Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Web Access for the Disabled

Cathy Murtha outlines the problems that audio-visually impaired people encounter when trying to use network-based resources.

If it is true that patience is a virtue, blind people must be the most virtuous people on earth. Waiting is omnipresent in a blind persons life. The simple act of reading a newspaper can be a major undertaking. However this seemingly simple task is accomplished, it requires waiting; waiting for a family member or friend to be available, or waiting for the next scheduled meeting with a paid reader. Now, however, another option is available, this new innovation in the lives of the blind has provided something that is so intriguing that many blind and print impaired individuals have to "see" it to believe it! The Internet has brought about a new era for this population. Newspapers, magazines, research materials and more are now available at the touch of a button. Public Libraries, once thought to be the haven of the sighted, are now within reach of the blind and print impaired as well.

The keys to the world lie within the stacks and archives of our public libraries. Great works of art and literature can now be made available to an entire population who is eager to embrace the opportunities that the general population has enjoyed for generations. The blind and print impaired, for the first time, can now take advantage of the opportunities for enlightenment and enrichment that Public Libraries have to offer.

Computer technology and accessible Internet services are the tools which will bring the blind and print impaired into the mainstream of library patronage. What seemed impossible a generation ago is now a reality. With a little ingenuity and planning, libraries can allow the blind and print impaired to have nearly complete access to their stacks and archives.

Libraries, as a rule, generally circulate printed materials about upcoming events and functions. Flyers arrive in mailboxes and advertisements scroll across a silent TV screen while muzak plays for the enjoyment of a sighted audience. Unless a blind person takes the extra step of making a phone call to the library or asking a sighted companion to peruse the accumulation of advertisements for pertinent materials, they may be unaware of the important functions that are happening within their own community. The thought of actually crossing the threshold of a public library can be an overwhelming thought for many who suffer from vision impairments.

Entering a library is akin to entering a foreign land for a blind or print impaired individual. Even having called ahead for an appointment, one cannot be sure that the librarian or research assistant will not be overwhelmed by a sudden onslaught of patrons requiring special attention. Students who need assistance researching a term paper for school can find themselves feeling more and more uncomfortable as a harried librarian apologizes for the delay while attempting to do his or her best to provide the assistance the blind person needs.

The blind person is aware of the fact that the librarian does not mind answering some questions over the phone. The student most assuredly understands, and is grateful for the fact, that the librarian is working diligently to find that needed research material and does not begrudge the blind person's inability to perform these activities. Yet the blind person grows frustrated and feels a sense of embarrassment. You see, the blind desire the ability to access these materials themselves. They long for the day when libraries will open their doors figuratively and literally by providing access which is readily available but little used. Research assistance and community activities can be brought to the blind if a library desires to do so. Imagine the empowerment these individuals would feel if community activities and research assistance were available in an accessible format. It is possible to provide assistance to the blind and print impaired, while at the same time allowing the librarians the time they need to perform the requested functions. By using the tools that may already be at the libraries disposal the time of the librarian can be used to the best efficiency and the embarrassment and frustration felt by both parties can be alleviated. Access to research in an accessible format is a fond fantasy that dwells within the heart and soul of every blind person, but it is also a reality that lies within the capability of every library to one degree or another. The use of e-mail can help to bring this information to the blind and print impaired.

E-mail lists and research assistance can be offered to those who may be interested. Simple distribution lists can be formed to keep patrons updated on local community and library activities. This would not only assist the general population in keeping up to date on functions they may find of interest, but these lists would also have the added advantage of providing information to the blind and print impaired in an accessible format. Research could be offered to those who cannot access needed materials in any other fashion. E-mail could assist the blind immeasurably in this arena.

Blind and print impaired individuals who need information for work or school could submit a request via e-mail to research assistants who could search the archives of information that might not be accessible. Newspaper and magazine archives and other types of printed materials could be searched for the pertinent information. This information could then be relayed to the blind individual in the format of their choice. All types of information, from basic text to graphics can be relayed via e-mail to virtually any part of the world in a matter of seconds. A student in Lodi, California could receive a file of information, on the history of textiles in England, from a library in London in a matter of minutes. Information can also be made available, via the Internet, to the general population and print impaired as well. The ability to search for a particular book or periodical from home would greatly alleviate the strain placed on librarians who may spend much of their time assisting patrons in the use of the OPAC (online public access catalogue) systems. By providing Internet access and on site work stations that are accessible to the blind, libraries have an opportunity to truly provide access to all.

Many libraries are on the Internet and are providing a limited amount of services through this medium. Some have considered the possibilities that lie within their grasp, but few have actually taken the steps to implement them. The Internet provides nearly endless opportunities to welcome new patrons into their fold. Research assistance, catalog access, database information, local and state information, phone listings, electronic texts that lie within the public domain and books that are published with the copyright holders permission can all be placed on the Internet. These services may be used by all, but will benefit the blind and print impaired beyond all comprehension.

Most libraries already offer OPAC services. A sighted person can sit down at a computer terminal on the libraries premises and search for their favorite novel or needed research materials. By placing this same information on the Internet, the library offers this service to an entire new population of individuals, the blind and print impaired. This catalog of books, however, can be just the first step!

In addition to providing database responses on materials that may lie within the walls of the library, information on related web sites could also be offered. A search for information on The Gross National Product of Brazil could also yield a listing of associated web sites on the Internet. Sites who may feel they meet the criteria for inclusion in the database could be encouraged to write to the researchers and submit their site for inclusion. Searchable databases provide almost unlimited possibilities. These few I have mentioned can be expanded with time and used to bring, not only the blind, but others who may be severely disabled or home bound into the mainstream of library patronage When providing this access to the Internet it is important to not only consider the variety of services provided, but also the format in which they will be offered.

Graphics are making their presence known on the Internet, with the advent of java script, shockwave, and other fancy bells and whistles, more web sites are leaning toward pages which are anchored by large graphical displays. Although these graphics may be lovely to look at they are, unfortunately, totally inaccessible to the blind and print impaired. Screen readers (software which converts text to speech) cannot interpret the images; therefore, a site that is based on graphical design will be akin to a closed door to the blind and print impaired. Many web designers do not realize that it is possible to provide these bells and whistles while, at the same time, considering the needs of the blind and print impaired. If a graphical page is what is desired, there is a way to provide the access to the blind while still providing the eye catching graphics which many believe will make or break a web page. Some of these tips and tricks are available on the Internet; my own Web site contains a detailed explanation of how one can keep those eye catching graphics and still provide a page that is accessible to everyone. The gift of access is the greatest gift any individual could hope for. This access does not have to end with Internet access, there is still more that can be done to help bring the blind and print impaired closer to our public libraries. It is an unfortunate fact that a minority of the blind population currently has access to the Internet. Public libraries can help to bring this technology to the general population of blind individuals. In house work stations would allow the blind to access the Internet from within the walls of the library.

By offering access to the Internet from within the library, the blind would have the opportunity to browse the libraries catalog and other databases, which may be placed on the Internet. By providing Internet access in the library, the need to provide access to the OPAC service that is enjoyed by the sighted patrons would be eliminated. Many times the OPAC may be of a graphical nature and involve mouse manipulation. The blind and print impaired would have the opportunity to browse the database and acquire the same information as the sighted. These work stations could be equipped with a stand alone scanner which would scan printed material and convert it into speech; a computer which would be equipped with speech synthesis and allow the blind and print impaired to access the Internet; a braille printer for printing out information from the databases as well as topics of interest on the Internet; tape recorders for recording information from the scanner and taking verbal notes; other types of materials such as braille writers, slates and styluses and braille paper could also be included in this area which would be designed to specifically serve the needs of the blind and print impaired and provide complete access. Taped and braille instruction manuals and tutorials could be offered as well as special classes to help the blind and print impaired acclimate themselves to these new services.

There are a variety of companies that can assist organizations who wish to provide access to the blind and print impaired. They not only offer the technology and supplies that libraries can use to help provide access, but most of these companies provide excellent technical support of their products. The average library can provide a fully functioning, state of the art, work station for the blind for under $10,000, some companies will donate equipment to libraries who show an interest in providing access to the blind and print impaired.

Providing e-mail support, Internet access to library catalogs and archives, and in-house work stations will not only allow the blind to access the valuable information stored within the physical walls of the library, but it will also allow librarians the time they need to do what they enjoy most, help those who truly need it to acquire the knowledge they are seeking.

The keys to knowledge are placed in the trust of our public libraries. The blind and print impaired are hoping that more libraries will consider unlocking the door and allowing them to walk through into this world in which dreams reside and futures are designed, for it is only through knowledge that one can grow.


There are mailing lists which are specifically geared toward helping libraries create a presence on the Internet. Here are two such lists with information from the listowners about their mission.

The Digital Librarian List

The DigLibns electronic discussion is for the discussion of issues relating to digital librarianship. Although the discussion is primarily aimed toward librarians and library staff involved in building digital collections or maintaining digital services, anyone is welcome to join the discussion.

to subscribe send a post to: listserv@sunsite.berkeley.edu
in the body of the send: Subscribe diglibns your name

The Digital Library List

An Internet mailing list for librarians, information scientists, and other information professionals to discuss the constellation of issues and technologies pertaining to the creation of digital libraries.

We encourage individuals and organizations from around the world who are creating or providing electronic access to digital collections to participate in knowledge sharing about current developments in digital library research.

To subscribe send an e-mail to: listserv@infoserv.nlc-bnc.ca
in the body of the message: subscribe diglib your name



Sites to visit for more information on Internet access and technology

Technology links


GW Micro -- Makers of Vocal Eyes and Window Eyes screen

Arkenstone -- Specializing in Scanning and computer technology

The Outpost -- Technology and blindness resources on the web

Access and research links


EASI - Equal Access to Software and Information

Trace Research & Development Center

Magical Mist Creations -- Free advice on, and assistance in, bringing access to the Internet

Cathy's Newstand -- Web Access information

Author Details

Cathy Murtha is interested in Web Access for the disabled, and has a set of Web pages on these issues.
Email: mist@pumpkin.cdepot.net
Web Pages: http://www2.cdepot.net/~mist/