Twenty Years of Assistive Technologies

Celebrating 20 years of American with Disabilities Act

September 14, 2010


On July 26, 2010, thousands of people applauded the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandated that disabled individuals be accorded the same rights as persons without disabilities. The celebration stimulated reflection and debate on the effectiveness of the law. No consensus about success has been reached, but most people agree that despite slow and steady progress, much still remains to be done–especially if we are to achieve true parity in the workplace.

Approximately half of this country’s disabled workforce is unemployed, and higher education for many disabled individuals is still just a dream. Much of this can be traced to a lack of funds to purchase technologies and to make accommodations, but some roadblocks stem from insufficient knowledge about disabilities and what disabled individuals can accomplish if given the opportunity.

People with disabilities are the most diverse of all minority groups; they may be young or old, rich or poor, male or female. Ensuring library staff knows how to work with them is one of the most critical components in creating an accessible environment. Such interactions are made one patron at a time, and most disabled individuals will respond positively if they sense that someone is trying to do the right thing.

To ensure that staff has a rudimentary knowledge of how to work with persons with disabilities, ALA’s Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA) has developed a helpful toolkit of etiquette tip sheets. The sheets, which can be read and assimilated relatively quickly, suggest appropriate behaviors for staff working with persons who have specific disabilities, and identify materials and assistive technologies that will help disabled individuals use the library more successfully. The toolkit will be a useful supplement to training organized by a library’s human resources department. Tip sheets are available on ASCLA’s website. In the meantime, you’ll find a few simple suggestions below:

  • Talk directly to the disabled individual whenever possible.
  • Don’t raise your voice when speaking to a person who is hard-of-hearing or deaf. Look directly at the person, preferably in a properly lit area, giving a clear view of your face and lips.
  • Be precise when giving directions to a blind person.
  • Autistic children who don’t want to participate in activities during story or craft time should be allowed to opt out. Don’t continue to coax a child who really prefers to stay on the sidelines.

Screen readers

Screen-reading software enables persons with severe visual impairments or blindness, learning disabilities, or cognitive disorders to use computers to access the web and electronic information. Unfortunately, many disabled people find the price of such technology prohibitive. Having access to public usage computers with these technologies can be a great equalizer, helping individuals find employment, improve their job skills, connect with friends and relatives, locate valuable social services information, or simply have fun.

Screen-reading software, including products such as JAWS (Freedom Scientific), Window-Eyes (GW Micro), and Hal (Dolphin), scans the text being presented, then reads it aloud using a speech synthesizer. JAWS is the most popular program in North America, but Window-Eyes, which originated in the U.K, is less expensive and has a growing following in North America. The program that a library purchases should dovetail with what is most popular in the surrounding geographic area. Contact rehabilitation centers, schools, and consumer organizations in your library’s service area as well as vendors of assistive technology before making a choice.

Enlarging software

Screen-enlarging software allows persons with low vision to read e-mail and documents displayed in standard type, visit social networking websites, and more easily do other text-based tasks. Patrons can adjust the size of the text and change attributes such as background color. Some software packages permit users to remove all color. The products are easy to install and work in harmony with most operating systems. Currently the two most popular programs in North America are ZoomText from AI Squared and MAGic for Windows from Freedom Scientific. Dolphin’s Lunar and SuperNova have strong followings in other parts of the world. All allow the user to change the size of the display, including menus, toolbars, and icons, with a few keystrokes.

Hardware, workstations, and monitors

Most assistive technology hardware is manufactured to suit particular needs, but all patrons will appreciate an accessible workstation. Such workstations permit patrons to adjust the height of the worktable. They include a moveable arm for mounting the monitor so the user can tilt the display as needed. An ergonomic keyboard tray and an oversize monitor (20 inches or larger) should also be part of the workstation. The larger monitor allows patrons using screen-enlarging software to see more of the displayed text as they move through documents. When text is enlarged on a standard monitor, the user can read only a limited portion at a time and his or her train of thought can easily be lost.

Mice and trackballs

Most of us use a standard keyboard and a mouse for entering data into our computers, but some people simply cannot do this. Fortunately, there are many alternatives. Oversize keyboards with large keys afford users with limited dexterity a greater chance of pressing the correct key. Smaller keyboards, similar to those on cellular phones, can help individuals who have limited movement in their hands. On-screen keyboards are available for someone who cannot use his or her hands but is able to control the movement of his or her head. Patrons unable to learn the layout of the keyboard will benefit from products such as Intellikeys, a device that offers keyboard layouts to fit specific needs. Keyboard solutions exist for most needs.

There are also alternatives to the standard mouse. Senior-friendly models with a larger mouse and larger buttons can be useful to individuals with cognitive disabilities. There are also models with differently colored click-function buttons, making it easier to comprehend and execute tasks. For users who cannot adjust to using a standard mouse, trackballs and joysticks similar to those found with gaming consoles will simulate the mouse’s job.

More to keep in mind

Much is made of access to electronic communications, but the library must also build collections with disabled patrons in mind. Consider storyboards for families with members who have autism spectrum disorders, recorded books for people who cannot read print, and large-print books for those with limited vision. Patrons who read Braille will appreciate Braille magazines. Braille-and-print children’s books, which feature Braille pages bound into the original print publication, are also available.

Libraries without funds to develop an audio or Braille collection can connect with a cooperating member of the Library of Congress’s National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped to learn about the new digital playback equipment and program downloads and to determine if they are eligible for a depository collection of books.


It is important that all patrons be able to contact the library and communicate their needs. For persons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, this is a challenge–unless the library has video relay service equipment, such as that offered by Sorenson Communications, in place. The system uses a video phone to enable individuals who use sign language to communicate with those who cannot, and vice versa. Sorenson offers the system free of charge to entities like libraries. Face-to-face communication can be enhanced simply by typing back and forth, using a word processor, writing notes, or using a cell phone display.

Websites and electronic databases

Technological advances have enabled people with a wide range of disabilities to use computers and the internet, but some standards are needed. Toward that end, librarians can refer to guidelines established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a well-known sponsor of global web development headed by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and W3C CEO Jeffrey Jaffe. The concept to keep in mind is that technologies have limitations. For example, if an important graphic on a web page is not sufficiently described within the text, a blind user may miss the entire point of the page. Screen readers cannot yet interpret graphics. It doesn’t cost more to design a universally accessible website; it simply requires care, adherence to design, and the ability to resist the temptation of new applets. An ASCLA task force of professionals working with assistive technologies and persons with disabilities devised the “Internet and Web Based Content Checklist,” which can be used to assess websites for access and usability. The list may not ensure 100% compliance with the W3C, but it is a very good start.

It is also important to ensure that databases purchased by the library are usable by all patrons. Despite the ADA, misinformation remains a problem, and some database providers do not yet accept “access for all” as an issue they must resolve. It is always prudent to check a database before purchase to determine if it will fully fit patron needs. No librarian wants to have to explain why the disabled son or mother of a library trustee or local politician can’t use a database that cost $10,000. Here again ASCLA can help; a useful article on database evaluation, “Think Accessible Before You Buy: Questions to Ask to Ensure that the Electronic Resources Your Library Plans to Purchase are Accessible,” is also available on the ASCLA website.

In today’s economy it may not be immediately possible to purchase, update, and maintain the assistive technologies needed to serve all your patrons. Purchase and implementation can, however, be done gradually. At the very least be aware of the accessibility options available through the Microsoft and Apple software packages already owned by your library. Both manufacturers provide features such as text enlargement, screen reading, online keyboard, voice recognition for inputting data, and screen alerts for users unable to hear. Many library technical departments do not allow these features to be accessed by the general public, but computer assistants can be taught how to turn them on without harming the system. Although this isn’t the best solution, it does provide some access, and it is a start toward ensuring equitable service for all.