For years, those with disabilities have struggled to have access to information, resources, assignments, or materials due to accessibility or instructional problems. With improvements in technologies over the past ten years, however, the landscape is a hopeful one, and filled with opportunities for libraries to seize. Going forward we need to begin working on changing mindsets to make things even more accessible for the youth we serve. How can we harness these technologies as we work towards fulfilling our core competency of eliminating barriers?
The quick development of applications and computer-based technologies have allowed differently abled youth to be included in accessing materials, sharing ideas, and participating in work and educational opportunities.
In encouraging use of the assistive technologies (known as AT), it is very important to discuss with those who are disabled or differently abled, which types of technologies may work best, as one size does not fit all. As children become teenagers, it is important to foster growth into adolescence by including them in the decision-making process on which types of technologies will work for them.
In President Bill Clinton’s Assistive Technology Act (1998), it was defined in a way that is consistent with the development and use of assistive technologies around the world:
Any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. AT service is directly assisting an individual with a disability in the selection, acquisition, or use of an assistive technology device.
In other words, when you see someone wearing a hearing aid, using a prosthetic limb, employing speech-to-text software or other tools, they are using assistive technology.
There are different types of disabilities that may be encountered every day in your library. The most common disabilities fall under these categories:
- Sensory – Visual impairment or blindness, deafness or hard of hearing
- Cognitive – Various levels of intelligence, memory, self-expression, mental processing
- Psychiatric- Disabilities that include a broad range of challenges from social phobias to bipolar to personality disorders
- Health Related – Chronic conditions
Some of the ways these barriers can be addressed is to identify the challenges that technology can address. For example, if a child is having difficulty visually processing the text of a sentence or paragraph, you can examine ways of using technology to change the text or change the color contrast between the text and the page to help them distinguish individual words form sentences.
Not sure what types of assistive technologies can improve access for your library users? Read on! Listed below are some of the many technologies that can aid those with disabilities:
- Speech-Recognition software: Children and youth dealing with blindness/visual impairment, or with physical limitations that prevent them from typing on a keyboard, can use text-to-speech devices (mobile and otherwise) to compose their assignments. When using these programs, children speak into a microphone, which then translates their words into typed documents. The most well-known of the software programs that perform this task is Dragon Naturally Speaking, which also recognizes voice commands such as “insert exclamation point.”
- Text-to-Speech software: This kind of assistive technology helps children and youth with visual impairments by allowing them to listen to the text that appears on a computer screen. This is a huge improvement over Braille because once the program is installed on the computer, it can read anything on the screen, no matter what format it is in (for example, pdf or website) with no waiting for a Braille translation. This enables students to participate in online activities, use email and text, and have immediate access to course materials. There are many free versions of this software available online, such as Natural Readers.
- Visual Aids: This broad category of assistive technology includes screen magnification software that enlarges portions of the screen where the reader directs the mouse; screen reader software that translates screen text to Braille, text-to-speech programs; audio texts. All of these can be used by children with many kinds of visual disabilities.
- Audio Aids: Another broad category of assistive technology aids include sound amplification tools; alerting devices that use flashing lights or icons on the computer screen rather than sounds to signal users; close-captioning for videos; TTY (TDD) also known as Telecommunication for the Deaf; phones enabled with Voice Carry-Over (VCO) technologies that allow children and youth with hearing difficulties to communicate over the phone with their own voice.
- Physical Aids: For children and youth with physical mobility, stability, motor coordination, and range of motion challenges, several technologies are available to assist them in completing their schoolwork, including audio books for youth who cannot physically handle books; keyboard adapters such as keyguards to prevent mistyping from tremors or loss of control; voice recognition software for children who cannot type.
The ALSC Toolkit for Services to Special Populations is a great resource designed to help librarians develop or enhance library services to special populations of children and families. It is the culmination of a year-long project by the Library Service to Special Population Children and Their Caregivers Committee. For each special population, there is:
- A brief introduction
- Subject headings and keywords for catalog and online searching
- Resources for further study including organizations, online and print resources
- A listing of subject matter experts within the library community
- Examples of existing partnerships between libraries and community organizations.
Be sure to check out pages 31-35 to find out more about improving access for children with print disabilities.
In Vermont, the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has been renamed the ABLE Library, an acronym that stands for our primary services – Audio, Braille, Large-print, and eBooks. It is one of the many steps that the Vermont Department of Libraries has taken to promote the services and to advocate for library accessibility for all.
As technology advances, it is far easier today to find solutions that work for librarians, educators, and parents who are searching for the right type of assistive technology. Connections with the staff at various disability organizations, health clinics or institutes that specialize in working with individuals with disabilities, or your state assistive technology centers are also valuable. To find an assistive technology center in your state, visit the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs website at https://www.at3center.net/stateprogram
This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group and V. Outreach and Advocacy
Jason Broughton, Interim State Librarian at the Vermont Department of Libraries, is writing this post on behalf of the Public Awareness Committee. He is a passionate liver of life and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org