. Libraries are no stranger to the basic assumptions behind the ADA. Article V of the Library Bill of Rights states "A person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views." At the same time access to materials in our libraries is often, but not deliberately, limited to the people without disabilities, and access to things on computers are excellent examples. Take your Web pages. How accessible do you think they are to the visually impaired?
For an easy but a bit time consuming historical overview of the issues surrounding adaptive technology and disabilities, you can tune your browser into a number of audio files, specifically "Beyond Affliction" and "Assistive Technologies" produced by Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Science Friday, respectively.[3, 4] The former site includes sets of bibliographies.
The World Wide Web Consortium, promoting itself as the organization leading the Web to its fullest potential, includes a division called the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). In coordination with organizations around the world, WAI "is pursuing accessibility of the Web through five primary areas of work: technology, guidelines, tools, education & outreach, and research & development." To that end WAI has developed three separate guides for creating Web documents that are accessible to people with disabilities: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, List of Checkpoints for the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, and Techniques for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Each of these documents, available from the WAI home page provide a framework for creating well-constructed HTML pages.
The EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) website and its refereed electronic journal (Information Technology And Disability) are dedicated to promoting equal access to information for people with disabilities as well as everyone else. Similarly, WebABLE! sports a database of Internet resources that also includes pointers to hardware and software specifically designed for the disabled.
For a more library-oriented guide to disabilities, see the DRM Guide to Disabilities Resources in the Internet. The Guide points to how-to manuals, discussion lists, professional associations, and guidelines for providing specialized access to library services for the disabled. There you will find pointers to guidelines from the National Library of Canada as well as the Library Association of Australia for providing disabled patron library services.
Tool and Utilities
There are a number of utilities you can use to begin testing them. First, try Bobby "a web-based public service offered by CAST that analyzes web pages for their accessibility to people with disabilities as well as their compatibility with various browsers."  Feed Bobby a URL and it will return rendered HTML and mark places where it can be improved. Bobby includes a more advanced form allowing you to test your pages as if they were being browsed with different Web browsers. Try it on your own home pages and you might be surprized.
For a simpler test, try Salt Lake Community College's Lynxit. By submitting a URL to the service you will be shown how the text at the other end is seen by somebody you uses the Lynx browser.
Access.Adobe.Com is an interesting tool created by Adobe Systems allowing "blind and visually impaired users to read any document in Adobe PDF format."  Like the previous two tools, you supply an HTML form with a URL pointing to a PDF document. The remote script then retrieves the document and formats it into an HTML file. The content of this file is plain and simple -- easily interpreted by any Web browser.
While there seems to lots of resource available describing adaptive technologies, the reality of the situation is much less abundant. Few people actively discriminate against people with disabilities, but when you are creating your library services you conscious are you about how they are perceived by all people of all walks of life. Furthermore, when you design your service for people with disabilities you will notice that they become easier to use for everybody else too. Just think how much more comfortable it is to walk up a wheelchair ramp, and wouldn't it be nice to use your Web browser through voice commands or via eye movements. Supporting adaptive technologies makes all of our lives easier.
- ADA - http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm
- Library Bill of Rights - http://www.ala.org/alaorg/oif/lbr.html
- Beyond Affliction - http://www.npr.org/programs/disability/
- Assistive Technologies - http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/1998/May/hour2_050898.html
- WAI - http://www.w3.org/WAI/
- EASI - http://www.rit.edu/~easi/
- WebABLE! - http://www.yuri.org/webable/
- DRM Guide - http://www.geocities.com/~drm/DRMlibs.html
- Bobby - http://www.cast.org/bobby/
- Lynxit - http://www.slcc.edu/webguide/lynxit.html
- Access.Adobe.Com - http://access.adobe.com/
Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Source: This article was originally written as a column for Computers in Libraries.
Date created: 1999-04-03
Date updated: 2004-11-13
Subject(s): adaptive technologies;