As more libraries offer patron access to the Internet and other on-line services, they must consider the needs of patrons with disabilities who will be using their Internet links either from the library or from remote sites. In planning and implementing technological improvements to optimize access for all patrons, librarians and information specialists must take into account questions of both physical and intellectual access to electronic information. This paper addresses these issues from a pragmatic perspective, reviewing available options and suggesting strategies for improving access for people with various disabilities.
The Internet Explosion
More libraries are gaining access to the Internet for their patrons. In the United States, an estimated 21% of public libraries have some type of Internet connection, with libraries in urban areas (having a patron base over one million) connected at a rate of 75%. These libraries are taking different approaches to providing Internet and on-line services to their patrons. Some have connections from terminals located inside the library; others allow dial-in access from patrons' offices or homes. Patron terminals are evolving beyond amber-screened terminals with numbered menus. Many new computers sport a full-color mouse- driven Graphic User Interface (GUI) which allow multimedia access to CD-ROM products, on-line services, and World Wide Web sites.
The Internet can truly open a world of information to people who have disabilities. E-mail, chat groups, and listservs allow people to make friends and talk to others even if they have severe communications disabilities. And the Internet can provide people who have rare disabilities with a link to information and support they might otherwise never even know of. But although most people with disabilities welcome library access to the Internet, many have difficulty using a standard interface. For others, multimedia innovations represent potentially insurmountable barricades to full Internet access. When designing user interfaces or library work stations, information specialists must take potential barriers to patrons with disabilities into account if they are to provide truly open access to information.
Physical Access Problems
Physical access problems are usually obvious and can be addressed by information professionals from many disciplines, from programmers who develop new intrinsic work-arounds to a GUI to librarians who offer to describe images a patron would otherwise be unable to understand. Careful planning and a commitment to excellent service should ensure that every patron has basic physical access to the Internet.
The standard computer interface consists of a keyboard, mouse and screen. Many people with disabilities find this interface cumbersome or impossible to use. Physical interface problems have been addressed by many companies, and work-arounds exist for most potential problems. Some of the most commonly implemented interface solutions are described below. Not every solution is appropriate for every library. While ideally, adaptive technology would be purchased and implemented solely on the basis of patron needs, cost and space are often big factors in a library's choice among options.
One inexpensive and readily available adaptive tool is screen magnification software. These programs allow patrons to view the computer screen at various levels of magnification. They may also permit the patron to manipulate color or intensity to help people who have trouble distinguishing certain color combinations. Screen magnifiers are usually mounted on a PC or MAC platform, rather than on a dumb terminal. There are several features which improve the utility of a screen magnifier.
For patrons who cannot read the monitor at all, voice interfaces are the most common adaptive programs. They are used not only by the many blind and visually impaired people who do not read Braille but also by patrons with learning disabilities which may make print comprehension difficult, and by people whose limited mobility makes keyboard or mouse use impossible. Non-disabled users are also using voice interfaces in greater numbers, and these programs are becoming more sophisticated. Some voice interfaces are one-way only, reading information that appears on the screen. Others work both ways, allowing the user to dictate material which the computer can translate into commands or even into written text. There are features and caveats librarians should keep in mind when evaluating voice interfaces.
Among some blind users, Braille displays may be the preferred interface. These displays use a special 8-dot readout (instead of the usual 6-dot Braille cell) to indicate items which are highlighted or otherwise enhanced. Computer keyboards which will be used by blind patrons can be enhanced with Braille stickers. Libraries can also purchase Braille input keyboards and software which will translate Braille input into standard text, a much faster interface for blind users who do not touch type on a standard keyboard. Braille interfaces are most appropriate for libraries which serve large numbers of blind patrons. Librarians who are thinking of installing Braille interfaces should keep some important points in mind.
While people with mobility impairments may be able to read the computer display without difficulty, they may have a hard time typing commands or moving a mouse. Sophisticated head pointing devices which use eye movements or other cues to interpret patron commands are still in their infancy and are not, for the present, viable alternatives for most libraries. There are, however, some options for librarians who want to provide access in the least restrictive way possible.
Of course, no computer interface will be accessible if the work space is inaccessible. Many libraries have one "accessible" workstation which incorporates all the special adaptive interfaces on a computer which is placed on a wheelchair-accessible table or stand. But because many people who use wheelchairs have no trouble with a standard computer interface, "regular" stations should also be accessible to these patrons. Librarians designing Internet computer stations should try to follow guidelines which will maximize accessibility for all patrons.
Some people cannot come to the library at all. Remote dial-in access can bring the library to them. Using familiar interfaces, patrons can access library information without worrying about transportation. The convenience of dial-in access is such that some patrons who can get to the library will prefer remote connections. The advantages of dial-in access are quite compelling, especially for academic and special libraries, but there are also concerns associated with relying too heavily on remote access for patrons with disabilities.
The importance of incorporating physical access options into the new multimedia interfaces is becoming more accepted among programmers. The Mosaic Access Project, with finding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, is devoted to identifying and eliminating barriers to physical access by people with disabilities. Their web site includes a "wish list" compiled from requests by Internet users who have disabilities. Recent "wish list" items demonstrate the concern people with hearing and visual impairments have about the problems of negotiating a multimedia GUI and suggest areas in which further work is needed. (Footnote: This list is taken from the Mosaic Wish List compiled on the Mosaic Access Project's web site as of April 15, 1995. The Mosaic Access Project web address is http://bucky.aa.uic.edu.)
Once the computer has been made physically accessible, librarians and information specialists must consider the intellectual accessibility of their services. With research into on-line retrieval strategies a relatively new field, not much work has addressed differing strategies among people with disabilities. Research has suggested, however, that cognitive processes differ among people with disabilities as well as among those who speak different languages.
In its most obvious implications, this means that while patrons who have learning disabilities which impair print comprehension may benefit from a GUI, other people with learning disabilities can read print and type without difficulty, but have trouble understanding icons. Developmental specialists are working with software developers to create programs which will help people with specific cognitive disabilities learn to use the computer.
But in order to fully realize the potential of A GUI, information scientists must also consider whether a graphical search engine implies more than simple replacement of pictures for words. If GUI platforms like Mosaic do represent a new, visual way of thinking about searches and information retrieval, what are the implications for people with visual and cognitive impairments which effect visual processing and understanding? And if search strategies vary among cultures and language, will Deaf patrons who use sign language approach information searches and retrieval in a unique way?
These are questions and areas of inquiry which are not likely to be closed quickly. For the working librarian who must help someone with a cognitive disability use an Internet interface, there are a few rules which will help patrons get the most benefit from the library's system, both with physical and mental access.
Determining the best course of action
The best course of action involves balancing current patron needs while anticipating the needs of potential users. The following steps can serve as a general guide to making computer information accessible to the broadest possible constituency. The goal should be to provide information access; not, necessarily, to purchase every available adaptive aid.
Libraries will continue to expand on-line and Internet services. But these services will only be universally available if librarians make the effort to design adaptive work stations taking patrons' special access strategies into account. Physical access methods are improving as adaptive equipment becomes more sophisticated and widespread and as Internet developers become more aware of the need to design access methods into their interfaces. Many questions about intellectual access remain, however, representing an area in which more research is needed by information scientists. By basing adaptive equipment purchases on actual patron needs, developing work-arounds when adaptive equipment is not available, and keeping abreast of new developments in access strategies, librarians can ensure that they are offering the best Internet access possible to all their patrons. By doing so, librarians can truly open a world of information to patrons with disabilities.
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